Five years ago, I retold a story related by one of my favourite authors a Polish News Reporter called Ryszard Kapuscinski. It was about a series of football matches between Honduras and El Salvador, play-offs for the 1970 World Cup Finals, which led to a war between the two countries. It was a three-match play-off. For the first leg in Honduras, the El Salvadorian players’ hotel was surrounded all night by Honduran fans, throwing stones at windows, setting off firecrackers, hooting horns, all in an attempt to allow the players no sleep at all before the game. Honduras, aided no doubt by their fans’ antics, won 1-0. Back in El Salvador, an 18-year-old girl, witnessing the last-minute winner on TV, found her father’s pistol in a desk drawer and shot herself. Nationalistic fervour went through the roof, and a foreboding scene was set for the second leg. There were similar scenes outside the Honduran hotel this time, and on the day of the game the players were taken to the match in armoured cars. In a heavily armed stadium, and under a burning Honduran flag, El Salvador won their home leg 3-0. Within days, and before the third and final leg could even take place on neutral territory, the El Salvadorian army had invaded Honduras. The War only lasted four days, but in that time over 3,000 soldiers and civilians were killed and 300,000 El Salvadorians who had been living in Honduras found themselves displaced when they were forced to provide for themselves as refugees in their own home country. The economies of both countries collapsed. And, to cap it all, El Salvador, having finally qualified for the World Cup Finals, were knocked out in the first round.
So much for the destructive power of football. The Economist ran with a great counter-story this month about a missed penalty bringing peace to the Ivory Coast in 2005. Having won its last qualifying game, it needed Cameroon to lose or draw against Egypt in order to go through to the 2006 World Cup Finals. Cameroon was awarded a late penalty to win the game, but Pierre Wome hit the post, and Ivory Coast went through. The Economist reports that ‘listening on the radio, the Ivorian players erupted. Then they pleaded for peace in their war-torn country: “We proved today that all Ivorians can co-exist and play together”, said captain Didier Drogba. “We beg you… please lay down your weapons and hold elections”. The clip was played again and again on Ivorian television and, in the months that followed, the warring parties began talking, and, having agreed to a ceasefire, eventually agreed also to peace.’ This outcome was not surprising, according to a recent study in Chile, which found that people surveyed after their national squad had won were 37% less likely to identify primarily within their ethnic group and 30% more likely to trust other ethnicities. This was not the case after a national defeat. In other words, the national team doing well can bring a country’s diverse people together – something which makes sense: we can see it with our own eyes whenever England does well.
Two individual stories also show the extraordinarily contrasting powers of football. In 1994, Andrew Escobar scored an own goal for Columbia against the USA, which put them out of the World Cup. Five days later, back in his native country, he was shot six times in a car park, the same number of times that the commentator had exclaimed ‘Goal!’ on the television, and died shortly afterwards in hospital of his wounds. And only this week, we were all reminded of the good which football and footballers can do when Marcus Rashford used his high national profile to great effect in persuading the Government to go back on their decision not to provide free school meals over the summer for those desperately in need. To any reasonable person, this had been the wrong decision, and well done to Mr Rashford for taking the stance he did.
Well, whatever we think of it, football is back on our televisions, for better or worse. For all the greed, hypocrisy and unsportsmanlike behaviour, there is also togetherness, charity and uplifted spirits. It matters to people more than any other sport on the planet. I hope that it does itself proud.