Seize the Moment in Brazil this Summer
In 2007 I was invited to be part of a “peace through soccer” mission in Syria. It was a spectacular visit on many levels, and it involved a television and media component as well. The government was hospitable and kind, welcoming and warm. They gave us access to just about every non-sensitive area we desired to tour. We even ended up meeting face-to-face with the Minister of Information and the Minister of Sports. However, there was an aura of tension that seemed to linger beneath the surface. This feeling of uneasiness was accentuated by the fact that we were caught smack in the middle of a flash-mob one evening; it was supposedly a demonstration to show support for President Bashar Al Assad. It was as eerie as it was strange, and it seemed to ring of something otherworldly. Nonetheless, soccer proved to be a unifying force at that time and could have even represented much more.
We arrived in Damascus shortly after “then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) met with [President Al] Assad in 2007 over the objections of President Bush” (The Washington Post, Online, 4/04/11). The mood was upbeat in the country and the streets were bustling. General optimism seemed to emanate from homes, offices and the Souk (the ancient marketplace in Damascus). The hospitality was exceptional, and the food was absolutely amazing – fresh, tasty, genuine and home grown. Our government guide was sophisticated and polite, and he told us that we could go anywhere except to military installations. Of course, we were not interested in military installations being that our mission was one of peace through sports. In any event, we appreciated the gesture.
The government employees and sports representatives we met were well educated and eloquent as well. They appeared to be “Western” in many ways, and their demeanor was most inviting and cultured. At the same time, they were respectful and faithful – some Christian and many Muslim. Their knowledge of history was unparalleled, particularly in light of the fact that Damascus is one of the oldest, continuously inhabited cities in the world. What struck me the most, perhaps, was that many of the people we met in Damascus were very refined, scholarly and intellectual – maybe even pensive and contemplative in ways. They also had a strong sense of pride, dignity and culture. Notwithstanding all of these wonderful attributes, though, there was a distinct sense of disquiet, agitation and apprehension on the macro level. While this was far beneath the surface (except for the flash mob scene we experienced), it was still present and palpable.
Against this backdrop, we – along with our Syrian soccer friends – spoke about the desire to stage a “Global Youth Soccer Tournament to Promote Peace.” The site was to be the city of Aleppo. It seemed like a great idea, but we were not able to garner enough support at the time. In retrospect, it may have been a good overture toward peace. Of course, we had very little idea that the looming and impending scenario in Syria could be so dramatic and/or that it could escalate into a full-blown civil war. Maybe it was unfortunate that we did not push harder for this peace-oriented soccer tournament to take place.
Just a short while after our trip, the situation started to spin out of control. Sides began battling and lines were drawn. Brutal force was used to make people conform to the policies of the regime. After that, brother fought brother and children were slaughtered. Chemical weapons were used to silence people. But, still, there was no silence. The cries continue to ring forth and those cries create a deafening sound in the ears of the international community. The oppression has not ended and there is no good option in sight in terms of an outcome. Whatever happens will represent a significant compromise and loss on many levels, not the least of which is the heavy loss of life – approximately 160,000 or so according to most accounts.
So how does the sport of soccer come into play? To begin with, soccer can prove to be a coalescing and uniting force. It is a true “passion” for much of the world’s population. It transcends cultural boundaries, race, color and creed. At the same time, soccer is not a comprehensive or redemptive solution by any stretch of the imagination, nor is it an end in and of itself. However, it can be used as an important tool. When I was growing up in an ethnic neighborhood in Metro Detroit in the late 60s and early 70s, soccer became the impetus to allow me to bridge gaps with so many friends of different backgrounds. It was common for me to be on a team with an Iranian Shiite, an Albanian Sunni, a Southern Baptist, an Indian Hindu and an Italian-American Catholic (me). This is not an exaggeration. That was the basic make-up and constitution of one of our all-star teams in Michigan at the time – the team that went on to win the Domino’s Cup in Lansing. We respected one another for our views, yet we still remained steadfast in our beliefs. By the same token, we did not impose ourselves on one another, for soccer permitted us to battle alongside our teammates for a common cause – side by side and without exception.
