Politics on the Pitch: Soccer’s Role in Nation-building, International Relations, and the Fight for Equality
Soccer, football, “the beautiful game.” The world’s most popular sport has inspired countless athletes around the world to strive to compete at the highest level. In doing so, players become a part of a tradition so grand that it impacts a nation’s culture, economy, and politics.
The 2022 FIFA World Cup will begin in November in Qatar. National teams are currently competing to qualify for a spot in the tournament at a time when international political tensions are high as Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine. On Feb. 28, FIFA indefinitely suspended all Russian teams from its competitions, eliminating the men’s national team from the Qatar World Cup and the women’s national team from the UEFA Women’s Euro 2022 championship.
As the United States Men’s National Team prepares to take on Mexico on March 24 for its next World Cup qualifying match, experts from across the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts provided insight into soccer’s impact on international politics.
Settling Political Scores with Goals Scored
Kirk Bowman, Rise Up & Care Term Professor of Global Development and Identity in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, is working with Assistant Professor Alberto Fuentes to research the intersection of soccer, politics, and more. They are collaborating with Uruguayan sociologist Felipe Arocena to write a book on the topic, which they plan to publish before North America hosts the 2026 FIFA World Cup.
“I tell my students all the time that FIFA is more powerful than the United Nations,” Bowman said. “With the World Cup on the horizon, they have incredible power on the world stage, which we’ve just seen with them suspending the Russian teams.”
Bowman and Fuentes see soccer teams as a way for countries to help build their national identity, and the two note that oftentimes, political tensions between states are reflected on the pitch. They point out Russia-Ukraine tensions have been showcased during matches, including during the 2020 UEFA European Football Championship, which was held belatedly in 2021 and co-hosted by Russia. Ukrainian players showed up with a map of their country printed on the front of their jerseys — a map which included Crimea, a territory Russia annexed in 2014.
Fuentes also points to the “Soccer War,” wherein ongoing political and military tensions between El Salvador and Honduras were reflected during a series of 1969 World Cup qualifying matches between the countries. While the matches didn’t launch any military action, violence was reported at several of them, and four days of fighting began just a few weeks later.
Paul Alonso, associate professor of Spanish in the School of Modern Languages, studies popular culture and Latin America. He argues that around the world, and particularly in South America, soccer is reflective of all aspects of a nation’s identity.
“Soccer geniuses, such as Pelé or Diego Maradona, represent more than just sporting figures. They are popular cultural icons that represent ways of life, cultural anxieties, artistic dreams,” Alonso said. “If a nation-state still holds cultural relevance in today's global world, national soccer teams trying to qualify and win a World Cup might be its most relevant example.”
Arguably the biggest rivalry for the U.S. men’s team is with Mexico, which Bowman and Fuentes believe is simultaneously influenced by proximity and political tensions.
“There’s an incredible amount of pressure for the Mexican team to win this match, especially since it’s being held in Mexico,” Fuentes said. “Historically, the one place where Mexico has consistently beaten the U.S. is on the soccer pitch, and that hasn’t been the case as much lately.”
“Sportswashing” and Efforts for Equality
Professional athletes around the world have used their platforms to advocate for causes important to them, and soccer players are no different. In February, the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) settled its equal pay class-action lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation. U.S. Soccer will pay out $24 million — some to the players, and some into an account that supports their post-career goals and charitable endeavors related to women’s and girls’ soccer.
Mary McDonald, Homer C. Rice Chair in Sports and Society in the School of History and Sociology, studies the intersection between gender and sports. She notes that the women’s team’s collective bargaining efforts are more effective than those in most women’s sports — with the possible exception of the WNBA — because of their longtime success and thus prominence within national imaginings.
“You see a more positive reception to issues like equal pay when it’s connected to something national, such as the USWNT,” McDonald said. “They have the ability to play on the world’s biggest stages and are successful in doing so, meaning more people are likely to identify with them and their causes in hoping for a more just and equal ‘playing field’ in elite sport and other workplaces.”
On the flip side of sports and equality is what Bowman calls “sportswashing,” a term coined by Amnesty International that refers to someone using sports to improve their reputation. Many argue that the Qatar World Cup is another example of sportswashing, given the country’s track record with human rights issues.
The Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani — the country’s head of state — also owns Paris Saint-Germain Football Club in France, commonly referred to as PSG. Fuentes observes that fans are unhappy with the ownership, in part because of the controversial owners, but also because of the team’s lack of recent success in the UEFA Champions League.
“PSG has tried to build up this team by using the owner’s wealth to bring in players like Lionel Messi and Neymar, but they’re still not getting the results that they want,” Fuentes said. “Fans had to accept the Emir of Qatar, who they might not support, owning something important to them. In return, they at least wanted to win.”
Looking Ahead: International Competition Returns to the U.S.
No matter what happens during the men’s team’s upcoming match against Mexico, Bowman and Fuentes believe that the Americans will still qualify for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Both teams are members of the qualifying region for North and Central America and the Caribbean. The top three teams out of 41 automatically qualify, with the fourth advancing to a winner-take-all playoff match against a team from Oceania. The United States and Mexico are in second and third place, respectively.
The U.S. men's team will also automatically qualify for the 2026 World Cup as co-hosts. The two Nunn School faculty members note that it is becoming increasingly common for multiple countries to host international soccer tournaments.
“Many cities are discovering that they’re getting a poor return on investment after building all of the infrastructure required to host these events,” Bowman said. “They want to collaborate and spread that responsibility over multiple countries.”
FIFA has yet to determine where all the matches will be played in 2026, but it is possible that some will occur in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, which was included as a potential host city in North America’s initial bid. Bowman argues that consistently high attendance at Major League Soccer team Atlanta United’s matches shows that even though soccer isn’t the U.S.’s most popular sport, Americans still love watching competition live.
“This is the first time in the Americas that multiple countries have joined forces to host an event like the World Cup,” Fuentes added. “It will be interesting to see how the U.S., Mexico, and Canada work together to put on what is sure to be an incredibly exciting event.”