Does football pause wars?

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The 'Beckham' documentary featured a thought-provoking quote: "This is the world’s greatest game, they stop wars for this game.” (Tim Leiweke) Prompting an exploration into the immense popularity and profound impact of football worldwide, and poses the question, does football indeed pause wars?

The October release of the David Beckham documentary ‘Beckham’ has coincided with the backdrop of pressing global issues, such relentless state violence and oppression against civilians, dominating headlines.

UNICEF Ambassador, David Beckham recently released a statement amidst the humanitarian crisis in Gaza - “As a father and long-time UNICEF ambassador, my heart goes out to the innocent children and families who find themselves on the front line of this terrifying conflict. These families need our help now and in the future. This is an escalating humanitarian crisis. Please support organisations on the ground that can provide assistance to those who need it most.” (David Beckham)

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Amidst this juxtaposition, one thought-provoking quote from the documentary stood out: "This is the world’s greatest game, they stop wars for this game, there are countries that don’t talk to each other that come together every four years and compete in this game.” (Tim Leiweke, Former CEO of AEG, Owners of LA Galaxy)

An exploration into the immense popularity and profound impact of football worldwide. Photo credit: Nat Callaghan, UnsplashAn exploration into the immense popularity and profound impact of football worldwide. Photo credit: Nat Callaghan, Unsplash
An exploration into the immense popularity and profound impact of football worldwide. Photo credit: Nat Callaghan, Unsplash

This intriguing statement prompted an exploration of the profound popularity and impact of football, ‘the beautiful game’, as the world's universal language with the power to transcend boundaries and pause wars. As there is clearly something about the sport and the charisma of footballers that resonates globally in a way unmatched by any other category of athlete or artist.

The Beautiful Game

Football is often referred to as "The Beautiful Game".

In 1977, Pelé made 'O Jogo Bonito,' Portuguese for 'The Beautiful Game,' famous by using it as the title of his autobiography, and ever since, the term has become globally synonymous with football. (Medium) “Pele personified it. He played the game with heart, honour, and joy…He was a key part in making football the global phenomenon it is now.” (Bleacher Report)

‘Beckham’ Documentary

Football's universal appeal, exemplified by David Beckham, is highlighted in his new Netflix documentary ‘Beckham.’ The series traces his journey from prodigy to global superstar, showcasing his cultural bridge-building. (The Guardian)

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Beyond the pitch, “David Beckham is so much more than the sum of his parts. For his ongoing projects in fashion, football and philanthropy…the player who changed the game for everyone.” (British GQ)

"‘Beckham’ scores for Netflix, becoming the highest-rated TV premiere in the UK since ‘Harry & Meghan’...The Fisher Stevens-directed series launched on October 4 and amassed 3.8M viewers in the week ending October 8.” In the U.S. “it held onto the No. 1 spot for the second consecutive week with 11.6M views from October 9 to October 15, according to Netflix’s own data.” (Deadline)

The new ‘Beckham’ documentary is record breaking for a reason. As a culture, we are enamoured with footballers. There is something different and extraordinary about footballers as icons that surpass any other category of athlete or artist to worldwide icon status.

An Unrelenting Work Ethic

David Beckham's remarkable journey and resilience during his career is exceptionally inspiring. An unrelenting work ethic seems to be the defining trait that inspires and propels athletes to attain the status of global icons, as exemplified by Beckham during his early years as a child prodigy.

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The period of brutal abuse and public bullying from the British media and public alike between 1998 and 2001 has been especially striking and would not be tolerated in this era, as mental health is now a priority. Despite a rift with manager Fabio Capello, who initially benched David for taking a meeting with AEG & LA Galaxy, David’s determination to train and play with Real Madrid proved crucial as Capello recognised his importance in winning the Spanish league, La Liga.

Similarly, iconic players such as Pelé and Maradona, and more recently, Luis Figo, Roberto Carlos, Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo Nazario, Ronaldinho, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, are worldwide phenomena who have inspired generations through their exceptional work ethic, talent, relatability, and philanthropic work. Which goes for all high performers in all sports and entertainment. The world responds to their drive and talent, to revere them on a higher level.

