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.