Much ado has been had over Osama bin Laden’s 1994 visit to the United Kingdom, where, over the course of several months, the infamous leader of Al-Qaeda, aside from meeting backers, supporters, and financiers, attended several Arsenal matches at Highbury. This relationship between Osama bin Laden and London’s storied Arsenal Football Club is only partially documented in Simon Kuper’s article “The World’s Game is not Just a Game” originally published in the New York (The Global Game [TGG], 2005).
Although the article has gained some note as a discussion on the link between Osama bin Laden and London’s Arsenal FC (TCG, 2005), what the article really talks about is the intertwining relationship between soccer and society in general, and how the metaphor of soccer applies to the larger scheme of things in places where soccer is larger than life (read: outside the United States), especially considering that the article was written against the backdrop of the 2002 Korea/Japan World Cup which was then about to kick off (Wikipedia, n.d.). The article as a whole suffers from oversimplification issues that disregard other extrinsic factors with regard to the reaction that soccer fans might have toward the game and places undue credit on the game of soccer itself as opposed to any other sporting event.
The article begins with a brief retelling of Osama bin Laden’s 1994 visit to the United Kingdom before Sudan bowed to international pressure and asked bin Laden and his family to leave in 1996 (Wikipedia, n.d.). In the three months he spent in London, bin Laden was said to have visited Highbury, home pitch of Arsenal FC, four times. Each time Bin Laden marveled at the passion of the fans then present (Kuper, 2002). This amazement reportedly did not stop bin Laden from planning an attack on British and American soccer teams at the 1998 World Cup (Kuper, 2002). The experience, however, had bin Laden dreaming about beating American pilots and relating this dream to one of his lieutenants, who in turn would later compare the experience of watching an Egyptian family celebrating the World Trade Center collapse to the joy felt after a win in a difficult match.
The analysis omits any reference to Iran’s win in the 1998 World Cup qualifier over the United States where they eliminated the Americans from World Cup contention, 2-1. That victory triggered major celebrations in the streets of Tehran, where ordinary Iranians were reported to have viewed the victory also as a moral one (Bromberger, 1998). This is remarkable as those who watched the victory could also have shared their views on how soccer fulfilled a metaphorical fantasy of sorts, instead of quoting an Al-Qaeda activist merely relating how he noticed an Egyptian family celebrate the collapse of the World Trade Center. Merely describing the apparent joy of persons one sees on television does not carry as much weight as the actual and direct observation of persons so affected.
Kuper also finds it interesting that Bin Laden decided to plan an attack on the English and American soccer teams when he himself found the dedication of the sport’s fans as something that is noteworthy. Far from being odd, this is course of action is quite logical. A successful attack on the English soccer team would have brought about a period of national mourning unseen since the death of Jesus Christ. To use a Marxist idea, these men are gods to ordinary Britons. This is where Kuper could have explored how the plan would not affect Americans that much and how its effect would have been isolated in Europe.
The article then proceeds to theorize that the interplay between soccer and the general public comes into clearer view when viewed under a political lens. Kuper attributes the victory of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to his takeover of AC Milan, a top-flight Italian soccer club. Austrian politician Jorg Haider used the same tactic to make himself and his far-right stance more appealing to casual voters. Brazilian politicians campaign in shirts of local clubs to make them more palatable. British voters in the town of Hartlepool have the mascot of the local soccer team as mayor.
The use of sporting events as a metaphor for societal events that are larger than life is not new, as the role of cultural phenomena as microcosms of society is well-documented. However, Kuper’s claim that soccer stands sui generic in its political malleability is a new assertion that requires quite a stretch. Kuper writes:
[U]nlike any other sport — indeed, unlike almost any cultural phenomenon — soccer is distinguished by its political malleability. It is used by dictators and revolutionaries, a symbol of oligarchy and anarchy. It gets presidents elected or thrown out, and it defines the way people think, for good or ill, about their countries. (Kuper, 2002)
In his haste to place soccer upon its questioned throne as the only social phenomenon capable of political change, Kuper conveniently overlooks the example of George W. Bush, who successfully parlayed his experience as the managing partner of the Texas Rangers of the American professional baseball league into the Governorship of the State of Texas and eventually onto the Oval Office. In this light, perhaps it would have been better for Kuper to instead focus on sport in general, not just soccer, as a unifying force, of which the World Cup is merely proof of the phenomenon.
