What Political Science Can Teach Us About the World Cup and World Peace

The US Women’s National Soccer Team’s run in this year’s World Cup is one for the history books.

But do sporting events like this contribute to world peace?

It turns out that political science has something to say about whether or not international sporting events increase or decrease the likelihood of interstate conflict.

Last year, I interviewed the author of a peer reviewed study that found a rather significant correlation between success in the mens World Cup and an outbreak in conflict. The political scientist Andrew Bertoli created a data set of every world cup from 1958 to 2010 and found that countries that qualified for the World Cup were significantly more likely to start an international conflict than countries that did not quality.

Andrew Bertoli is a professor at IE University in Spain. When we recorded this interview, right before the 2018 Winter Olympics, he was a post-doc fellow at Dartmouth.

The study we discuss was titled “Nationalism and Conflict: Lessons from International Sports” and appeared in the December 2017 issue of the journal International Studies Quarterly. 


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What’s up first?

There is a popular idea that international sports bring the world together. The Olympics and the World Cup were established to promote world peace. However, there are counter arguments that they incite nationalism and generate animosity. This argument was first made by George Orwell and many others since. There are many instances in history in which nationalism in sporting events lead to military or political conflicts between countries. Some people champion international sports as a force for peace, while critics say they intensify rivalry. These two groups talk past each other and haven’t found much of a compromise. My research tests statistically whether or not international sports make countries more or less peaceful.

Can you explain your experiment?

Ideally, we would take a large number of countries and randomly assign some to participate in international sporting events and then track the aggression levels of treatment and control groups before and after the sporting events. You can’t run an experiment like that, because it would take a large amount of resources and for ethical reasons. So, I looked at the World Cup. I look at cases where countries barely make or miss the qualification. If you go through the history of the World Cup, there are 142 countries that barely made it in. As a result of their participation in the World Cup, those 142 countries have had a 26% spike in aggression levels.

There are some countries where soccer is not a rallying point like it is for others.

Right. These results are driven by countries where soccer is the most popular sport. For countries like Japan, Australia, and the US, there are no noticeable effects.

Can you discuss examples of conflicts?

The case of Senegal in 2002. When they qualified, there were celebrations around the country. When the World Cup started, the government promoted this nationalism further. Senegal did better than anyone expected, defeating France, their former colonizer. Then immediately after the World Cup, Senegal initiated a military dispute with Gambia. This was the only military dispute Senegal engaged in from 1993 until 2010. They accused Gambia of supporting a group of Senegalese separatists and ultimately fortified the border with Gambia.

Can you discuss the Egypt/Algeria dispute?

There are a lot of cases that started over other sporting events, which was the case with this dispute. There was a bus carrying Algerian players in Egypt that was attacked by Egyptian fans. Both governments blamed each other and there was a lot of destruction of Algerian Egyptian property. There were also attempts to get Egyptians out of Algeria because of the violence, and the Algerian government would not even let Egyptian planes land to get their people out. This created a lot of animosity.

The case from Central America is illuminating as well.

It led to the Football War in which about 2000 people died. The two sides had disagreements on the land rights of Salvadorians living in Honduras. What sparked the war was a series of soccer riots that pushed things over the edge. Nobody disputes that these riots were the trigger, but they were not the deeper underlying cause, because that was more political. However, they put fuel on the fire.

We are speaking before the Winter Olympics. To what extent can we expect an outbreak of conflict?

If you look at any specific sporting event, the chance it leads to a major conflict is pretty low.

However, they are marching under one flag and they have created a joint women’s hockey team. That could dampen nationalism in North and South Korea.

Under different circumstances, this type of thing could be really positive. Joint teams can create a regional identity and decrease chances of future conflict. But in this case, Kim Jong Un is just using the Olympics for political purposes.

The Winter Olympics happened in Sochi, and a few months later Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea.

Yes, the invasion happened weeks after the Olympics. That probably would have happened regardless, but the Olympics prevented the Russians from going in when they wanted to.

When you have a big country like China, there is a diplomatic influence at the UN for China to break out of its shell and act more conciliatory towards the rest of the world.

Yes, you do see countries behaving differently around the sporting events. We are seeing that with North Korea now and we have seen it with China and Russia. A more famous example, Hitler and the Nazi regime made a number of conciliatory steps towards the international community in the leadup to the 1936 Olympics because they wanted that event to go over well. We should not fall for the temptation of seeing the short term warming effects as an indication that the sporting events will lead to long term improvements in the behaviour of these countries.

What are some additional political ramifications that the upcoming World Cup will be held in Russia?

In 2016 there were a lot of fights between English and Russian in France at the Euro Cup. Some British politicians accused Putin of dressing up soldiers like soccer fans to beat up the English fans. The English hooligan groups are really angry about what happened in France and decided they will band together for the 2018 World Cup. The Russian government is threatening to arrest anyone who attempts to fight, however.

Of the countries that barely qualified this time around, are there any you are concerned about for brewing conflicts?

Russia has shown a tendency to start fights over international sporting events and ram up nationalism to increase the legitimacy of their government. They will be the real story.

Shownotes by Lydia DeFelice