The World Cup–the monthlong competition taking place throughout Germany beginning June 9–is by sheer numbers the most important sporting event on earth. Football–or soccer, as Americans insist on calling it–is by far the world’s most popular sport, and the World Cup creates a near-united global audience. Approximately one in four human beings will view this year’s final game. That means basically anyone who has access to a television will be watching–though probably fewer in the United States, where “soccer” is still viewed in some quarters as a plot to create a one-world government.
Politics cannot be separated from the World Cup any more than it can be from the Olympics. Sometimes this is for the best: For example, Africans throughout the continent exulted in Senegal’s shocking upset of its former colonizer, France, in the first game of the 2002 Cup.
This year, however, German and US politicians have seized on the tournament to intensify the saber rattling aimed at Tehran. Citing Iran’s efforts to develop a nuclear program and the anti-Israel pronouncements of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, several leading politicians in both countries have called for the Iranian team to be banned from the World Cup. In this spirit of tolerance and peace, Berlin’s liberal daily Der Tagesspiegel ran a cartoon in February that depicted Iranian soccer players as suicide bombers.
Now Germany’s conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel has further stoked this sentiment by likening Iran’s nuclear plans to the threat posed by the Nazis. Italian reform minister Roberto Calderoli of the anti-immigrant Northern League called on the international soccer federation (FIFA) to exclude Iran and other “rogue states,” and in recent weeks British Conservatives–perhaps distraught over their own team’s dwindling prospects, after an injury to their best player–have gotten in on the act.
Back in Germany, some Christian Democrats have further upped the ante by invoking the specter of Iranian terrorism at the games, asserting that Tehran will slip some suicide bombers disguised as regular fans into a game. Calls for a ban, or at least for a travel ban against the Iranian president, have intensified in Germany as the games approach. Leading Conservative and Social Democratic officials are now quoted almost daily decrying a possible visit by Ahmadinejad. And in early May, a German newspaper reported that officials of Germany, France and Britain are hoping to orchestrate a travel-ban scheme through the European Union that would prevent high-ranking Iranian officials from attending any of the games.
In the most recent gambit, on May 12 a group of European Union representatives presented a letter to FIFA demanding that Iran be evicted from the games. The hypocrisy of this quasi-extortion is overwhelming: Iran should be banned because its leaders indulge in belligerent rhetoric and attempt to develop a nuclear program, yet no one advocates the exclusion of the United States, even though it is engaged in two military occupations, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and President Bush has refused to rule out a nuclear strike on Iran.