“Entertaining reading about football as a vital element in the human comedy”

Kristian Gerner
Dept. of History, Lund University

Heather L. Dichter (ed.)
Soccer Diplomacy: International Relations and Football since 1914
170 pages, hardcover, ill.
Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky 2020 (Studies in Conflict, Diplomacy, and Peace)
ISBN 978-0-8131-7951-3

The anthology under review is an exercise in the writing of global history. The theme is soccer, association football, as an international phenomenon. The essence of soccer is that it is about teams that represent nations or clubs in competition. There is a national, sometimes a nationalist connotation. In this book soccer is viewed as an issue in international relations.

Diplomacy is a means of communication between states. It is a way of exerting political power through negotiations instead of by means of open military threats or warfare. Diplomacy used to be secret, hidden from the public. However, after the First World War some states took recourse to public diplomacy. The audience wasn’t other governments only but – primarily – citizens in other states, public opinion.

Public diplomacy was originally called ‘propaganda’.  In contemporary social and political research on international relations the concept of ‘soft power’ is used in analyses of how actors in international politics may influence the behavior of others. The agency may be diffuse. The paradigmatic example of the exertion of soft power is the global spread of “the American way of life” after the Second World War. It was the effect of active measures by the US government as well as a consequence of emulation of the US model.

Soccer Diplomacy is not a book about soccer. It is not about the sport in itself, not about matches or results, not about national teams, local football clubs or individual players, although some are mentioned. Soccer Diplomacy is not a book about diplomacy in the strict sense either. However, an all-important contribution of the book to our knowledge of the role of sports as an instrument of soft power is the demonstration of how the emergence in the 20th century of first the Olympic Games (already in 1896) and then of the World Cup in Football (1930) made seemingly non-political actors into protagonists on the international political scene.

The first case study in Soccer Diplomacy, “Creating Football Diplomacy in the French Third Republic, 1914–1939” by Paul Dietschy shows how after the First World War French governments promoted football matches by French teams abroad in order to “develop new forms of contact and exchange through football, as a means for the rapprochement of people”. It did not really matter that the performance of French teams did not always mean victories on the pitch.  The point was that French football stood out as a force that heralded a peaceful new order among nations.

Paul Dietschy demonstrates that although football became an instrument in diplomacy in the interwar period, it was adumbrated by the Olympic Games. The latter became the first sports events with a global dimension. It stands to reason that the original games in Antiquity were designed to encompass the whole Greek world, and that the founder of the modern games, the French Baron de Coubertin, had a similar design, with panhellenism exchanged for globalism.

It did not really matter that the performance of French teams did not always mean victories on the pitch.  The point was that French football stood out as a force that heralded a peaceful new order among nations.

Football was a different matter, in many respects. This sport grew from below in the form of popular movements, especially in Europe and in Latin America in the interwar period. Soon every city had one or several clubs. In 1904 FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) was created. It arranged the first World Cup in 1930 in Uruguay.

The Olympic Games became mega events where all nations met and a number of sports were represented. The host nation could exert soft power and gain international legitimacy. The World Cup in football remained less significant in this respect. Dietschy notes that The French Popular Front government provided “minimal help” to the French Football Association when FIFA chose France to host the 1938 World Cup. The reason was that the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin “were considered to be a real diplomatic moment”, whereas “the French state viewed the World Cup as a world championship, not as an actual mega-event.” This view of football as just one of many instruments in the arsenal of sports diplomacy was to last in France until the 1990s. Then the country bid for and hosted the 1998 World Cup – and won the tournament, which by then had become a sports diplomacy mega-event.

If France may be viewed as the runner-up in international football which ultimately scored a diplomatic triumph and also became the champion on the pitch – the victory in the 1998 World Cup in France was followed up by the victory in 2018 – Brazil may be viewed as its opposite number. Its golden opportunity to stand out as the very essence of the game of football, as the foremost football nation in the world, ended in a spectacular failure in 2014 not only on the pitch but also in the soft power realm of football diplomacy.