The impact of soccer on politics was most striking to Kuper in Argentina, where disgruntled Argentine citizens protested the collapse of the Argentine economy using the shirts of the national team emblazoned with the word ¡Basta! – which roughly translates to “Enough!”. Kuper cites Mauricio Macri, owner of the wildly popular Boca Juniors team, as an example of a person whose political clout considerably increased following his acquisition of the famed club. Kuper also notes that when Argentina won the 1978 World Cup, such was the ensuing chaos that ordinary citizens could not pay attention, much less care, to political abductions occurring under their very noses; neither did the government notice escaped political detainees wandering the streets. In the 2002 World Cup, Argentine players hoped to rejuvenate the still-moribund Argentine economy with a win by evoking those same feelings of nationalism and euphoria.
Although Macri has since been able to parlay his ownership of Boca Juniors into public office, albeit still not as Argentina’s Chief Executive (Wikipedia, n.d.), his path is no different than that of other sports owners, particularly George W. Bush, whose stock rose considerably following their purchase and acquisition of a major professional sports franchise or team (Wikipedia, n.d.). Neither is Argentina’s experience with having human rights abuses ignored in the face of a major event confined to Argentina or to soccer celebrations on a national scale for that matter, as Kuper’s narration of the incidents that occurred that night in 1978 do not show that the outcome of the abduction would have been different had it been a victory by Argentina in some other sporting endeavor, soccer competition, or otherwise raucous celebration.
Kuper asserts that soccer has long been used as an instrument of propaganda in the Marxist notion of a mass opiate. Attempts to use soccer to boost public morale backfired on the Nazis when the German team lost to Switzerland in 1941 and Sweden in 1942. In dismay, Goebbels ordered a halt to international competition to stop the demoralization it caused. Dictators have also used soccer as a social distraction. Kuper cites the Ceaucescu family using Romanian clubs and Stalin’s police chief sending stars of rival soccer clubs to Siberia as examples where dictators have used soccer to suppress dissent.
The Nazi withdrawal of its national soccer team from international competition should not be viewed in isolation. It must be remembered that at the time Goebbels ordered that there be “a halt to play when the outcome is in doubt” (Kuper, 2002), Nazi Germany had suffered a number of humilitations in the international sporting arena that demolished their notions of Aryan superiority. Max Schmeling had lost the world Heavyweight crown to Joe Louis in 1938 (Wikipedia, n.d.), and Jesse Owens had won four gold medals the in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, much to Hitler’s consternation (Wikipedia, n.d.). With this backdrop, the losses of the German soccer team must have merely been the icing on the cake, to use an idiom.
The Ceaucescu families’ ownership of Romanian football clubs and Stalin’s police chief sending the stars of opposing soccer teams to the gulag does not particularly show that these actions extended the reign, power, or control of their respective dictatorships. What it does show is that the power that they exercised allowed them to toy with these professional teams as playthings, and in this article, nothing more.
In like manner, Kuper goes on to hypothesize that soccer-crazy societies, where dissent is suppressed, use the analogy that soccer presents to undermine authority. He cites Libya as proof, where several expressions of disfavor against teams owned by Qaddafi’s son Al Saadi are claimed to be proof of an undercurrent of discontent with the Libyan government:
This means that the only place in Libya where tens of thousands can gather to oppose a symbol of the regime is the stadium at Al Ahli matches. When a donkey wearing a team shirt with the No. 10 was kicked onto the pitch during one game last season, everyone understood that it represented Al Saadi.
To say that there is dissatisfaction, even hostility against Al Saadi by ordinary Libyans is stating the obvious. However, to say that this is also representative of a greater hostility in general against Muammar al-Qaddafi is quite a stretch. Kuper mentions Muammar al-Qaddafi’s purchase of a stake in Juventus, an Italian soccer team currently playing in its Serie B, or Second Division (after being relegated from the First Division for the first time in its 100-year history) (Wikipedia, n.d.). If Libyans were as liberal with their football metaphors as Kuper claims, then it stands to reason that there should be a display of hostility against Juventus. Instead, the hostile reaction against Al Saadi may simply be a result from perceptions that he is abusing his power to fix matches, and nothing more.
Kuper claims that soccer is beginning to prove a threat to fundamentalist groups that practically control Iran by being, according to Kuper, “an iconic image of Western youth culture” (2002). Proof of this can be found in the boisterous celebrations in Iranian streets following victories by the Iranian side in international competition, which were to such an extent that strict moral codes set by fundamentalist mullahs were blatantly disregarded, their pictures burned under a large image of the Ayatollah Khomeini. In retaliation, Kuper hypothesizes that Iranian mullahs forced the Iranian national team to throw away games that would have brought them to the 2002 World Cup. As further proof, Kuper talks about a friend’s experience talking to an Iranian student where political diatribe against the West eventually gives way to a spirited discussion as to whether David Beckham should continue at midfield for Manchester United, a club in the English Premier League.