“If you really want to be great at something, you have to truly care about it. If you want to be great in a particular area, you have to obsess over it. A lot of people say they want to be great, but they’re not willing to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve greatness.” – Kobe Bryant, five-time NBA World Champion and 18-time NBA All-Star with the Los Angeles Lakers (Medium)

The World Cup

While the documentary is a testament to the global popularity of the beautiful game, the FIFA World Cup further exemplifies its universal appeal.

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The FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ in Qatar set unprecedented records, highlighting football's immense influence. It garnered nearly 5 billion global engagements and nearly 6 billion social media interactions, reaching a massive 262 billion people. The final match alone attracted almost 1.5 billion viewers, and the opening game drew over 550 million. The tournament featured remarkable moments, with 3.4 million spectators witnessing a record-breaking 172 goals, making it the highest-scoring World Cup. (FIFA)

The FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ showcased football's global appeal and power to unite cultures in universal joy, regardless of age, race, gender, culture, or nationality. Despite controversies, Qatar's hosting filled its people with pride. Moroccan players expressed their Islamic faith meaningfully, celebrating with their mothers and emphasising faith's role in promoting unity and cultural diversity. (The Guardian)

It's the most globally played and watched sport, making the World Cup a highly anticipated event, second in popularity only to the Olympics. ‘The World Cup can and has proven to be a catalyst for change and it has the effect of bringing people from different cultures and nationalities together.” (Medium)

Football is a universal language due to its simple and accessible rules. (Fulham FC) Its global appeal transcends barriers and unites us all, from small village pitches to grand stadiums. “The universal language of travel is not English – it is football. From the beaches of Zanzibar to a car park in Cuba…the unifying force of football.” (The Telegraph)

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When football has united nations, paused conflicts, and scored diplomacy

"This is the world’s greatest game, they stop wars for this game, there are countries that don’t talk to each other that come together every four years and compete in this game.” (Tim Leiweke, Former CEO of AEG, Owners of LA Galaxy)

The question arises, is this statement true?

Our exploration of a century's worth of cases demonstrates football as the world's universal language with the power to transcend boundaries and pause wars.

1914 - World War 1

The Christmas Truce of 1914 during World War I, where soldiers engaged in football matches in no man's land, is a poignant illustration of the sport's power to foster humanity amid conflict.

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“German troops began climbing over the parapets and walking toward the British side simply to shake hands and exchange greetings…likely the largest spontaneous Christmas truce in modern history, one in which the warring armies shared cigars, good cheer, chocolate and, in more than one place, a game of soccer…“No referee; we didn’t need a referee for that kind of game…There was no score, no tally at all — it was simply a melee.” — Ernie Williams, who was a 19-year-old private with the 6th Cheshires in December 1914.” (Los Angeles Times)

“When the carol “Silent Night’ was played in German and then in English ahead of the game and the new generation quietly pays its respects, you tangibly sense what it was like at the war 100 years ago. And why is there a need to hold on to this symbolic moment of peace…Both sides realised they needed time to repair those trenches and it was in everyone’s interests to have a ceasefire…during a lull in fighting, and before the serious fighting, as young people do all over the world in close proximity to each other and when a ball is available, sport took place.” (Al Jazeera)

1969 - Honduras vs. El Salvador

Similarly, the "Soccer War" in 1969 between Honduras and El Salvador, sparked during World Cup qualifying matches, demonstrates how football can both ignite and resolve tensions. “Half a century ago, Honduras and El Salvador battled over mass migration while their national teams fought to qualify for the 1970 World Cup. The confusion regarding how much–if at all–one actually had to do with the other has stood the test of time.” (Sports Illustrated)

1998 - World Cup

The World Cup has also played a role in easing political tensions.

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During the 1998 World Cup, the United States and Iran, at odds politically, were drawn into the same group. Despite the challenges, the players demonstrated remarkable sportsmanship and camaraderie, emphasising the power of football to transcend diplomatic obstacles. (Medium)

2006 - Côte d’Ivoire

Ivory Coast's 2006 World Cup qualification helped end the civil war that started in 2002 between the Muslim north and Christian south in the country, illustrating football's unifying power.

