The world cup in football is now entering its final stages. Like so many others, I follow it with great – and intense – interest. But international sporting events are not unproblematic. In 2009, Sweden played Israel in Davis Cup in Malmö. Due to an Israeli offensive in Gaza only a few months earlier, it was questioned whether Sweden actually should play the match, and a lot of demonstrators turned up in order to demonstrate against it. In the end, the local authorities decided that the match should be played, but behind closed doors; only officials and the media were let into the arena.
I wrote an article in the Malmö local newspaper Sydsvenska Dagbladet about the relationship between sports and politics. It was published (in Swedish) on day one of the match (March 6, 2009).
POLITICS ON THE PITCH
World Cup final 1966: England vs. West Germany at Wembley Stadium. 2-2 is the final score. A couple of minutes into overtime, Geoff Hurst hits the crossbar, and the ball bounces straight towards the goal line. From there it bounces out. Did it cross the line? The Swiss referee is uncertain. But not Russian linesman Tofik Bakhramov. It’s a goal! England are world champions.
How could the linesman be so sure? He was not much better placed than the referee. However, according to some sources, some years later he gave an explanation. And then one word was enough: “Stalingrad”.
The battle of Stalingrad 1942-43 has gone to history as one of the bloodiest in recent history, with about two million dead, among them many civilians. Bakhramov was from Baku in what is now Azerbajdzjan, not far from Stalingrad. He was sixteen at the time of the battle. Many deceased came from Azerbajdzjan. For Bakhramov, the World Cup final offered an opportunity for a political and ritual revenge.
At the same time as the battle of Stalingrad, the Swedish national football team played a remarkable friendly. On September 19, 1942, the Swedish team travelled by plane from Malmö to Berlin’s Tempelhof, escorted by German airfighters. The day after, in front of a crowd of 90,000, Sweden played Germany. The crowd consisted primarily of German soldiers on leave. Before the game, the Danish referee did a politically correct Sieg Heil salute.
When does sport turn into politics? In the often quoted 1945 article in The Sporting Spirit, George Orwell argues that it is the connection to nationalism that makes sport political. And dangerous. The article was written after Russian team Dynamo Moscow had played a number of friendlies in Great Britain. The games were fairly vicious, which led Orwell to the famous conclusion that sport is ”war minus the shooting”.
According to Orwell, international competitions always lead to hatred. Somebody must win; others must lose. That conclusion may be questioned. Competitions may also strengthen relationships between countries. The match between Sweden and Germany in 1942 is one such example. But Orwell’s analysis is still important. Earlier than others, he placed sports in a political context. Sport is not the reason behind nationalism. But it can unquestionably strengthen its political effects.
What, then, is a political action? If the sources are to be trusted, the action of the Russian linesman Bakhramov was without a doubt political. But was he the one politicizing the event? Or did he just make more explicit what was already a necessarily political event?
When the Davis Cup match between Sweden and Israel commences today, no one will need to make its political character explicit. Even those who do not think that politics and sport go together have already contributed to the politicization of the event.
What can we say about the match? Sweden play a nation for whom the symbolic and ritual value of being part of a global sporting community is enormous. We do it at a time when the need for Israel to belong to the international community is greater than for a long time. It is a political handshake.
But the match also illuminates the fact that sport and politics is not only about nationalism. It also about other power relations, in this particular case the relationship between a nation’s capital (Stockholm) and a smaller city challenging that capital in different ways (Malmö). From a perspective that seems to be inspired by the prejudiced picture painted of Malmö by Fox News, Stockholm politicians argue that only the capital has the maturity to arrange an event such as this one. And they are assisted by Stockholm media. As argued in an editorial in the biggest newspaper Dagens Nyheter: “in the capital, we are more tolerant – and we know how to distinguish between sport and politics”.
Stockholm is above politics; a position you only can take from the most privileged and expensive seats in an arena.