Although the significance of soccer in Iran has increased dramatically over the last two decades (Wikipedia, n.d.), to say that the qualifying games for the 2002 World Cup were thrown away on orders of fundamentalist mullahs is yet another stretch one’s imagination. The Iranian football team’s last two appearances in the World Cup (they qualified in 1998 and 2006) were under the administration of Mohammad Khatami, a reformist president, and caused off mass celebrations in Iran. These celebrations touched on a wave of nationalism, on which current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, often described as a nationalist hardliner friendly to the mullahs, rode on the 2005 presidential elections (Wikipedia, n.d.). If anything, the spirited talk on David Beckham points only toward the pervasiveness of mass media and the wide access to international sport in the 21st century.
Even in developed societies, where soccer plays less of a role in the national consciousness, Kuper argues that soccer often takes on metaphorical significance with regard to nationalist tendencies, equating the debate over the adoption of the Euro as the standard currency to the adoption of the Euro. Kuper goes out on a limb and theorizes that an England win in the 2002 World Cup would certainly not be harmful to the acceptance of the Euro over the British Pound, based on an assumption that Europe is nothing more than a vague concept to most people, which in turn is based on the familiarity of the common person to the England line-up vis-à-vis the issues surrounding the adoption of the Euro.
Once again, Kuper’s article engages in a flight of whimsy when he parallels the adoption of the Euro to the relative success of the English side in the World Cup. Perhaps a more appropriate gauge of sentiment could be the performance of English teams in the Union of European Football Associations Champions League, formerly known as the European Cup. This championship is acknowledged as one of the most prestigious club trophies in the sport (Wikipedia, n.d.). The anthem to this competition is an arrangement by an Englishman, Tony Britten. The anthem is performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, often referred to as Britain’s national orchestra (Wikipedia, n.d.), and sung by the Academy of St. Martin of the Fields, an English chamber orchestra (Wikipedia, n.d.). The English have won a total of ten Champions League titles, the last coming in 2005 with Liverpool FC winning it all and Arsenal FC, of which Kuper claims Bin Laden is a fan, coming second in 2006. Despite this association with continental Europe, opposition to the Maastricht Treaty (which would cause the adoption of the Euro as the official currency of the United Kingdom) remains high.
Kuper laments that the significance of the World Cup is lost on Americans simply because soccer has come to represent suburban success far detached from the glitz and glamour that distinguishes other professional sports in the United States, most notoriously in professional basketball. He notes that in 1998, French police spoiled a plot to murder the English and American World Cup teams, a plan whose failure went largely unnoticed in the United States. This failure of this plan, which Bin Laden had personally planned, frustrated Bin Laden such that the bombing of American embassies later that year in Kenya and Tanzania was seen by his biographers as a reaction to that frustration.
The notion that the significance of the World Cup is lost on Americans is not really reflective of the place soccer holds in the American psyche, as it can be argued that the apathy of Americans towards international competition extends to sports in general and is not merely the result of soccer having a low profile in the United States. This may be because final rounds of professional sporting events in the United States consider themselves to be the world championships for that particular event (Wikipedia, n.d.). Kuper’s contention is further disproven in the 2006 World Cup, where massive media attention was brought onto the United States side, with it being rated 4th in the World and seen by some analysts as a dark horse in the tournament. Despite all the media hype and attention on the members of the American team which was lacking in previous World Cups, the ranking nevertheless failed to generate as much fan support for the United States side as compared to the other participants in the tournament.
Kuper’s use of the fascination held by several members of Al Qaeda toward football provides him with a substantial milieu with which he could discuss the political impact of football on world culture. In the beginning of the article, Kuper uses the statements of a Qaeda member who relates, “Do you know when there is a soccer game and your team wins? It was the same expression of joy.”
Somewhere in the middle of his discussion, Kuper also uses the words of a militant Iranian student:
A British friend of mine was approached on the street in the Iranian town Isfahan last fall by a student who bombarded him with questions: “You are from England? After Israel and America, you are our biggest enemy. Don’t you think George Bush is the biggest terrorist of all for supporting Israel? Do you think Beckham should play on the right for Manchester United, or in the center?”
Finally, Kuper ends by arguing that assassination plots on hated teams notwithstanding, the impact of the World Cup will not be lost on Islamic militants and on citizens of notoriously militant Islamic countries such as Iran and Libya, and hopes that a shared love for a beautifully executed goal by a member of said team will overpower any political hatred each side may bear against the other.
Unfortunately, given the lack of textual support that Kuper provides in the article, this vision may not be more than wishful thinking.
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