Four Football Games that Made History For All the Wrong Reasons

By Nickolaos Angelis

It is commonly said that Football is more than just a game. That’s because team sports often offer an intense emotional experience. In support of that claim, an important motive behind the participation in an association is the need to identify with a certain group of people which reflects the experiencing background of the particular budding participant (cf. Michigan Model theory). 

The relevance of Football and the phenomenon of War can be manifested in their most apparent commonality: hostile feelings. According to one of the greatest military strategists of all time, Carl von Clausewitz, hostile feelings can be traced in large-scale combat and even when there is no animosity, the fighting itself will stir up hostile feelings. In times when propaganda as a tool of manipulation of the mass, used to play a significant role in favor of government and national interests, this similarity did not pass unnoticed. For instance, the French Physical Education Department was under the control of the Ministry of War until the late 1920s1. In addition, George Orwell described sport as a mimic warfare and he early realized the potential dangers that football could evoke through its utilization for political ends.2    

The Death Match

Nazis had foreseen the influence of sports over the population and, as a consequence, on politics, from the very early days of their rise to power. Hitler’s attempt to make the Berlin Olympics (1936) into a propaganda feast was a sign of what was about to follow next. In May 1938, a diplomatic protocol resulted in the British football team giving a Nazi salute. The role of the British Ambassador in Berlin in this incident, who was a supporter of appeasement, is still disputed.3  At this point, it is worth mentioning that most football competitions were abandoned during the War era, but in many cases Nazi forces allowed the organisation of football tournaments at a regional-level in occupied countries.

A case in point is what happened in Kyiv during the summer of 1942. It all started when some former players of Dynamo Kyiv and Lokomotiv Kyiv who worked in city’s Bread Factory No 1., decided to form a football team thanks to the German administration’s permission which allowed the formation of new Ukrainian sports clubs. Their team was named FC Start and its leader was Nikolai Trusevich, a famous ethnic Russian goalkeeper. FC Start played 7 matches against two other Ukranian teams (Rukh and Sport), three Hungarian and two German military teams. But the match, which became known in postwar historiography as the “Death Match”, took place on August 9, 1942, between FC Start and Flakelf. Flakelf was a German military team, which was mostly composed by artillery soldiers (FlaK was an anti aircraft and anti-tank artillery gun), and three days earlier, on the 6th of August, lost a match against the local Ukrainian team FC Start. Thus, the two “belligerent” teams rearranged a match, which was called “Revenge match” in posters printed by the German administration. Almost 2000 spectators attended the event in Zenit Stadium and witnessed FC Start beat Flakelf, scoring 5-3.

On 16 August 1942, FC Start met the other local team, Rukh. Four days later, on August 20th, 9 players of FC Start were arrested by Gestapo. Five of them were executed; two in Gestapo jail and the other three in the concentration camp near Babi Yar ravine. After World War II, the authorities of the Soviet Union exploited and distorted this football event in favor of constructing an heroic narrative about the braveness of Soviet people during World War II. Several stadiums were renamed after FC Start and two monuments were erected in Kyiv. According to the Soviet version, the players were arrested because they disgraced the superior spirit of Nazi Flakelf team after the German defeat. There was no account of the real reasons behind the execution of FC Start’s players. Instead, the Brezhnev regime oversimplified the events and built a glorious image about the dead footballers within a broader effort to boost morale of Soviet Ukrainians, a population that suffered from Stalinist atrocities in the 1930s. 

A lengthy post-war investigation found no evidence to support the Soviet version, while Honcharenko, a survivor of “Death Match” who had become a soviet media figure, denied the soviet version after the collapse of the Soviet regime4. This story inspired numerous films and received popularity again when a Russian movie was released on the eve of Euro 2012 which was co-hosted by Ukraine5. Ukrainian authorities blocked the release of the film because they considered it as a surreptitious attempt to awaken the hatred among the two nations in a period of ongoing political turmoil caused by gas disputes. Seventeen months later, the Euromaidan protests erupted and led to a longstanding Russo-Ukrainian conflict.

