There is a very small chance that North Korea and South Korea will meet each other at this year’s World Cup. Just thinking about that possibility, however distant, offers a peculiar and dangerous thrill. A game played with a bouncy ball on a field of grass would undoubtedly affect the military situation of East Asia. Politics and football have always tended to mix explosively.
Games have stopped wars, as in the 1967 exhibition game in Lagos, starring Pele, for whom the warring factions in the Nigerian civil war called a 48-hour truce. And football has started wars too, like the 1969 “Soccer War” between El Salvador and Honduras, begun over a qualification game. The World Cup contains many rivalries whose origin, whether on or off the pitch, can be difficult to distinguish. (England and Argentina in 1986 being a prime example.) If war is politics by other means, then football is war by means of a game. The world-historical background to many of the contests on the pitch is one of the most subtle and enduring pleasures of the tournament.
But the games between mother countries and ex-colonies are a particular delight and one occurs nearly every four years. They are often the best matches, with the most at stake. When the players of Trinidad and Tobago went up against England in the round robin of 2006, they were absolutely explicit that beating the mother country was their big goal of the tournament. Unfortunately for all of us ex-colonials, the Trinis, while ferocious and brave, couldn’t manage a win. The sheer delight on the faces of the Senegalese players when they defeated France in 2002 as they danced triumphantly over their once colonial masters was one of the greatest victories in international football. Typically the battles between the colonies and their ex-overlords are great underdog battles, too, like the epic game between Angola and Portugal in 2006. This year, however, the games between the colonies and motherlands are different. The match last weekend between the United States and England and the upcoming match between Portugal and Brazil on June 25 are both games in which the colonies are the greater and more powerful nations than their colonizers. This makes the games peculiar and peculiarly exciting.
The one-one draw in the England-U.S. game amounted to a victory for America, given that the United States is an up-and-comer while Britain still hangs onto the shreds of the idea that it is a world soccer power. The truth is that both goals were bad mistakes, and all in all, it was mediocre football. The difference is this: soccer is not America’s game, as everybody knows. To make the draw even worse, the current English team is probably the best the country has fielded in a generation and the Americans matched them. It was almost like the Americans were saying, “If we wanted to, we could beat you, but because we only sort of care about this game, we’re going to let you off with a draw.”
We can hope, at least, for a better game between Portugal and Brazil. Both of these teams are legitimate global superpowers and possess superb players of the highest calibre. Seeing Cristiano Ronaldo face off against Kaka will be magnificent. It is possible, too, that this game, coming at the very end of the round robin, will really matter. Since Ivory Coast is also in that group, one strong footballing power will be going home without seeing the playoffs. If Brazil sends Portugal home, or vice versa, the historical and psychological repercussions will be massive. Both countries worship the game—a defeat would be humiliating until their next World Cup encounter, which could take up to a generation. The stakes are higher because the chances at redemption are so rare.
The political relationship between Britain and the U.S. will not, of course, be damaged by the inglorious draw. The match was revealing, though—as so many of these games are revealing—about the nature of global politics, in this case the nature of Britain’s much vaunted and entirely laughable contention that it has a “special relationship” with the United States. The game was a perfect reflection of the “specialness” of that relationship—things come out roughly even in the end, but one side cares a lot more than the other.