Football is Geopolitics’ Great Equalizer.
Maradona was more than a footballer and football amongst Nations is often more than just football.
Legends die young. This week the phrase became once again true. On 25 November, Diego Maradona, the Argentinean footballer, died at age 60. His sudden death shocked the world and brought Argentina to its knees. But Maradona was more than a footballer and football amongst Nations is often more than just football. What is it exactly? It is part football, of course, part a Nation’s passion, aspirations, hopes, and more importantly but less visibly: geopolitics. Football is geopolitics’ great equalizer. How, one may ask? That is a question worth exploring through two examples.
Geopolitics, generally, refers to how Nations compete for spheres of influence in support of their national interest. The more common and visible elements used to compete are diplomacy, military, economics, and culture. Generally, regional powers have and project more than one. Superpowers like the United States have and project all elements around the world. While many international institutions e.g., UN, NATO, EU, etc. have ensured that Nations rich or poor, weak or strong have a voice, these institutions seldomly provide an equal voice. For example, the UN security council, tasked with handling the world’s most pressing security issues, has five permanent members with veto power. One permanent member can sink and — often does — the most well-intentioned resolutions by non-veto members.
But in football, unlike in the global arena and institutions, weak or rich countries compete, and generally, the elements that define them as superpowers or regional powers bears little effect. This is where football legends like Maradona equalize and matter more than the size of military budgets
In the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, Argentina faced England in the quarter-finals. Maradona scored two of the most unforgettable goals in history taking Argentina to the finals. But in closer analysis, the game was not a mere competition to obtain access to the World Cup final. Argentinean players understood it was the moment — perhaps the only one in decades to come — wherein an equal arena — they could retake the lost pride of the Falkland wars, a brief war between the UK and Argentina over the Falkland Islands off the coast of Argentina. As a former colleague of Maradona recalled, the victory was not going to revive the fallen from the Falkland war, but it could — and did — revive Argentina’s pride.
Taking it further, Argentina’s victory took a stab at Western colonization and years of interventionism to prop up right-wing dictatorships. This geopolitical symbolism is best underscored in Calle 13’s Grammy Award-winning song “Latinoamérica.” Calle 13 in a long verse sings,
“soy Maradona contra Inglaterra…Anotándote dos goles…” (I am Maradona against England, scoring two goals).
And in a second reference Calle 13 writes
“La operación Condor invadiendo mi nido” (Operation Condor invading my nest).
Operation Condor was a coordination and mutual assistance plan between the right-wing dictatorships of southern South American countries and the U.S. As such, Argentina’s victory came at an influx point for Argentina but also for Latin America-writ large. It was Argentina’s victory, but it was also Latin America's best balancing act against the West, during a Latin American World Cup (hosted in Mexico), after years of interventionism and deadly war.
The 1986 Argentina vs. England game is perhaps the most historically significant example of football’s equalizing power, but it was ephemeral. Mexico vs. U.S.A rivalry demonstrates its enduring effects. Once again, the two countries' geopolitical realities have made the games more than just football matches. For Mexico, history weighs heavily. As Enrique Krauze, a Mexican historian proclaimed,
“the weight of the past has sometimes been more present than the present itself. And a repetition of the past has sometimes seemed to be the only foreseeable future.”
To Mexico, the games against its northern neighbor are opportunities to relive and rebalance the Mexican-American war of 1846, the generally weaker economic position vis-à-vis its northern neighbor, and the nationalistic anti-immigratory rhetoric US leadership has employed since 2016. Perhaps no match was more symbolic of this counterbalancing than Nashville in September 2018. In it, Mexico’s Diego Lainez — a naturally short but talented player — faced off a towering Matt Miazga from the U.S. The face-off was unique because it symbolized the political realities of the two countries: one small, one big. But in the match, it was more dynamic than that construct, and the U.S. barely escaped with a one zero victory. What’s more, Mexico beat the U.S. in the 2019 Gold Cup final and in September 2019 recked the U.S. team three goals to null. Every match of the USA-Mexico rivalry has served for Mexico to remind the Superpower they are not infallible.
These are but two examples from a long historical record where football has served as geopolitics grand equalizer. One can remember the famous 1950 Maracanaço where a small but forceful Uruguay beat mighty Brazil — at the height of their football and geopolitical might. Hence the significance of legends like Maradona. They are no celebrated only for their football prowess. They are celebrated because with goals and plays they rebalanced geopolitical forces. Perhaps this is why legends do die young, they deserve to rest first.