In “The World Cup is Ours! The Myth of Brazilianness in Lula’s Diplomatic Rhetoric, 2007–2014”, Euclides de Freitas Couto and Alan Castellano Valente note that journalists from all over the world who covered the Confederations Cup in Brazil in 2013 – the habitual “rehearsal” of the coming mega-event, in this case the World Cup in 2014 –  expected to experience a beautiful country with a hospitable population, but:

[…] instead faced a chaos never seen before in the country. Mass protests, burning vehicles, and military troops scattered the streets showed a global audience the social contradictions instead of the image that Lula had desired: a strong new power in international relations and a “nation deeply identified with soccer” (214).

Soccer Diplomacy demonstrates that results in individual international matches do not count as diplomatic successes or failures. What matters is the perceived role of football matches and the World Cup as promotors of friendship and co-operation in international affairs. However, in this book about football diplomacy it would have been appropriate to mention that the complacent champion in spe, the host nation Brazil, became devastated on the pitch in the World Cup semi-final in 2014 by Germany, 1–7. Brazil experienced the most remarkable fiasco ever by an assumed victory candidate. Moreover, this was the first time ever when a European nation won the World Cup in Latin America. Germany defeated Argentina in the final by 1– 0.

The other case studies in Soccer Diplomacy demonstrate that this art of diplomacy has remained a rather ephemeral element in international politics. This said, it must be underlined that the different chapters offer readable analyses of the quagmire of soccer as an instrument of diplomacy, be it in Franco’s Spain after the Second World War, in the ambition of the US to secure the Keflavik air base in Iceland, in Chile becoming connected to the Cold War confrontation, in the search for political legitimacy by the GDR, in Australia’s attempt as a US ally to court the South Vietnamese during the war in Vietnam, the quixotic struggle of the apartheid regime in South Africa to try to preserve racism in football, and the unabashed self-promotion by the FIFA vice president Jack Warner from Trinidad and Tobago.

In the Conclusion Peter J Beck manages to make sense of the disparate case studies. He chooses the victory of West Germany in the 1954 World Cup as the best argument for the thesis that what counts is what happens on the pitch. The title of the concluding chapter simply states: “‘Good Kicking’ Is Not Only ‘Good Politics’ but Also ‘Good Diplomacy’.” It is rather strange that this book, which offers readable stories on soccer events in different parts of the world at different times, turns out to be written in the manner of the notoriously hermetic work by the great Irish writer James Joyce, Finnegans Wake. The final paragraph of Soccer Diplomacy reads:

Finally, there are still serious questions about terminology in this emerging field of study. For Murray and Pigman as well as Rofe, terms like “sport diplomacy” seem “an odd hybrid,” since “sport” and “diplomacy,” when conflated, lose their uniqueness as distinct areas of study. Pointing to the differences between the diplomatic and sporting cultures, Rofe favors the use of “sport and diplomacy” in order to recognize both their links and independent nature. From this perspective, readers might consider it more illuminating to broaden the context by treating sport and diplomacy “as separate but equal realms rather as one subservient to the other.” (245).

These final words are a bold disclaimer of the presumed research object of Soccer and Diplomacy. However, the book makes entertaining reading about football as a vital element in the human comedy.

Copyright © Kristian Gerner 2021

Table of Content

Heather L. Dichter

Playing on the Same Team: What International and Sport Historians Can Learn from Each Other
Sarah B. Snyder

Creating Football Diplomacy in the French Third Republic, 1914–1939
Paul Dietschy

Football, Diplomacy, and International Relations during Francoism, 1937–1975
Juan Antonio Simón

“The Finest Ambassadors”: American–Icelandic Football Exchange, 1955–1956
George N. Kioussis

“Because We Have Nothing”: The 1962 World Cup and Cold War Politics in Chile
Brenda Elsey

“Football More Important Than Berlin”: East German Football versus NATO, 1960–1964
Heather L. Dichter

Sheilas, Wogs, and Poofters in a War Zone: The “Socceroos” and the 1967 Friendly Nations Tournament in Vietnam
Erik Nielsen

Entrenching Apartheid Football and Failed Sports Diplomacy: Recalcitrance, Reform, and Retreat, 1951–1977
Chris Bolsmann

High Jack: Soccer and Sport Diplomacy in the Caribbean, 1961–2018
Roy McCree

The World Cup Is Ours! The Myth of Brazilianness in Lula’s Diplomatic Rhetoric, 2007–2014
Euclides de Freitas Couto and Alan Castellano Valente

Conclusion: “Good Kicking” Is Not Only “Good Politics” but Also “Good Diplomacy”
Peter J. Beck

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