Football: the forgotten factor in conflict

Football: the forgotten factor in conflict

Football is often overlooked as a factor in social sciences. Still it is a massive source of (political) mobilization, that causes - and might solve - conflict, both domestically and international.

The Euro 2016 Qualifier football macht between Albania and Serbia was halted after only 40 minutes when fighting broke out among both countries' players and staff. Political tensions between the countries spilled over into the pitch. The trigger was a drone that flew over the stadium with a flag of Greater Albania. The match is only one of many examples where politics and football interact.

Scholar James Dorsey even goes one step further using football to explain political violence. While many scholars focus mainly on the mosques to explain popular mobilization during the ‘Arab Spring’, they overlook one other important factor: football, as Dorsey explained during the World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies 2014 (WOCMES 2014). The authoritarian regimes of the Middle East had two locations they could not control: mosques and football stadiums. They feared that closing either one would lead to popular unrest straight away. Research indicates that Egyptian football supporters would rather spend their money on tickets for the weekly football game than to spend it on their family, which has caused an marriage crisis in Egypt and thus illustrates the importance of the game. Thus, both the mosque and the stadium became the arena where politics were discussed and where the nucleus of resistance against the regimes grew. The football pitch had another aspect that made it possibly even more relevant in light of the ‘Arab Spring’. Many football fans, at least the hardcore ones, had experience in fighting the authorities as many clashes had occurred between the fans and the police. The important involvement of Beşiktaş’ Çarşi supporters group in the Turkish 2013 Gezi Park protests can also be seen in this context.

The connection between football and politics is not new. A famous example is the 1969 Football War between South-American countries El Salvador and Honduras. More recently, the 2004 Qamishli Revolt among Syrian Kurds was ignited by riots between Arab and Kurdish football fans. Sometimes football ignites protests, like in Brazil where people objected to the amount of money spent on stadiums for the 2014 world cup while the socio-economic situation remained dire.

Football is not only a phenomenon that causes riots or even wars, it also brings people together. The principles of the ancient Olympics – when wars were paused to participate in the games – seem not to have disappeared completely. During the Nigerian Civil War in 1967 the warring sides declared a two day truce to see Brazilian football star Pélé play with his Santos team in two exhibition matches. And it might not be coincidence that a football match was played between British and German soldiers during the unofficial World War I 1914 Christmas truce.

So, as Dorsey argues, football – or sports in general – with its mobilizing capacity, has been ignored for too long by the social sciences and needs to be taken seriously within any analysis of significant violent eruptions.