The Football War

A brief war, which is also known as the 100 Hour War, occurred between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969. Three tense matches for the 1970 FIFA World Cup qualifier were actually the triggering events and not the cause of the war. The deep roots of this short-lived conflict had to do with the Honduran land reform law of 1967 and the demographic imbalance between these neighboring countries. 

At first, it should be taken into consideration that Honduras is five times bigger in size than El Salvador. But, as paradoxical as it may seem, in 1969 the population of El Salvador (3.7 million) was 40% larger than that of Honduras (2.6 million). At the beginning of the 20th century, Salvadorans had begun migrating to Honduras in large numbers. By 1969, more than 300,000 Salvadorans were living in Honduras. These Salvadorans made up 20% of the population of Honduras. This significant minority was an obstacle for the plans of USA’s multinational corporation United Fruit Company (Chiquita bananas) and its wealthy landowner allies. Hence, a new Land Reform Law which was enforced by 1967 redistributed the lands of Salvadoran immigrants to native-born Hondurans. Thousands of Salvadorans were expelled from Honduras and were forced to leave their properties. This tension coincided with a two-leg qualifier match. 

On 8 June 1969, the first match took place in the Honduran capital where Honduras won 1-0. Fanaticism was out of control and a Salvadoran woman committed suicide at the moment when Honduras achieved to goal in the last minutes of the extra-time. On 15 June 1969, the rematch, which was won 3-0 by El Salvador, was followed by greater violence. A noteworthy event that describes the atmosphere of these days is that the night before the second game in San Salvador, when two men were killed by the Salvadoran police because they tried to invade into the hotel of the Honduran team. Because of that, the Honduran players were escorted out of the hotel and taken to safety at their own embassy6

On the 27th of June, the same day the play-off match took place in the neutral pitch of Mexico City, El Salvador dissolved all diplomatic ties with Honduras following the great repression that Salvadorans suffered from the Honduran government. El Salvador scored the winning goal in the final moments of this unforgettable match. El Salvador managed to represent Central America in the Mundial of Mexico next year but the hostility between the two nations escalated and led each government to break off their diplomatic relations.

A few days later, on 14 July 1969, El Salvador attacked Honduras and began a war that lasted 4 days. Finally, in view of the outcome, this military action cannot be described as successful because Honduras’s few remaining Salvadorans left the country. Their return to El Salvador resulted in the aggravation of the overpopulation and extreme poverty and in the further devastation of the economy, a social unrest and the enhancement of the military’s role in politics7. The negative consequences of the war were some of the factors that led to a long and bloody civil war a decade later.

The Match-Spark

An oft-quoted football match in respect of the correlation between football and war is beyond doubt the match that took place at Maksimir Stadium on May 13, 1990. This match is considered a flashpoint for the looming Yugoslav Wars because of its timing and the origin of two rival teams. 

First, the match was held during the infantile ethnic upheaval that led to the breakup of Yugoslavia. Barely a week earlier, on 7 May, the first free and multi-party elections were held in Croatia, nearly half a century after the last Parliamentary elections in 1938. In the aftermath of the elections, Franjo Tudjman was elected as President of the Croatian Presidency (later: President of the Republic of Croatia), a man who was meant to play a crucial role in the dramatic events that happened in the Western Balkans in the early 1990s. Secondly,each of these teams represented the most preponderant ethnic groups of Yugoslavia. The host-team was Dinamo Zagreb (Croats) and the guest-team was Red Star Belgrade (Serbs).

Several hours before the kick-off, the Delije (the fans of Belgrade’s team) were provoked by Bad Blue Boys (the fans of the Croatian team) and soon after that, the clash escalated and spread to the field. Nationalist slogans, stabs, stones and tear gas set the Stadium on fire, which resulted in the injury of over sixty people. An assumption that can be made after three decades since this event is that Milosevic sent on purpose the 3,000 Delije in the Croatian capital in order to show his strength against the advocates of the Croatian independence. Besides that, the headsman of Delije fans was the notorious Zelijko Raznatovic, known better as Arkan, a Serbian nationalist, gangster, paramilitary commander, Interpol’s wanted war criminal.

On the other hand, Zvonimir Boban, a talented and famous Croatian football player, launched a kick at a policeman and became a symbol against the Serbian oppression. After the incident Boban explained his intentions : Here I was, a public figure prepared to risk his life, career, and everything that fame could have brought, of one ideal, one cause; the Croatian cause8.

