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"Winning the World Cup was secondary to us"

How do politics and international conflicts affect sport?

by Istvan Miskolczy

image courtesy of Yako via Google

On 22, June 1986, among the frameworks of the 13thFIFA World Cup, Mexico City’s Azteca Stadion was completely filled by over 114, 000 supporting fans of both the Argentinian and the English national football team in one of the quarter-finals of the tournament. Nothing notable happened until the fifth minute of the second half, but then – the already well-known young Argentinian attacking midfielder, Diego Maradona – scored one of the most historical and contested goals in history. The worldwide famous ‘Hand of God’ goal was scored after Maradona had cut inside from the left to the penalty area and played a diagonal pass to one of his teammates, while continuing his run in the hope of a one-two movement. However, one of England’s defenders, Steve Hodge had tried to hook the ball, but he nearly missed it, hence, the ball looped into the penalty area and the running Maradona managed to finish the attack with his head. Or hand. Or with both. Who knows? The Tunisian referee allowed the goal and, by doing so, he also created the most controversial goal in the history of football.

 Several experts, journalists, and even football players have been arguing since then – even nowadays – about the validity of the goal. However, the most interesting question is not the existence of the hand ball, but the political and international background of the whole match. The ten-week long Falklands War (between Argentina and Great Britain) had ended 4 years before the World Cup with an Argentinian surrender. Therefore, the encounter was seen as a lot more than a football match. Underneath, it was about the political conflict between the two countries. In 1986, the already existing rivalry between the two countries continued to rise. Both teams wanted to win because of the glory and the chance to win the World Cup, but also due to the current, tense political situation. As one Argentinian national team member, Roberto Perfumo said: “Winning the World Cup was secondary for us. Beating England was our real aim.”They were each other’s enemies not just on the pitch, but in the real political life as well, and the increasingly intensifying nationalism – by the pressure from the international media – significantly determined the atmosphere of the match and did not help to create a peaceful and calm environment for the tournament. 

 In the end, Argentina won not just this quarter-final, but the whole World Cup. From their point of view, the 2:1 victory over England was revenge for the war against Great Britain. However, according to the English national team, it was a fraud. Despite the ongoing debates, we can clearly declare that, after what happened, politics and international conflicts are heavily linked with certain sport events. In general, if two countries are in conflict, it is definite that any type of sports competitions between them will take place within tense circumstances.And yet, politics is much more than conflict. It is leaking into the everyday life and, with that, it is leaking into sports too. It is among the walls of the dressing rooms, on the two sides of the pitch, between pool lanes, and so on. There always will be a political impact on sports besides the competitiveness, strength, entertainment, and, more nowadays, money too. 

 Nevertheless, international conflict can determine sports, but internal politics and political pressure can also ruin sport events, careers, even lives. An example of this is North Korea. The high amount of internal pressure which the athletes receive by their government creates an extremely stressful and difficult environment for the competitors of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and, by that, their mental preparation is pulled back as well. A similar instance is the 1956 Summer Olympics held in Melbourne, also determined by internal politics. The water polo semi-final between Hungary and the Soviet Union took place a little over one month after the Hungarian Revolution had broken out against the Soviet Army (who occupied Hungary) and their Soviet-imposed policies. In this case, the revolution caused the match to be more about politics than competing. Tensions were already high between the Hungarian and Soviet water polo teams as the Soviets had taken advantage of their political control over Hungary, studying and copying the training methods and tactics of the three-time Olympic champion Hungarians. During the match, kicks, punches, and words were exchanged as an obvious result of the political disagreement between the two countries and, therefore, the two teams as well. But nobody expected that, by the last five minutes of the match, – when Hungary was leading 4-0 – 21-year-old Hungarian water polo player Ervin Zador would be struck in the face. Soviet player Valentin Prokopov’s strong punch resulted in a bleeding gash just under Zador’s right eye. Due to the pouring blood from his cheek, he was immediately pulled out of the pool and taken to the medical room. Zador’s injury was the final straw for the already furious Hungarian spectators. Here is how the Australian daily newspaper, The Canberra Times, reported the aftermath after the bleeding Zador was escorted away by the referee: “Bedlam broke loose as Hungarians in the crowd leapt onto the concourse alongside the pool and shouted abuse at the Russians. Only prompt action by officials, who hurried the incensed Hungarians away, prevented a major riot.”Later, Zador spoke to the press after the Hungarian national team finally won the match: "We felt we were playing not just for ourselves but for our whole country". The violent match later became famous as the ‘Blood in the water’ game, thanks to the well-known picture of the injured water polo player, which was published in the world press immediately after the accident. 

 This clearly demonstrates and proves that even the Olympics can be more than competitiveness or entertainment, evident by the fact that, even though Hungary beat Yugoslavia in the final, thus, becoming four-time Olympic Champions, half of the team (including Zador, who left for San Francisco) decided not to go back to Hungary due to the revolution. Furthermore – in connection with international conflicts – the 1956 Olympics is famous not just for the ‘Blood in the water’ incident, but also for the boycott of Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt as a result of the French and English intervention in the well-known Suez Crisis. 

 These two events show the existence of the problem of introducing politics into certain sport events. It is still a substantial problem, but it peaked in the violent Twentieth Century because of two main reasons. Firstly, the Twentieth Century was the age of the modern Olympics and sport events, therefore they gained more attention not just from the public, but from the participating countries’ political administration as well. Victory meant status symbol for several countries. The second cause behind this issue was the high amount of constantly existing huge conflicts between different states. The first and the second World Wars, the Cold War, and several others had a significant effect on sporting events. From the view of modern sport, they resulted in boycotts, deferred matches, and so on. 

 The particular relationship between sport and politics is a still existing problem, and a proper solution needs to be found. Besides the two above, there are several more precedents supporting that politics had, and has, an impact on sport. The question is whether it will affect sports in the future? And of course, why is this happening, and how can we prevent it? All in all, fortunately, not every sport event is effected by global politics, but this is a constant phenomenon which sometimes comes up for the worst. 


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