The Diplomacy of Sports


It is not often that we place sporting events and peace together in the same category. However, just a few months ago, I found myself stuck in a green-street-hooligan style riot in the heart of Newcastle Upon Tyne, England when Newcastle FC lost to their rival Sunderland (see the Daily Mail article on the middle-aged man who punched a police horse for reference.) In the bottle-throwing mayhem that left me dazed, I began wondering if in the end this was all that was to sports.


I’ve come to the conclusion that it isn’t. As much as sports embody moments of violent competition, there have been countless stories across the world that defies these outbursts. The equalizing effect of sports is evident when two teams hash it out on a field together. On one hand they are harsh rivals, but on the other, each team is assumed a certain amount of respect upon the beginning of the game.


I find these rare moments in sporting events a glimpse into the greater meaning of running around a field or court for a predetermined amount of time. In those minutes, the fans and players transcend the happenings of the “outside” world and become universally a part of the game.


Even more, sports have become a tool to foster better relations amongst regions that have been previously at odds with one another. On Aug. 20, Pakistan and Afghanistan met on a soccer field in Kabul, Afghanistan to play a match that would be their first together since 1976. While the two countries’ bloody relation have become increasingly precarious, the fans inside the stadium looked cheerful and excited. While the two countries battled on the field for 90 minutes, three decades of pent up sports playing was unleashed in a peaceful manner.


Ultimately, Afghanistan earned the win against Pakistan 3-0 but it was the unity of the two countries on the field and in the stands that was the more impressive feat. The hope for the match was to act as a catalyst for reconciliation to aid in easing tensions as Afghan President Hamid Karzai launches peace talks with the Taliban in Pakistan in the upcoming weeks.


Pakistan and Afghanistan are only two examples of nations in which sports are used as a form of diplomacy. On many levels, sports play a fundamental role in being the grassroots form of change in fostering peaceful relations.


The organization The Open Fun Football Schools is a space where young individuals and coaches can interact in post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina. The program has been implemented as a tool for reconciliation to encourage cooperation amongst former-Yugoslav nation-states. Since soccer is such a universally recognized sport amongst youth in the Balkans, using it as a tool for international diplomacy has become a large area of interest.

The national teams in the Balkans are also returning to the soccer field. This past March, Croatia and Serbia played one another for the first time since the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1995 and the war that ensued following the independence. Valiant strides were made on match-day in Zagreb, Croatia for a peaceful day. And while tensions held high with violent chanting, both teams rose above to become an example for the rest.


Igor Stimac, the manager of the Croatian national football team, said of the game, “It sends a very clear message. Let’s forget the past, we have a great future. We cannot build a future on the past. We are neighbors. There is plenty to live for in front of us.”


From the Middle East to Eastern Europe, sports are playing an increasingly important role in fostering international relations. This finds specific importance amongst countries with previous disputes that are able to untangle a myriad of violent past experiences with an encounter on a field.


While it is only one factor in the reconciliation process, it defies the traditional role that sporting events has for many viewers. Ultimately, games are not just delegated spaces for trash talking amongst rivals, but also an arena for the beginning steps to the processes of healing and reconciliation.