Sports, History, and Geopolitics

If I tweet something and nobody sees it, did I really tweet it? This is a question I often ask myself, but I did get somewhat of a reaction on Tuesday when I observed that after the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team beat England in World Cup quarter-finals that, “Apparently the only bipartisan tradition left in this country is dunking on Piers Morgan on Twitter after a soccer game.”

The reference being to Piers Morgan’s own tweets about Megan Rapinoe and his obvious dislike of Alex Morgan’s goal celebration where she pretended to drink tea.

Alex Morgan’s mimicking of tea drinking touched a sore spot with some others across the pond as well and her “good old fashioned American swagger” got a different reception in the former colonies acouple of days before Independence Day and on the day Congress voted for independence. The colonies marked their win over the mother country by declaring that examples of real “distasteful” conduct would include “no taxation without representation,” the Stamp Act, or impressing another country’s sailors into your own navy. The USWNT’s Twitter account even got in on the historical fun.

Image for post
Image for post

The U.S. victory over the mother country was not even the first time in this World Cup such banter had occurred. Earlier in the group stage, England was on the other side of such geopolitical musings when they beat Argentina on Liberation Day, the day that commemorates British victory in the Falklands War and the liberation of the islands from Argentine occupation.

In previous editions of the men’s tournament, English fans have taunted the Germans by singing “Ten German Bombers in the Air,” a variation of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” set to the tune of “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain.” Speaking of the Germans, after their poor performance in 2018 there were snickers that the Germans hadn’t performed that poorly in Russia since 1941.

Of course, outside of soccer, there is the U.S-Russia hockey rivalry, noted for the 1980 Miracle on Ice. In 2014, with it widely believed that Russia would intervene militarily in Ukraine after the completion of the games in Sochi, the U.S. beat Russia on Russian ice in a shootout. On the hardwood, the 1972 gold medal basketball game remains one of the most controversial games in the history of sports to the point where the U.S. team to this day refuses to accept their silver medals.

Also in 1972, the Soviet Union played an eight game hockey series with Canada where Canadians won the series four games to three with one tie.

So, what is it about international sports that leads to this sort of historical and geopolitical bantering?

In short, even in this allegedly post-nationalism, people still have ties to their countries, their cultures, and their political systems. Every time the Olympics or World Cup rolls around, the same people who sing the praises of the European Union all of a sudden rediscover pride in their home country. Everybody knows the Olympics and World Cup just wouldn’t be the same if you had an EU team.

Wars shape the history of nations and sporting events allow for the citizenry to connect with that history in a (usually) non-violent way. Some of these rivalries are now only rivalries on the field, some are also rivalries with competing arms races. For the more innocent rivalries (the U.S.-Canada or U.S.-England), it’s bragging rights. Presidents and prime ministers will bet on their respective teams in the way that two friends would.

For the more intense rivalries (U.S.-Russia, England-Argentina) it is a chance to contrast their country against a foe. It highlights what makes their country great. What could be better than beating a bunch of commies at Lake Placid in 1980? Or on the other hand, what could be worse than losing the gold medal game in 1972, because the freedom-hating commies on the appeals panel decided to hand the game to the Soviets?

Remember the story of the Chinese gymnasts from the 2008 games? How they were underage? How the Communist Party plucked those individuals from their youth and declared that their purpose in life was to bring glory to the nation? Or how the entire Russian team was banned during the 2018 games and how the non-DQ-ed athletes would have complete under the Olympic flag due to a state sponsored doping scandal? In America, we sometimes talk about separating church from state, but other countries not separating sport from state says something about their political system compared to ours.

So keep on sipping that imaginary tea two days before the Fourth of July. For it reminds of us of many things, not just that our soccer team is better than yours, but in reminding us of the war, that George Washington is better than George III.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store