But what does soccer mean within the context of conflict areas such as Syria? As mentioned above, soccer can become a very important diplomatic tool (if used properly). It can help to create a meaningful dialogue prior to a conflict arising. It represents a platform and somewhat of a safe haven for the exchange of ideas among players, managers and coaches. It allows people who are interested in peace to get a real feel for the pulse on the ground. So, at least conceivably, it can be utilized to avoid conflict. At the same time, promoting training sessions with soccer players from different backgrounds and beliefs can create real bonds that go beyond the parameters of life’s political and religious confines. This, by definition, helps to avoid conflict. The scenario is not devoid of religion, though. Rather, it utilizes, recognizes and celebrates everyone’s religious background while operating within a context of soccer and peace. For instance, the Shimon Peres Peace Center in Israel and Palestine (officially, “The Peres Peace Center”) has been using this approach to join together young Muslim, Jewish and Christian soccer players in the Holy Land.
Another appealing fact is this: soccer can be used at any stage in the game (every pun intended). Obviously, we would like to avoid conflict and the loss of life at any cost. Soccer is one of those tools. But when conflict cannot be avoided, then soccer can be used as an intervening force to bring sides together as well. It can be used to mitigate conflict and subsequent damage. In post-conflict situations, soccer can be used to reconstruct and rebuild. It helps on the grass-roots level – in the neighborhoods and in the sandlots, and in POW camps and on former battlefields. From an operational standpoint, it is effective device to assist in some of the following pursuits that are peace-oriented:
1. Assess potential conflict
2. Analyze possible conflict
3. Avoid conflict
4. Intervene when faced with conflict
5. Mitigate when conflict has arisen
6. Manage conflict during a confrontation
7. Reconstruct after conflict
8. Rebuild in a post-conflict scenario
By the way, there are even references to soccer diplomacy from World War II. One quasi-fictional depiction came in the form of a motion picture in the 80s, Victory. It featured Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine and the great Pele’. Set against the backdrop of an oppressive Nazi regime, the beautiful game was used to stage a match between German forces and the Allied opposition. Although many components were amplified and embellished in the film, it nonetheless provided a look at how soccer can be utilized as a device and apparatus for some form of peace building.
There is much more to say about this topic, but perhaps this article will help to provide some initial thoughts. In the case of Syria, it may have been good to work with NGOs and other entities back in 2007 so as to avoid a conflict. “Soccer Diplomacy” could have been used as a tool, whether it was to host an international youth tournament in Aleppo or to conduct a series of free soccer clinics in the inner city environments. Likewise, the FIFA World Cup in Brazil this year can prove to be a catalyst in this regard. Organizers can wrap their arms around “Soccer Diplomacy” and fully promote the benefits of using soccer as a means to peace on a global scale. FIFA is doing it to some degree, but there is still much work to be done. Greater coordination and cooperation within and among organizations, governments and federations would be required.
At the end of the day, peace through soccer is a valid concept. It cannot – and certainly will not – correct all of the imbalances and cure all of the maladies. It is one tool among an arsenal that could be used to assist in the peacemaking process, whether pre-conflict or post-conflict (and perhaps in between as well). Nonetheless, authorities and organizations that are stakeholders in the global peace community can look at soccer as a potential friend and ally. They can discover ways and methods in which to promote the game and advance friendships – those friendships that are true and lasting, and those that transcend barriers and boundaries. The Brazilians are great at reaching out and hugging the world, and this summer will be no exception. Maybe Brazil can help lead the charge to take its passion for soccer to new and unexplored levels.
The author, Antonio J. Soave, is the Chairman & CEO of Capistrano Global Advisory Services (CGA), an international joint venture, strategic alliance and M&A consulting firm headquartered in Overland Park, Kansas. He travels to the Middle East, Europe and Latin America on a frequent basis. He is a former high school All American athlete in the sport of soccer, a former co-owner of the World Youth Soccer Academy at Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida, and a former co-owner of three minor league professional teams in the USISL soccer league in the United States (currently, the “USL”). He is also a member of the International Advisory Council of the United States Institute of Peace (“USIP”). Mr. Soave has a BA in International Studies from The American University (Washington, DC), a Juris Doctor (law degree) from Michigan State University, and a L.L.M. (Master’s of Law) in International Law from the University of San Diego.