Political football: War and peace by other means at FIFA World Cup


PARIS: As Iran prepare to play diplomatic arch-rivals the United States at the World Cup on Tuesday, here’s a look at how geopolitics have spilt onto the pitch in previous World Cups.

Mussolini’s ‘Blackshirts’: France v Italy, 1938

Just a year before World War II broke out, defending champions Italy arrived in France with politics taking centre stage in their clash with the hosts.

Championed by Italy’s then leader, fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, the team were booed when they came onto the pitch at the stadium near Paris.

Undeterred, the Italians gave the fascist salute to the crowd and played in black shirts, a nod to the uniform worn by Mussolini’s notorious “Blackshirts” militia.

Italy won the clash 3-1 and went on to win the competition.

Cold War battle: East Germany v West Germany, 1974

It would be the only game at the international level between the two teams during the period when Germany was divided from 1949 to 1990.

Billed as the “Battle of the Brothers” and at the height of the Cold War, tensions were so high that the traditional shirt-swapping at the end of the match was banned.

With fears of terrorist activities, the match was categorised as high risk and armed squads were positioned around the stadium.

East Germany, playing in their first and only World Cup, pulled off a sensational 1-0 win, though things soon returned to script, with West Germany winning the tournament.

Maradona’s moment: England v Argentina, 1986

This highly charged clash took place in Mexico four years after Argentina’s defeat by Britain in the Falklands War.

To the joy of their fans, Argentina took symbolic revenge, winning the quarter-final 2-1 with Diego Maradona scoring twice. His first goal was the infamous “Hand of God” goal in which he punched the ball past England goalkeeper Peter Shilton.

Then a superb solo effort, dubbed the goal of the century, sealed victory. “It was a final for us. It was not about winning a match, it was about eliminating the English,” Maradona said.

Say it with flowers: Iran v USA, 1998

Peace, not war, was behind the pre-kick-off niceties between the US and Iran at the 1998 World Cup.

The match, billed as one of the most politically charged in the game’s history, began with a gesture from Iran’s players, gifting bouquets of white roses to their US opponents.

Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran and the US have been at loggerheads.

The goodwill did not last long however as Iran famously beat the Americans 2-1.

An eagle lands: Switzerland v Serbia, 2018

This clash caused a huge outcry in Serbia after two Swiss players of Albanian heritage celebrated their goals with a two-handed eagle gesture to mimic the black eagle in Albania’s flag, considered by Serbia as a nationalist provocation.

The double eagle symbol is viewed as a symbol of defiance in Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008 in a move Serbia refuses to recognise.

Granit Xhaka, who was born in Switzerland, made the gesture after he scored the Swiss team’s first goal and Xherdan Shaqiri repeated it following his last-gasp winner that clinched a 2-1 victory.

FIFA fined the players, although they escaped a ban.

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