By Mark Palmer
January 29, 2001, SOCCER has been nominated for the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize. No, seriously. A Swedish Christian Democrat politician called Lars Gustafsson has written to the committee saying that
soccer has performed an "important role in the global arena when it comes to creating understanding between people."
Oh, dear. Now, the Pope may have been a great goalie in his day and it's certainly true that hostilities were suspended briefly in Bosnia so that a soccer
match could take place, but, even so, this is a classic example of hope triumphing over experience.
Gustafsson's timing was brilliant. Details of his
letter were released last week, less than 24 hours after police fought running battles with fans in
Milan before resorting to tear gas as Roma supporters
ripped out seats, hurled flares and pelted their rivals with sharpened coins. Let's put out of mind entirely what Aldous Huxley said about soccer being "war by other means" and forget for a minute the ritual booing of another country's national anthem that precedes many big games, especially if England is involved.
Surely what the Swede meant, when it comes to the Nobel Peace Prize, was to put forth the most absurd
proposal imaginable before the Norwegian committee, and then sit back and enjoy the publicity. Why else did a group of Serbian war veterans attempt to nominate
Slobodan Milosevic for last years's accolade, citing
his "political sagacity and courage." What other explanation can there be for the efforts made by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 1990 which drafted a letter
saying it "richly deserves international recognition
for its bold and visionary leadership in the cause of human freedom, which is a prerequisite to world peace."
But, then, we are talking about an award which was won
in 1974 by Sean MacBride, who founded Amnesty International, but was also involved with the IRA. In 1994, PLO chairman Yasser Arafat was awarded the prize (shared with Israel's Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres) prompting one member of the Nobel committee to resign
because he regarded Arafat to be a terrorist.
Gustafsson points out that soccer has survived two
World Wars and dozens of ethnic and regional onflicts — presumably in the same way that rape, theft and murder have survived very nicely, thank you, since time began. Sometimes, he writes in his nomination letter, hostile nations have played soccer when all other contact has broken down.
Indeed. And sometimes the outcome has been bloody.
When Iraq beat China shortly after the Gulf War, nine
of their own people were killed and 120 injured by celebratory gunfire in Baghdad. There would have been even more carnage if the opposition had been either Iran or the United States.
The Swedish politician chose to remember the occasion
when Iran played the United States in the 1998 World Cup in France. He might have forgotten the plight of Andres Escobar, the Colombian defender who scored an own goal against the United States in the 1994
tournament — and was gunned down when he got back
home. Come to think of it, there wasn't a lot of brotherly love on display in the back streets of Marseilles three years ago when the England
ambassadors for peace were in town. Then, there were the two Leeds supporters who lost their lives last year at the hands of a vicious gang, masquerading as
followers of the Turkish side, Galatasaray.
It will take a sensational piece of skill for soccer
to emerge on top of the committee's list. In fact, I can think of only one way that it could possibly win, but it might just scupper Gustafsson's future political
ambitions: Match fixing.
And what brings to mind such a wretched thought? It
must be the "promotion of harmony" displayed by that international peace-keeper and well-known soccer player, Bruce Grobbelaar, who has just had his libel
victory overturned by the Court of Appeal following
allegations that he threw matches and received money from a Far East betting syndicate.
If soccer does capture the Nobel Prize, the trophy
will have to be paraded at grounds throughout the world. First stop might be the Olympic Stadium in the Eternal City, where Lazio supporters can't help booing and hissing every time a black man kicks the
ball. During a local derby a few months ago, members of the right-wing Irriducibili Ultras, produced a 50-meter banner that read: "Auschwitz is your town, the
ovens are your houses."
Then, Mr. Gustafsson could take it to Derby County's
ground where supporters have just been threatened with expulsion if they continue to chant "You fat bastard!" at the opposition's center forward — a curious
salutation but presumably one that fits the bill when
it comes to furthering mutual understanding in the global arena.
Mark Palmer can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org