Kofi Annan would like the United Nations to become more like the FIFA World Cup. While there is something to be said for the beautiful game's potential for uniting people and resolving conflicts bloodlessly, it might be premature to replace the UN with a football League of Nations.
“The World Cup makes us at the UN green with envy,” admitted United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan in an opinion piece. “It is one of the few phenomena as universal as the UN. You could say it's more universal.”
Love the game or hate it, few can deny its global appeal and the wonderful carnival atmosphere – despite the occasional outburst of hooliganism – the World Cup brings around every four years. It allows nationalist sentiment to be expressed and diffused in a largely harmless setting. As ugly as England-Germany encounters can become on the front pages and on the streets, this is still preferable to the devastation of real war. Far better the football field than the battlefield. Despite the World Cup's astronomical price tag, it still costs less than war and makes people happier.
In an ideal but impossible future, war could be averted through a football match between top-ranking officials on both sides of a festering conflict. As the quagmire in Iraq constantly demonstrates, modern warfare is ugly and dangerous and any measure that can circumvent it is welcome.
The European Union may have made war unthinkable in Europe, but in other parts of the world forcing leaders to do their own dirty work is one way of preventing or mitigating conflict. In the build up to the invasion of Iraq, I urged President George W Bush to take up the Iraqi challenge to a duel between him and the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein as a way of settling the dispute.
Needless to say, Dubya the Kid and his crew ignored the chance to fight their own battles and to avoid the mindless loss of thousands of innocent lives. Football offers less selfless leaders a distinct advantage over duels in that it allows them to resolve conflicts without endangering their own precious behinds.
Evening the odds
Another distinct advantage of football, Annan tells us is that “everybody knows where their team stands, and what it did to get there”. Imagine how much easier it would have been, for instance, if the Oslo Accords had been conceived as a football tournament, rather than barren, vague and unenforceable documents lacking any clear objectives or timetables.
In such a scenario, the Israelis and the Palestinians would field a team each to play a series of ‘home' and ‘away' matches – preferably on neutral territory – to resolve all the thorniest sticking points: the status of Jerusalem, the Aqsa Mosque/Temple Mount, and other hotly disputed pieces of real estate; the right of return or compensation to Palestinians living outside historic Palestine. With so much to play for, before long, Palestine and Israel might find themselves competing with the world's footballing giants.
Football offers an interesting way out of entrenched conflicts which are often prolonged through a massive power disparity in which the more powerful side does not feel obliged to make painful concessions and places the burden of compromise on the weaker party. By levelling the playing field, football could potentially provide a breakthrough.
As Annan points out about the World Cup: “The competition takes place on a level playing field, where every country has a chance to participate on equal terms. Only two commodities matter: talent and teamwork.”
For me, the main appeal of using football as a weapon of mitigating disputes is that it would help small countries to survive on the world stage without being bullied by larger countries and it would cause larger countries to think more carefully before rattling their sabres – the United States and England may be tough players in the modern version of the ‘great game' but they are hardly invincible when it comes to the beautiful game.
But best of all, it would make the ridiculous $300-plus billion the USA sinks into its armed forces every year appear even more fickle and irresponsible.
Smoking boots and WMD
However, football is and can be double-edged. In the right hands (or should I say, at the left foot?), it can be a powerful force for tolerance and empowerment. In the wrong hands, football can be a powerful weapon of mass distraction and even deception.
An interesting case in point is Iran. In the 1998 World Cup, the Iranian football team took home a one-nil victory against its arch political enemy, the United States. This was a proxy battle, if ever there was one. The win emboldened Iran's restive youth – who have for years been pressing for sweeping political reforms – to take to the streets in a bold act of moral defiance against the strict behavioural codes imposed by the clerics.
A year before the student unrest in 1999, tens of thousands of Iranians, mostly young people, sang, danced and even cast off their headscarves to celebrate the victory. “Here was a bold, defiant demonstration of the power of the masses, and of their youth, in the face of rigid authority, and authority had backed down,” wrote American journalist Elaine Sciolino in her book Persian mirrors – the elusive face of Iran. “For one glorious summer night, ordinary Iranians proved themselves capable of bursting out of their lethargy not for God, but for soccer.”
But it was a minor advance for the young in a long battle as the conservative clerics scurried to reclaim the football victory and clothe it in the garb of revolutionary rhetoric. “Tonight, again, the strong and arrogant opponents felt the bitter taste of defeat at your hands,” Ayatollah Khamenei told the winning team, apparently unaware of how comical his hyperbole sounded.
With or without Maradonna's famous ‘hand of God' incident, the Iranian political class keeps a careful eye on the football pitch. The revolution's original spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeini refused to heed the calls to ban the beautiful game made by ultraconservatives in the revolution's early years.
The former reformist mayor of Tehran, Gholam-Hosein Karbaschi, who was disliked by the conservative Council of Guardians for his support of reformist president Khatami, had one session of his televised trial – which had been dubbed Iran's own OJ Simpson trial – rescheduled because it clashed with one of Iran's World Cup matches.
Shifting the political goalposts
If the United Nations were to function more like FIFA's World Cup, then we would redefine the current world order. Footballers would become not just overpaid sporting and entertainments stars, but would also add ‘warrior' and ‘statesman' to their portfolio, sidelining women even further. David Beckham could become the king of England while Ronaldinho could run for president in Brazil. Pele for UN secretary-general, Kofi?
Being an untested quantity as a major world player, Brazil might make a novel superpower. But with that much power at its feet, would it remain just as cuddly or would it lose its samba innocence? How would Germany, Italy and Argentina fare?
Then again, would the current superpower roll over so easily and concede that the game is up? Might it not, in classic ‘with us or against us' logic declare that a soccer UN is irrelevant and that American Football is the only acceptable way to resolve international disputes?
Even if it accepts the tutelage of soccer, what then? Many people believe that the US military is running a secret research programme to design cyborg super soldiers. But what if the USA diverted this programme into developing and building the super ‘dream team' for football, how would the rest of the world compete against these cybernetic organisms? If you thought one Wayne Rooney was enough to handle, just think what a whole army of genetically modified, computer-enhanced Rooneys would be like!
Of course, some people might argue that football is already replete with cyborgs, that peculiar synthesis of living tissue, artificial parts and machine. Few footballers would attend a tournament or be seen about town without their silicon wags (i.e. wives and girlfriends). Take the silicon-breasted, gym-enhanced plastic queen of football and former ‘Posh Spice', Victoria Beckham. She's reached the stage where nearly half her diminishing body mass is no longer identifiable as human.
A world dominated by football might be an improvement on the current one, or, succumbing to human greed, it may function much like it does now – albeit with more Adidas and Nike sponsorship. But the only thing I know for certain is that it is better to make beautiful football, not war.