It’s easy to place sports in an “entertainment” bubble, sealing it off from the real-world struggles that affect us every day. The sporting world is an arena of “fun and games”, but the real world is influenced in the boardroom, in the halls of Congress and in the factories – or so they say. While there is some truth to the notion that sports are popular only for their escapist nature, never underestimate the power of a soccer game to bring people together.
Sports Diplomacy Then…
World War I was one of the most deadly conflicts in history. An estimated 20 million people died between 1914-1918 and countless more were severely wounded. And yet, on Christmas Eve in 1914, the battleground on the Western front witnessed a miracle: the Christmas Truce.
Reports of that night and the following day vary slightly. But whatever the catalyst, soldiers on both sides of the battle ceased fire, rose from their bunkers and shared in the revelry and holiday spirit. Gunfire gave way to singing, hostility to commiseration and combat to soccer. That’s right. In the midst of harrowing and dark times, soldiers from both sides came together to kick around a makeshift soccer ball. Whether they played actual games or just passed the ball amongst themselves doesn’t really matter. Soccer brought people together who had tried to kill each other only hours before.
… And Now
Widely criticized as sportwashing, the Saudi-led purchase of Newcastle United Football Club (NUFC) has sparked debate within the world of soccer. “How can this be allowed?” ask some. “They’ve crossed too many lines to join the Premier League!” assert others. But then there are those on the flip side of the coin.
Some, willfully ignorant of the human rights abuses and draconian Saudi laws, choose to focus on the positive impact the Public Investment Fund (PIF) can have on NUFC and the surrounding area. While others point to the value of sitting face-to-face with members of the Saudi contingent. Maybe by offering an olive branch in the form of a seat at the table, the Premier League – and others like the media, British government, FA and more – can convince the Saudi government to change. At least that’s what Sky Sports’s Gary Neville “longs for”.
Causing the Saudi regime to enact real change through the medium of soccer may be a fanciful idea. But inviting them into the Premier League does shine a very bright and expansive spotlight on them. Some will argue that’s exactly what they want – to shape their “public image” through NUFC. But in this day of ubiquitous social media and everyman journalism, the more the spotlight shines on Saudi Arabia, the greater the shadow of their transgressions for us all to see.
Just look at Qatar. They wanted the World Cup – they got it. But they also got the eyes of the world on their every move.
At the end of the day, how we feel about the role of soccer and the potential of sports diplomacy is different for everyone. As with most things, perhaps the best way forward is to hope for the best, but plan for the worst. Cautious optimism with a healthy dose of skepticism. Only time will tell.
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