More than half a century ago, Dwight Eisenhower famously said, “The true mission of American sports is to prepare young men for war.” This is the undeniable downside of sports: the way teamwork, camaraderie and competition can be used to desensitize a population to the horrors of war. And it is particularly part of the sporting DNA of what Americans call football, where games are routinely referred to as “battles” or “wars,” and NFL quarterbacks are “field generals” who throw bullet passes and bombs for the purpose of advancing on enemy territory.
Consider the bellicose posturing of American striker Eddie Johnson at the World Cup, a few days before his team managed to tie the favored Italians in an ugly match featuring three ejections.
“We’re here for a war,” Johnson said a few days before the game, after visiting US troops at Ramstein Air Base. “Whenever you put your jersey on and you look at your crest and the national anthem’s going on, and you’re playing against a different country, it’s like you do or die, it’s survival of the (fittest) over ninety minutes-plus. We’re going to go out there and do whatever we’ve got to do, make tackles, do the things when the referee’s not looking…to get three points.” Johnson concluded by saying, “It’s do or die…. I don’t want to go home early.” Ironically, most of the American troops Johnson thinks he’s supporting would like nothing better than to “go home early” from combat duty in Iraq.
The World Cup has historically aimed to be a counterweight to the passions of war. But Johnson’s comments are consistent with the militaristic spirit that some US fans have brought to the games. Without question, England, Poland, Germany and other teams have their share of fringe hooligans, some openly racist. But Team USA’s most prominent fan club calls itself “Sam’s Army.” While the fan club explicitly rejects racism and soccer hooliganism, its website is replete with martial imagery and belligerent anthems.
Johnson’s comments illuminate a crucial difference between how Americans and Europeans think about war–and sport. Europeans are not quite so blithe on these matters, having seen the continent decimated twice in the past century by war. It is not surprising that a number of Italian players were alternately bemused and repulsed by Johnson’s war talk.
Other players in this tournament have painful contemporary reasons to think about war as something other than a game, particularly the impressive teams from the African continent. Ivory Coast has been wracked by civil war since 2002, and thousands of its 17 million citizens have perished. The Elephants, as the team is called, consists of players from all parts of the country, and is seen by many Ivorians as a unifying force. “Those from the rebel-held north and the government-controlled south play together, celebrate together, and show a positive image of Ivory Coast that is sorely lacking elsewhere,” the BBC concluded in a recent report.
“When we play all of Ivory Coast is happy,” declared midfielder Yaya Toure. “There are many Ivorian citizens who are thinking about the World Cup, and they think that it can resolve many things…. Politics means we are divided, but I think football can sort that out.” Another player said, “The Ivorian people are suffering a lot because of everything that is happening in the country. We owed it to ourselves to qualify for the World Cup, to give it as a gift to the people. We achieved our goal. Now it is up to the politicians to achieve their goal, to find an agreement or a solution to put an end to the [civil war.]”
Echoing the sentiments of many of his teammates, Toure expressed a desire to “bring peace through our play on the field.” When Ivory Coast qualified for the World Cup last year, young fans ran through streets of the capital yelling, “The war is over! The war is over!”
If such thinking seems unduly optimistic, it’s still far more uplifting than the war cries emanating from American quarters. And perhaps such hopes are not completely naive. “Of course I will be supporting the Elephants! What a crazy question!” Bakari Toure, a rebel fighter, told the BBC. “We are Ivorian…. We don’t want to leave this nation, we want to be acknowledged as part of it.”
The Ivorians came tantalizingly close to tying or defeating two of the Cup’s favorites, Argentina and Holland, losing each game 2 to 1. But there was good news for Africa on Saturday, as Ghana stunned the world, defeating the Czech Republic–regarded as the world’s second-best team–2 to 0. It was Ghana’s first-ever World Cup victory, achieved in convincing fashion, capped by a sublime goal in the last minutes by 21-year-old Sulley Muntari.
We watched the game in Washington, DC, at a neighborhood bar called the Ghana Café, where the cheers vibrated into the streets. A fan named Paul, who moved here from Ghana several years ago, told us, “The ESPN commentators said that ‘African teams have brute strength, but don’t play with finesse.’ ” Another young Ghanaian, March Dadzie, noted that one sportscaster ignorantly opined that any skills displayed by the Ghanaians result from their experience “outside of Ghana”–a k a Europe. Another fan added, “If that sportscaster had any sense, he would have known that most players grew up playing in the streets of Accra.” Indeed, Ghana fields only one starter who plays for a European powerhouse; most take the field from teams in the Middle East and Africa.
The humility and unabashed joy of the Ghanaian players provided a welcome relief from the hyper-patriotic antics of “Sam’s Army” and the ill-considered remarks of Eddie Johnson. At the sound of the whistle ending the game, Ghana’s goalkeeper and defensemen fell immediately to their knees in prayerful thanksgiving, as the thousands of Africans in the stands in Cologne celebrated wildly.
At the Ghana Café, Kobi said, “People all over the continent are celebrating with us.”
On Thursday, the United States will be playing Ghana in a match that pits not only contrasting styles of play but differing approaches to the sport itself. Soccer’s not for wimps, and time will tell who the real tough guys are. It’s too bad, though, that Team America and its attendant army of fans have carried a lust for combat to FIFA’s raucous playing fields, where athletic prowess and national pride are not necessarily a cause for war.