Once you start down this sports diplomacy route, it can only end in Earl Grey and almond biscotti. Famous sports journalist Dave Zirin, in a piece that Must Read Soccer labelled 'the worst writing of the week'] is inexorably logical in his approach to the question.
"...if it is business as usual between nations on the field of play, then surely everything must be A-OK when our heroes shower off the sweat and the cheering throngs wander home. But things are, as Marcellus Wallace said, "pretty f--king far from ok." If a team wants to stand up and say "hell no" to business-as-usual in international sport, we shouldn't ask why they are doing it. We should ask why more teams don't. "
I can’t mock this. This is an optimistic view of the systems that dominate sport, and Zirin, as is his habit, asks an absolutely appropriate question. Why shouldn't sport - football - be used as protest? Why shouldn't a country which disapproves of an opponent choose to make a stand against them? That would be nice: a free market of expression in which countries chose to make their feelings known by refusing to play opponents they condemned on principle. The Scandinavian countries, for example, could boycott Israel. Israel could boycott Iran. Iran could boycott the US. The US could boycott North Korea. North Korea would boycott South Korea. Thus ensuring that we depart radically from the state of world affairs as they exist today, right.
Okay, yes, this domino theory of protest is more cynical than pragmatic. As Amitav Ghosh said in his response to the outcry against his acceptance of the Dan David prize in Israel this year: "Can’t you see that in this world sanity depends upon being able to perceive and make certain distinctions?" Of course, Ghosh said that in an argument against an appeal for a cultural boycott. And whether or not sanity seems like small beans weighed in the balance against principle, it behooves all of us to work with the assumption that certain distinctions are ours to perceive and to make in the name of morality.
In a better-administered sport, perhaps that would matter. That sport is not football. And that tournament, to reiterate what I said in my last post, is not the World Cup as it is. Zirin's view of sporting protest, if applied to football, assumes the governance of FIFA itself to be independent and fair-minded enough to work as a judicious mediator in a possible world where tournaments may become a war of attrition between governments. We know this is not the case. An association that cannot keep its own rules straight enough to apply, for example, even a single stricture about religious clothing fairly, is a poor one to co-opt into the cause of global justice.
I am trying very hard not to disagree with Dave Zirin. Dave Zirin is a hero. I admire and respect his journalism. I simply think he is not wholly right to connect protest to policy. FIFA's venalities implicate it in the same tired, corrupt forms of nationalism that dictate governments' policies, which is why a war of attrition, even should it come to pass, will fail if it stands alone. If this is the only arena in which countries feel justified in telling us how they really feel, by shutting out someone's football team they are also shutting out their opponents' own voices of protest -- imagine if South Korea had refused to play this match. You are not just pathologising your political relationship -- you are rendering the other side invisible. International mandates have made a success out of this tactic in the past -- as our host nation this year knows.
But on this field at this time; knowing what we know, lacking what we lack, this is unfair, too. It is hollower than its predecessors in the last century. The right to protest injustice belongs unequivocally to everyone and everybody. I hope we realise, though, that the mandate is most sincere -- and most memorable -- when it is expressed by people, rather than institutions. If we want histories to accumulate in the balance of power against injustice, then we must look for their heroes in fans and in players who make a stand, rather than in press releases and polemic.
It sounds ridiculous if you start to imagine Steven Gerrard in an anti-war undervest, but it's some way ahead of a tournament hijacked by the political spinmeisters who otherwise confine themselves to the background. That's the distinction I'd perceive and make. I would make it for principle as well as for sanity.
This post first appeared on IBNLive's World Cup site, here.
item: I've started modding comments on this blog thanks to ceaseless and offensive spam - sorry for the inconvenience, everyone.