Through a televised plea, Chelsea FC's Didier Drogba, demonstrated football's unique power in promoting peace by urging warring factions to agree to a ceasefire. “The football team was made up of people from a mix of religions and ethnicities who wanted to use their success to help the country end its bloody conflict. Within a week the factions put down their guns and agreed to a ceasefire.” (Medium)

“Men and women of Ivory Coast…From the north, south, centre, and west, we proved today that all Ivorians can coexist and play together with a shared aim - to qualify for the World Cup…We promised you that the celebrations would unite the people - today we beg you on our knees." On cue, the players sank to their knees…”The one country in Africa with so many riches must not descend into war. Please lay down your weapons and hold elections…We want to have fun, so stop firing your guns." - Didier Drogba’s Speech (BBC News)

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“The national team means a lot to this country. I think that today – and I choose my words carefully here – it is Cote d’Ivoire’s only unifying force.” Drogba said in an interview with” (Al Jazeera)

Despite disappointment and political tension in the country, the aftermath of the 2005 World Cup qualifier between Cote D’Ivoire and Cameroon showcased how football united people from diverse backgrounds, transcending differences such as religion, ethnicity, and gender. For instance, a Muslim family attending the match connected with a Christian from the south during the ride home. Their lively discussion about the game provided solace, allowing them to momentarily forget the prevailing political turmoil and ultimately forging a lasting friendship. (VICE)

The diverse national football team symbolised unity and hope during the conflict. While football may not single-handedly halt wars, its capacity to foster unity indirectly contributes to peace-building and diplomacy.

2019 - Liverpool

Furthermore, Liverpool's prolific Muslim player, Mohamed Salah, has harnessed his visibility to address the growing issue of Islamophobia in Britain, demonstrating the role football can play in dismantling cultural barriers and fighting prejudice.

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After joining Liverpool in 2018, “Salah has been in incredible form, breaking the record for the most goals scored in the Premier League in its current format. Being Muslim has also made him a figure of significance, socially and culturally. At the moment, Britain is fighting rising Islamophobia and in his own way Salah is helping to combat that. He is a hero to Liverpool and well-respected by fellow players and fans — but he’s also not afraid to hide his faith, as he often celebrates by kneeling in prayer on the pitch. Liverpool fans have many songs for their new star player and one of them has the lyrics: “If he scores another few, then I’ll be Muslim too”. (Medium)

A 2019 “study produced by Stanford University in the USA has found that since Salah signed for Liverpool there has been an 18.9 per cent drop in the number of hate crimes in the Merseyside area, and the number of anti-Muslim tweets posted by the club's supporters has "halved".” (Sky Sports)

These cases demonstrate football's capacity to unite people across borders, cultures, and politics makes it a potent tool for fostering unity, diplomacy, and peace in a divided world.

FIFA's Partnership with the United Nations

FIFA and the United Nations have formed a strong partnership, using football to promote global causes.

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This collaboration encompasses various initiatives, such as the "Football Unites the World" campaign for social change, aid for displaced individuals through the UN Refugee Agency, and support for inclusion and human rights in football in partnership with UN Human Rights. It also involves advocacy for indigenous peoples' rights and raising awareness about mental health and gender equality in collaboration with the World Health Organization and UN Women.

These multifaceted efforts highlight FIFA's commitment to global peace, unity, and human rights, demonstrating the sport's exceptional capacity to bridge divides and drive positive change. (FIFA)

Overall, by looking into a century's worth of cases, ‘the beautiful game’ of football has wielded extraordinary power as the world's universal language, which unites people, fosters peace in times of conflict and has indeed paused wars. FIFA's collaboration with UN agencies underscores its dedication to using football as a universal language to address global challenges and promote human rights.

The charisma of footballers as iconic figures transcends borders and resonates with cultures worldwide like no other category of athlete or artist. In the face of adversity, football's remarkable ability to unite and inspire remains a testament to the enduring power of sport in our interconnected world.

Disclaimer: The story has been researched by TX Odds, a leading provider of sports betting data for over 20 years.