Failing at Football Diplomacy

13 March 2014, 0908 EDT

clean fun soccerThere has been a bit of recent news lately suggesting international football* considerations are making the divisions between states greater, supporting the idea that sports might not be the path to peace and reconciliation.  While a few cases cannot disprove an idea, recent moves point in a troubling direction for the theory that we can settle differences between states on the football pitch.  Relating back to early theories of functionalism, any form of cooperation, even on the sports pitch, might be beneficial to countries at odds with each other.  The communication provided through spectacular sporting events might provide pathways for peace.  Others might argue that fighting it out on the pitch is better than fighting with guns and bullets.  While these ideas might be true in the abstract, it is tough to consider the viability of such proposals if states fail to even meet on the pitch in the first place.

This brings us to news that Gibraltar, a British territory, has been separated from Spain in the Euro 2016 qualifiers.  Gibraltar was recently admitted into the UEFA system, allowing it to compete with other states and territories in the European Champions. Tensions between Britain and Spain over the territory have escalated recently, with various moves pushed by each side in order to make the status quo uncomfortable or reinforced, depending on your perspective.  The territory is obviously important as it is the gateway to the Mediterranean and a choke point for all shipping.  The British responded to increased Spanish checks at the border by moving ships into the area.  Sensing a moment to prevent further tension, UEFA removed Gibraltar from the possibility of meeting Spain in a qualifier.  This might be generous given the skill and ability of Spain, avoiding a 20-0 encounter might be a wise move, but it is also a bit rash in that such encounters have the possibility of bringing the two sides together in friendship.

Taking things a bit further, the Russians, in their own words, are going “ball for ball” with the United States.  After some U.S. Senators petitioned to remove Russia from the upcoming World Cup because their movements in Crimea, Russia responded in the same manner by petitioning FIFA to ban the U.S. because of their frequent interventions (Libya and Iraq) in other states.

Likely nothing will come of threats by the Russians or the U.S., but that each side moved so quickly to ban the other from competition is discomforting.  While we can be mollified by the fact that these moves have been made by individuals and not the state as a whole, this fact does not really make the situation any better.  The possibility of peace from sport is a powerful idea, but it has limits and we must consider this as we seek non-traditional moves in the international relations arena.  Regardless, I say “let them play!

*Yes, I called it football not soccer, I live in Scotland, sue me.