Yamoussoukro, Côte d’Ivoire. August 2007.
The city streets are calm for the first time in years. Tanks don’t roll by; citizens feel safe. The Ivorian Civil War has entered a cease-fire after five years of war. A torn country is brought together again.
The Ivorians looked to a group of people as national heroes, people who bonded the country during their darkest times. They weren’t politicians, though one had been named in Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people of the year. They were footballers; Didier Drogba used his platform after taking Ivory Coast to their first World Cup to call for an end to their Civil War, and people listened. Opposing sides of the war watched matches together in restaurants, bars, and homes. A country united through the beautiful game, and this isn’t the only case.
In the United States, there is a lot of pain, a lot of division, and a lot of anger. A menacing article in the New Yorker points to the possibility of the U.S. going down a path towards a civil war, and while I don’t think what will transpire will be that extreme, the principle is the same. We need unity in a world that is falling into further extremism and division. We can’t let this spiral out of control. I don’t want to discuss specific beliefs; I want to talk about the beauty of sports, and how countries become united through them. Any athlete who has played will tell you about the bond that teammates have, and any fan will tell you how sports can mean the whole world.
A couple of years ago, someone tried to argue to me that sports were useless in the world. This individual didn’t see the camaraderie that sports brings, whether it’s New York Yankees fans singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” or Liverpool fans singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Looking at sports from the outside, it’s hard to see how close complete strangers can come. Standing at Bobby-Dodd for an Atlanta United match, or sailing in the boats during Besiktas’ title celebration forge a bond. The person next to you could be a complete stranger, but during that time they’re family, even if they have different beliefs than you do.
Political turmoil can bring about the best and worst in people. Sports can unite a nation. The golden age of Hungary in the 1950’s came about during a time of communism in the country. Hungarian legend Ferenc Puskas often spoke out against the regime. After one European tour, all of the Hungarian players refused to return to the country. Puskas departed for Real Madrid.
The captains of Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad, the two leading Basque teams, both carried the Basque flag together in the first match after Franco’s fascist regime took hold over Spain. Both World Wars in the United States had their influence on the sport of baseball, bringing people together to distract from the tragedies around the world and in turn making baseball “America’s pastime.” There are similar stories from all around the world. Sports bring people together. They provide a sense of togetherness in a place where that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. In America, baseball was easy to play. It was a way for kids to go out and distract themselves from the stressful life of growing up in war. In other countries, soccer was the sport to play in the streets.
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During World War I, British and German soldiers played football together. During the Christmas Truce, soldiers from both sides came together to play in peace. One soldier called the games, “truly the most extraordinary thing.”
Sports are a universal language. Players from any country could go to camps abroad and make friends without saying a single word. When I played soccer in Brazil, I could not communicate much of anything to the Brazilian people I played with, but we could still interact and make each other smile. We are all humans. We have the same passions, we can love the same athletes and their art on whatever field they play on.
Athletes like Lebron James shouldn’t be criticized for speaking against the horrors in Charlottesville, just like the Hungarians used their platforms to protest the horrors going on in their country during the 1950’s.
Athletes have a unique platform to speak to people from all backgrounds, like Didier Drogba’s plea to his fellow Ivorians. Calling for unity should be encouraged from our athletes and shouldn’t be hidden. In the city of Barcelona, Johan Cruyff is held in the same regard as Antoni Gaudi. Both men are held as artists that built the foundation of the city: Gaudi as an architect, and Cruyff as a builder for FC Barcelona and the jogo bonito.
Lyon and Marseille, both removed from the capital of France, used football to showcase their strength. Marseillais have always been outsiders in France, and their football team’s success brought a sense of pride to the whole city. Political capitals of major European countries almost never are hubs for football. The working classes have used the sports around them as a way out and to unite the people in the area.
In a world with growing division, looking at what holds us together can be a catalyst for change. Sports provide unity in a way that almost nothing else can. Whether it is support for your local team in the city you’re from, your national team, or any other sports team, sports show that unity is possible. Football is its main catalyst. “Jogo Bonito” has a much deeper meaning. It goes further than just the artistry on the field to the hearts of every single supporter. British author Habeeb Akande points out, “There is enough dough in the world to make bread for us all to eat together.” So let’s make room at the table.