Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Soccer Diplomacy

While only tangentially related to the sport itself, occasionally politics spills over into soccer, or rather soccer spills over into politics. This is no surprise considering the nationalism, regionalism, and all other isms involved. Anyone who's read one of my all-time favorite books, How Football Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization, knows how fascinating and intense it can be.

FIFA of course doesn't seem adverse to the phenomenon. Aside from the actual politicking involved in selecting World Cup hosts and so forth, FIFA always seems to pit nations against each other with interesting geopolitical ties. Famously, the 1998 World Cup saw the United States face off against Iran, the Koreas played each other four times in the past two years for World Cup qualifiers (who wants to put money on the US being drawn with North Korea in 2010?), and every time England or the Netherlands play Germany they take it as an opportunity to seek revenge for creating a situation that now allows the US to hold our role in WWII over everyone's heads for all eternity. There are many other examples through history of soccer pulling together disparate interests and helping ease old wounds (just as there are plenty of examples of it doing the exact opposite, opening those wounds anew).

Of more personal interest to me is recent developments regarding Armenia and Turkey. The two countries are none too fond each other, what with one having committed Genocide against the other and the other having the nerve to be upset that the one refuses to admit that's what it was. Anyway. In September of 2008, the two countries played their first ever full soccer match against each other (the two did previously play a youth side match). The game was made the more significant by the presence of Turkish President Abdullah Gul, the first visit by a Turkish head of state to Armenia, at the invitation of Armenian President Serge Sargsyan. Time did a piece the possibility of soccer playing a role in healing the rift between the two countries. It also noted that the invitation of President Gul to Yerevan was decried by fierce nationalists in both countries who harbor great enmity and do not wish for rapprochement.

Turns out the two countries since that time have been working on and agreed to establishing diplomatic ties, mainly to open up each other's borders and trade to help the two struggling economies. Interestingly, Armenia pushed for normalization before getting to the topic of recognizing the Genocide, knowing that the controversial topic could easily derail any rapprochement. The two countries will engage in another round of diplomatic talks, ending at about the same time as the return World Cup qualifier on October 14th in Istanbul, to which Armenian President Sargsyan is invited to attend.

I don't want to wax too philosophical on this topic, and I could easily get caught in a more serious debate on both the sports role in politics and the particulars of the Armenia-Turkey relationship. Rather, I think it's simply a very interesting story and I hope that the end result benefits the people of both nations (OK, so I slightly favor one country's people benefiting more, but still, you get my point).

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