Thoughts: Understanding the World through… the Football World Cup!

If any faithful follower of the 2018 Football World Cup in Russia had to define the contest in one word, it would probably be ‘unexpected’. Ever since its start on Friday, June 15th, by an overwhelming victory of the host country against Saudi Arabia (5-0), favorites have had a hard time playing against teams they were supposed to crush. France only won 2 to 1 against Australia, that, to quote an Australian friend, ‘is bad enough at this to have invented its own football to be sure to win at least somewhere’; and Germany, reigning winner of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, was recently eliminated by South Korea.

I usually never watch football – I’m more into acrobatic gymnastics. The World Cup is the only exception, because I love everything that looks international from close or far. And as my parents just said, seated next to me to watch the current Russia vs Egypt game, ‘it’s such a symbol: the US are not even in the first 32 selected teams, Mexico defeats Germany; and now people who usually fight against each other are playing together’.


But is that really true?

Because there actually are countries that refuse to play against each other, due to their conflicts outside of the stadium. Some countries cannot even be in the same qualification group. For instance, Spain and Gibraltar cannot play against each other – Gibraltar is not a country but a British enclave that has nevertheless been allowed to play. The same applies to Armenia and Azerbaijan, to Kosovo and Serbia, to Kosovo and Bosnia… this is also the reason why Israel often plays in the European championship and not against some other Middle-Eastern countries. Indeed, how can one expect a team to play a team from another land, that its country does not even recognize – and spend most of its time trying to wreak havoc?

Football is very much more linked to geopolitics than it appears at first. And as I wanted to learn more about that, I went to attend a conference held at school Sciences Po Reims, a few days before the start of the World Cup. It was delivered by Olivier Corbobesse, a former student of social sciences university Sciences Po Toulouse, fond of football, amateur player and writer, who recently published a book on how to get a general culture through… football.

The room was full as I entered. I was pretty much the only person younger than 30 in the public, which meant that most of the people there have lived the incredible French victory of 1998, twenty years ago. Talking about it always brings a glimpse of nostalgia to French fans and not only. But despite this pride, the sport does not have such a great reputation in France. We have this big cliché of football players who cannot answer questions properly during interviews, and struggle into their studies. We can also hear saying that whereas sports such as tennis are more played by the nation’s ‘elite’ (whatever this may mean), football is more associated to low classes. Lecturer Corbobesse even confirmed that people would look upon him whenever he says he wrote a book about football – but what interests him, he added quickly, ‘is the idea of the sport, what lies behind’. And if his conference proved something to me, beyond the traditional ‘yes, but football is an instrument of soft power’, it is that as its title clearly stated, we can indeed understand the world through football.

Understanding history through football

062c5Who remembers today that part of Italy was once governed by the Maison de Savoy, a family from the nobility? Its last heir, Victor-Emmanuel, would still be legitimate to rise to power and become Italy’s new king, would the monarchy be re-established. But I bet this is most widely known amongst football supporters than other people; because the Italian soccer jersey is usually blue, whereas this color is not even on their flag. It was indeed the official color of the Maison the Savoy – this explains that!

Besides the color of the jersey, history can also be taught by the name of the football clubs. Those organizations were usually closely associated to professions; there was a club put in place by the rail-workers, another one by the police… The Dynamos, that currently exist in towns such as Kiev, Moscow or Tbilissi (Georgia), was for instance the club of the police.

Understanding art through football

joan-miro-d-apres-affiche-coupe-du-monde-de-football-espagne-1982-1_800x430.jpgYou’re a soccer fan? Well, you can probably expatiate on artists such as French writer Albert Camus – who used to be a goal keeper – or Spanish painter Salvador Dali, or Miro who painted the official display for the 1982 World Cup in Spain. The Spanish Tourist Office’s display is even closely inspired from this one!

Understanding identity through football

Football can also help people feel happier with their own identity. The best proof of this could be the World Cup in Germany, that they hosted in 2006. For quite the first time since the two World Wars that left the country ashamed, Germans would sing their anthem and wave their flag with pride and unity.

news-conifa.jpgEven more interesting could be, in 2013, the creation of another international football organization, the CONIFA, for sovereign-states that are not recognized internationally and for ethnic minorities. On June the 9th, their final was held in England, opposing Northern Cyprus to the Hungarian minority of Ukraine. Other nations or communities, such as Tibet, Québec, or the European Occitan, that are not part of the 211 nations recognized by the FIFA, also play in that championship.

When football brings people closer…

«  Often, football precedes geopolitics », said Olivier Corbobesse. We know about the « diplomacy of pingpong » that got the United States and the People’s Republic of China together, but what about the… diplomacy of football?

turquie-armenie_279-2dc40.jpgIn 2008 and 2009, matches were to be expected between Armenia and Turkey in order to qualify for the World Cup. As a reminder, Turkey does not recognize the 1910s historically-proven genocide on the Armenian people. Everyone expected this match to be terrible and plagued by hooliganism. But on the contrary! It paved the way for the very first Turkish president’s visit in independent Armenia, after he was invited by the Armenian government. The diplomatic relationship then started again, plans were made for a treaty, and the game went extremely well.

… even a bit too close!

guerradelfutbol.jpgBut on the other hand, football could also be the one drop of water that would make the glass spill. That happened in 1969 in Central America, with the start of a conflict between Honduras and El Salvador, and that we usually call… the Football War! Here was the situation: to make things simple, El Salvador has a lot of people and no land,  Honduras has more land and much less people. So many Salvadorans would move illegally to Honduras; that in 1961, decided on agrarian reforms that would make it more difficult for them to settle in Honduras. Eight years after, a football match played the role of the only necessary little glimpse to make it catch on fire.

Understanding religion through football

A few more anecdotes before I let you go to read Mr. Corbobesse’s book. In 2012, the FIFA officially stated that players were allowed to play with religious clothes, including Sikh men with a turban or Muslim women with a veil. The one and only country that refused to apply this rule, referring to laicity, was… France. That recently, after a veiled girl who was at the head of a  left-wing students’ union was harshly insulted for the very fact of wearing a veil, was heavily criticized for its ‘problem with Islam’.

And we can also talk about Iran; in this country, matches are re-broadcasted with a 3 minutes delay, for censorship to be applied in order to erase pictures that wouldn’t be coherent with the country law… such as women with ‘provocative’ clothes being shown on the screen.

After this one-hour-long conference, and as this article clearly shows, I pretty much feel like a football geopolitics expert now. And what better way to learn more about football as a first step of Turkey towards the European Union, about the symbol of the Russian towns chosen to host the World Cup, or about the reason of relative unpopularity of football in India, than by going back to the source?

So I warmly advise you, if you can read French, to go read the recently published book by Mr Corbobesse, « Culture générale football club », Editions Chistera. What better opportunity to learn more about this than this year’s Football World Cup?

Enjoy your reading, and I wish the best to your home country’s team in this competition!


Credits: terresacree, oldschoolpanini, turquieeuropeenne, lequipe,


This article is based on Mr Olivier Corbobesse’s conference. 

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