Two months later, a Serbian uprising broke out in Knin the Croatian city where the Croatian War of Independence began and ended.

The (Arab) Spring Match

The Arab Spring provides a lesson about how a small radical group may unwittingly favor the interests of a bigger one. Regarding Egypt, many social pathogenesis came to the fore shortly after the demonstrations that spread across Egypt in 2011. Given the circumstances, soccer seemed as the only vehicle for providing a sense of escapism to the masses of the miserable youth. During the political turbulence that shocked Egypt, movements that suffered from the authoritarian regime of Mubarak flooded the streets and called for political change. One of these movements was the Ultras movement, which was born at the same time that the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence experienced an impressive upturn in the late 2000’s. Mubarak, a veteran of politics, not only attempted to manipulate soccer enthusiasm but also used soccer spectacles to appeal to Egyptians and divert attention from his regime’s negative effects9. But youth was so negatively affected by the oppression that it was practically impossible to be distracted from the real social issues. 

The first Ultra groups were formed by fans of the historic Cairo-based Football Club Al-Ahly (Ultras Ahlawy), while other fans formed the White Knights (FC Zamalek in Giza). The collective action, the group mentality and the rebellious attitude were some intangible characteristics that played a decisive role in the actuation of Ultra groups throughout the violent clashes of the Egyptian revolution of 2011.The bloody events that occurred at Port Said Stadium, following an official match between Al Masry and Al Ahly, indicated the significance of Ultras in the Egyptian public sphere. On February 2012, one year after the Camel Battle in Tahrir Square (that almost led to civil unrest) and just a few days after the triumph of Muslim Brotherhood in the Egyptian parliamentary election, Al Masry, an inglorious football team hosted the legendary Al Ahly. The underdog Al Masry succeeded in beating Al Ahly out of the blue. Right after the referee blew for the final whistle, thousands of Masry fans invaded the pitch and attacked Ahly fans and players using stones, fireworks, machetes and knives. The refusal of the police to open the gates and the brutal clashes turned the riots into a massacre in which 74 people were killed. This tragic event raised suspicions over the parastatal role of the police and evoked memories from the Camel Battle where undercover policemen attacked anti-government protesters under the veneer of pro-Mubarak supporters10. In pursuit of power, Islamists didn’t miss the opportunity to accuse the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces for premeditation of these riots11. In response, the military-backed government banned open-doors matches for six years. 

To sum up, the persecution of Ultras in Egypt was inevitable because:

  • they undermined authoritarian policies of any kind  
  • they were able to mobilize the youth  
  • they  became the second  largest civic organisation behind the Muslim Brotherhood12 
  • they were changing into a politically conscious movement day by day.

Sources: 

1. Pierre Olivier Weiss. The creation of physical education in France: the challenges of a political and ideological struggle. Giornale Italiano di Educazione alla Salute, Sport e Didattica Inclusiva, 2020, Research and reflections on education, technologies and psychophysical wellbeing in difficulties – Ricerca e riflessioni su istruzione, tecnologie e benessere psicofisico in situazioni di disagio, 4 (3), http://ojs.gsdjournal.it/index.php/gsdj/article/view/183. ffhal-02911798f

2. https://www.orwellfoundation.com/the-orwell-foundation/orwell/essays-and-other-works/the-sportingspirit/

3. https://www.historytoday.com/archive/football-and-fascism

4. https://www.sport-express.ru/newspaper/2007-02-16/16_1/

5. https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-soccer-euro-ukraine-deathmatch-idUKBRE85J11S20120620

6. https://sites.duke.edu/wcwp/research-projects/the-soccer-war/

7. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-48673853

8. https://thesefootballtimes.co/2015/09/28/zvonimir-boban-and-the-kick-that-started-a-war/

9. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2012-07-24/egypt-s-olympic-soccer-team-emerges-fromviolence-to-play-brazil

10. http://edition.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/africa/02/02/egypt.pro.mubarak/

11. https://www.eurosport.com/football/international-football/2010/74-killed-in-egyptriot_sto3135446/story.shtml

12. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/middle-east-protests_b_1882719

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