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Football: An amazing tool of diplomacy

By Muhammad Barkat and Faisal Aslam under the Supervision of Prof Mr Farzad Cheema  Sargodha University.

Football can do amazing things, it’s not just a mere sport but an article of emotion and expression long used, just like the art of politics. Football and politics go hand in hand. Remember the Christmas truce during the World War II when the British, French and the German soldiers stopped fighting and organized a football game in no man’s land. Similarly, more recent examples demonstrate that football is infact a part of the modern diplomatic norms as many recent examples have served this notion that football diplomacy has served for unity and peace globally.

Football is a sport that can make the divided communities meet on the common grounds. Most of the time football facilitates reconciliation and fosters unity. It’s big example is the “The Football for peace” (F4P) initiative by  The University of Brighton. The aim of this initiative is to build bridges between the neighboring Jewish and Arab villages in Israel. In doing so, The F4P program hopes to reconcile divided communities and contribute to the Peace process in these troubled regions ¹. Indeed the mistrust leads to fear, anger and aggression towards the people who we think are different. If people understand each other better and find common grounds, then they would be less divided. The F4P creates opportunities for social contract through the divided and disjointed communities. It has its programs opened in Northern Ireland, Gambia, South Korea and South Africa since 2001. It uses Football as it’s tool to unite communities and resolve issues.

Another example of football uniting a society is France winning team of the World cup 1998. There were players in that squad belonging to different ethnicities and background. This diversity of the winning team favored integration of every French citizen regardless of it’s origins into a united equal society. Beyond Social integration, football can support a sense of collective identity. For instance when North and South Yemen were still two states apart, cross border football contests reinforced the notion of a single Yemen ².  This sports mainly football diplomacy conveyed the important message of socio-political unity and paved the way for the institutional contracts between the two states. Today in that war torn country , football, a foundation of Yemeni nationalism and a base of Yemeni national identity, could be used to reunite the diverse fractions of the society.

Football mainly the internationals during the World cups has been a driving factor to bring together different global leaders who then interact with their counterparts during these games. Who can forget the iconic image of Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman laughing and enjoying life with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the Opening game of FIFA World Cup 2018, in which Saudi side was humbled by 5 goals to none. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was seen cheering her side to the famous World cup win in 2014 as was French President Emmaneul Macron was seen cheering for his side during the two finals of 2018 and the recent 2022 where his team was edged out on penalties by Lionel Messi’s Argentina.

As stated earlier Football diplomacy is not a new phenomenon, it isn’t about some couple of presidents sitting and enjoying a match of soccer together, laughing and gagging about it, but it has quite a lot historical significance. The heist of football diplomacy if we see through the lens of history we can find out that it was during the Interwar period ³. Paul Dietschy in his book “Creating Football Diplomacy in the French Third Republic, 1914-1939” shows how after the First World War French governments promoted football matches by French teams abroad in order to develop a new form of contract and exchange through football, as means for the rapprochement of people. It didn’t really matter that the performance of French teams did not always mean victories on the pitch but the point was to show that the French were standing out as a force that heralded a peaceful new order among the 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 many clubs. In 1904 FIFA was created which arranged the first world cup in Uruguay.  Initially the FIFA World Cup wasn’t really considered a huge deal on the diplomatic front as at that time Olympics were the front runners in Sports on the diplomatic front. It was evident from this example that the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936 were given more weightage than the FIFA World cups in 1934 and 1938. The view of football was just as one of the many instruments in the arsenal of sports diplomacy but it changed when France hosted the world cup in 1998 ⁴.

If France had ceased this opportunity to show their soft power , Brazil may be viewed as it’s complete opposite. It’s 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 courtesy that 7-1 humiliation to Germany but also in the soft power realm of football diplomacy.

In “The World cup is ours! The Myth of Brazillianness in Lula’s Diplomatic Rhetoric, 2007-2014”, Euclides de Freitas Couto and Alan Castellani Valente note that journalists from all over the world who covered the Confederation Cup in Brazil in 2013 expected to experience a beautiful country with a hospitable population but instead faced 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 of Lula had desired: a strong new power in the international relations and a nation deeply identified by Soccer. ⁵

A better example of using the FIFA World Cup to be in the limelight on the diplomatic front was used by South Africa and it’s charismatic leader Nelson Mandela, who revelled in having the world’s gaze trained upon them during the 2010 edition of FIFA World Cup ⁶. From the moment Mandela had stepped out of prison and unto the world as a country they captured the global stage’s attention.

The most recent World Cup that was held in Qatar is seen as the biggest event in the mergence of Diplomacy and politics. To begin with it’s inception in Qatar, An Arab country was criticized by the west on grounds of human rights. Qatar was in dire straits to pull out something extra ordinary to show the world their soft image, and boy did they!

The hosting of the FIFA World Cup 2022 was certainly a monumental achievement by the State of Qatar. Not only has it brought the country more international exposure and helped it  reap the potential economic benefits but it also offered the world a window onto Qatar’s identity, culture and heritage. Like other countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) , Qatar has and countinues to undergo rapid change, which is reflected in it’s urban development, demographic trends , levels of education and generally the visible effect of globalization on the local culture ⁶.

This pageantry and ultimate sports washing by the Qataris was hauled by the whole global political scenario. Messi crowned the World champion was the ultimate pinnacle of the aura created by the Qataris.


1,2,3,4: “Creating Football Diplomacy in the French Third Republic 1914-1939” by Paul Dietschy P 220-229

5 “The World Cup is ours! The Myth of Brazillianness in Lula’s Diplomatic Rhetoric 2007-2024” by Euclides de Freitas Couto and Alan Castellano Valente.

6 Kristen Gerner, Dept of History, Lund University


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