half a century ago, Dwight Eisenhower famously said, "The true
mission of American sports is to prepare young men for war." This
is the undeniable downside of sports: the way teamwork, camaraderie
and competition can be used to desensitize a population to the
horrors of war. And it is particularly part of the sporting DNA
of what Americans call football, where games are routinely referred
to as "battles" or "wars," and NFL quarterbacks are "field generals"
who throw bullet passes and bombs for the purpose of advancing
on enemy territory.
the bellicose posturing of American striker Eddie Johnson at the
World Cup, a few days before his team managed to tie the favored
Italians in an ugly match featuring three ejections.
for a war," Johnson said a few days
before the game, after visiting US troops at Ramstein Air Base.
"Whenever you put your jersey on and you look at your crest and
the national anthem's going on, and you're playing against a different
country, it's like you do or die, it's survival of the (fittest)
over ninety minutes-plus. We're going to go out there and do whatever
we've got to do, make tackles, do the things when the referee's
not looking... to get three points." Johnson concluded by saying,
"It's do or die... I don't want to go home early." Ironically,
most of the American troops Johnson thinks he's supporting would
like nothing better than to "go home early" from combat duty in
Cup has historically aimed to be a counterweight to the passions
of war. But Johnson's comments are consistent with the militaristic
spirit that some US fans have brought to the games. Without question,
England, Poland, Germany and other teams have their share of fringe
hooligans, some openly racist. But Team USA's most prominent fan
club calls itself "Sam's Army." While the
fan club explicitly rejects racism and soccer hooliganism, its
website is replete with martial imagery and belligerent anthems.
comments illuminate a crucial difference between how
Americans and Europeans think about war--and sport. Europeans
are not quite so blithe on these matters, having seen the continent
decimated twice in the past century by war. It is not surprising
that a number of Italian players were alternately bemused and
repulsed by Johnson's war talk.
in this tournament have painful contemporary reasons to think
about war as something other than a game, particularly the impressive
teams from the African continent. Ivory Coast has been wracked
by civil war since 2002, and thousands of its 17 million citizens
have perished. The Elephants, as the team is called, consists
of players from all parts of the country, and is seen by many
Ivorians as a unifying force. "Those from the rebel-held north
and the government-controlled south play together, celebrate together,
and show a positive image of Ivory Coast that is sorely lacking
elsewhere," the BBC concluded in a recent
Toure (left) of Ivory Coast.
play all of Ivory Coast is happy," declared midfielder Yaya Toure.
"There are many Ivorian citizens who are thinking about the World
Cup, and they think that it can resolve many things.... Politics
means we are divided, but I think football can sort that out."
Another player said, "The Ivorian people are suffering a lot because
of everything that is happening in the country. We owed it to
ourselves to qualify for the World Cup, to give it as a gift to
the people. We achieved our goal. Now it is up to the politicians
to achieve their goal, to find an agreement or a solution to put
an end to the [civil war.]"
here for a war," (American
striker) Eddie Johnson said
a few days before the game,
after visiting US troops at Ramstein
Air Base. "Whenever you put your
jersey on and you look at your crest
and the national anthem's going on,
and you're playing against a different
country, it's like you do or die,
it's survival of the (fittest) over
ninety minutes-plus. We're going to
go out there and do whatever
we've got to do, make tackles,
do the things when the referee's not
looking... to get three points."
sentiments of many of his teammates, Toure expressed a desire
to "bring peace through our play on the field." When Ivory Coast
qualified for the World Cup last year, young fans ran through
streets of the capital yelling, "The war is over! The war is over!"
If such thinking
seems unduly optimistic, it's still far more uplifting than the
war cries emanating from American quarters. And perhaps such hopes
are not completely naive. "Of course I will be supporting the
Elephants! What a crazy question!" Bakari Toure, a rebel fighter,
told the BBC. "We are Ivorian.... We don't want to leave this
nation, we want to be acknowledged as part of it."
came tantalizingly close to tying or defeating two of the Cup's
favorites, Argentina and Holland, losing each game 2 to 1. But
there was good news for Africa on Saturday, as Ghana stunned the
world, defeating the Czech Republic--regarded as the world's second-best
team--2 to 0. It was Ghana's first-ever World Cup victory, achieved
in convincing fashion, capped by a sublime goal in the last minutes
by 21-year-old Sulley Muntari.
the game in Washington, DC, at a neighborhood bar called the Ghana
Café, where the cheers vibrated into the streets. A fan
named Paul, who moved here from Ghana several years ago, told
us, "The ESPN commentators said that 'African teams have brute
strength, but don't play with finesse'." Another young Ghanaian,
March Dadzie, noted that one sportscaster ignorantly opined that
any skills displayed by the Ghanaians result from their experience
"outside of Ghana"--a k a Europe. Another fan added, "If
that sportscaster had any sense, he would have known that most
players grew up playing in the streets of Accra." Indeed, Ghana
fields only one starter who plays for a European powerhouse; most
take the field from teams in the Middle East and Africa.
and unabashed joy of the Ghanaian players provided a welcome relief
from the hyper-patriotic antics of "Sam's Army" and the ill-considered
remarks of Eddie Johnson. At the sound of the whistle ending the
game, Ghana's goalkeeper and defensemen fell immediately to their
knees in prayerful thanksgiving, as the thousands of Africans
in the stands in Cologne celebrated wildly.
At the Ghana
Café, Kobi said, "People all over the continent are celebrating
the United States will be playing Ghana in a match that pits not
only contrasting styles of play but differing approaches to the
sport itself. Soccer's not for wimps, and time will tell who the
real tough guys are. It's too bad, though, that Team America and
its attendant army of fans have carried a lust for combat to FIFA's
raucous playing fields, where athletic prowess and national pride
are not necessarily a cause for war.
Note: John Cox is an
assistant professor of History at Florida Gulf Coast University
and a supporter of FC Barcelona. Dave Zirin's new book, "What's
My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States," is
now in stores. You can receive his column, Edge of Sports, every
week by emailing edgeofsports-
[email protected]. Contact him at [email protected]
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