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23 Jun 2018 16:02
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  •   Home > News > Sports > Soccer

    Pitched battles: Countries that face off in the World Cup are more likely to come into real-world conflict

    Could doing battle on the pitch lead to diplomatic or even military conflict? This five-decade statistical analysis suggests it does.


    It's World Cup time, and you might expect that such international sporting competitions bring countries together and lower tensions between nations.

    But a recent study suggests this is a myth.

    Instead, it finds that countries that qualify for the World Cup are more likely to literally do battle with other nations.

    And — spoiler alert — if you're a sports fan, you're not going to like the proposed solution.

    It all starts with a five-decade analysis of disputes

    The study, Nationalism and Conflict: Lessons from International Sports, was released in the journal International Studies Quarterly in late 2017, and was written by Andrew Bertoli, a postdoctoral researcher at Dartmouth University's Dickey Centre for International Understanding.

    Dr Bertoli took data on militarised interstate disputes from the Correlates of War database and fused it with data on countries that qualified and did not qualify for world cups between 1958 and 2010.

    To keep the results as close to a randomised trial as possible, Dr Bertoli only used countries that qualified or missed out on qualification by two points or fewer.

    The results are surprising. Here are six charts that show the links between qualifying for the World Cup and being more aggressive on the world stage.

    1. Countries that qualified started more disputes after qualification

    In the four years before a World Cup, the number of disputes initiated by countries that qualified and did not qualify are not far apart.

    But after qualifying for the cup, there is a large and noticeable spike in the number of disputes initiated by the qualifiers.

    This peaks in the second year after the cup, when the qualifiers initiate almost three times the number of disputes of the non-qualifiers.

    Could the World Cup actually be causing these countries to be so much more aggressive?

    The answer, Dr Bertoli theorises, lies in the tournament's effect on nationalism:

    "… most scholars agree that international sporting events increase [nationalism].

    "Many studies show that international sports tend to make the national discourses within countries more hawkish.

    "Reporters often describe games in military terminology and compare wins and losses to past battles."

    The graph above shows that any effect of qualifying on initiating disputes seems to dissipate by the time the qualifiers for the next world cup roll around, three and a half years after the tournament.

    2. By two years, qualifiers initiated two and a half times more disputes

    Two years after qualification, the countries in the sample that qualified for the World Cup initiated 49 disputes, compared with 19 initiated by the non-qualifiers.

    The Soviet Union is a big contributor to the qualifying tally, initiating 12 unique disputes in the two years after qualifying. Most of these followed the 1958 World Cup, at the height of the Cold War, and were initiated against a diverse array of countries, including Iran, Japan, Taiwan, and of course, the United States.

    Nigeria also initiated three disputes against its neighbours, Chad and Liberia, following appearances in the 1994 and 1998 tournaments.

    And France initiated six disputes after qualifying for the 1958, 1978 and 1982 world cups. Three of these were initiated against former colony Tunisia.

    By contrast, the French initiated only three disputes after not qualifying for the 1962 and 1994 tournaments.

    3. Countries that qualified initiated a third more disputes after qualification than before

    Further analysis of those who qualified reveals more about the effects of the World Cup on interstate aggression.

    In the two years before qualification, the qualifiers initiated 36 disputes between them. They initiated another 49 in the two years after qualifying.

    The Soviet Union initiated eight disputes against other nations in the two years before qualifying for the World Cup. Seven of these occurred after the 1958 tournament, during the Cold War.

    This is a third less than the aforementioned 12 disputes it started after qualifying in various years.

    Argentina initiated a single dispute against neighbouring Chile before the 1958 tournament.

    It initiated two more disputes after qualifying for the cup, as well as initiating one further against the United Kingdom after qualifying in 1974.

    And Cameroon, which initiated no disputes before qualifying, initiated three disputes against neighbouring Nigeria after the 1994 tournament.

    "The fact that this increase begins after qualification accords with historical evidence showing that many countries experience a surge of nationalism when they qualify for the World Cup," Dr Bertoli writes.

    By contrast, the number of disputes initiated by non-qualifiers fell from 33 before to 19 after not qualifying.

    4. Not only do the qualifiers start more disputes, the disputes they start are more aggressive

    The COW database codes each dispute initiated by its highest level of aggressive act. The scale of these acts begins at one (a threat to use force) and increases in aggression up to 20 (beginning an interstate war).

    In the two years after the world cup, the median highest act for the qualifiers was 15 ("seizure") while the median highest act for non-qualifiers was 11 ("fortifying the border").

    The highest hostile act that occurs in this dataset is 17, which is a "clash".

    The three disputes Cameroon initiated against Nigeria were at this level, and involved an oil-rich disputed area in the Bakassi peninsula region. In one of these attacks Cameroon attacked and captured a Nigerian post, only to later lose it in a counter-offensive.

    5. Military participation rises in qualifying countries

    Before each world cup, there is little difference in the average military participation rate between qualifiers (0.847 per cent) and non-qualifiers (0.821 per cent).

    But after qualifications, the average rate jumps to 0.910 per cent for the qualifiers, while dropping slightly to 0.815 per cent for non-qualifiers.

    In fact, the average increase for qualifiers is 0.044 percentage points, which is around three times higher than the non-qualifiers at 0.016 percentage points.

    6. Countries who play against each other in the World Cup are more likely to end up in disputes with each other

    Expanding the sample to include all tournaments back to the 1930s, in the years before the World Cup, countries who would play each other got into nine disputes between themselves.

    In the years after, countries who played each other at the World Cup got into 21 disputes.

    Italy and France, for example, had only one dispute between them in the years before the 1938 cup, but afterwards, they got into three, although they ostensibly were related to World War II.

    Canada and France experienced no disputes between them in the years leading up to the 1986 cup, but got into two disputes in the years after their match.

    And South Korea and Spain, being on opposite sides of the globe, would usually have very little to do with each other, but after their World Cup match in 2002, Spain seized a South Korean weapons shipment which was en route to Senegal, claiming it was illegal.

    But wait a minute … I haven't seen Australia on any of these maps!

    Very astute you are — that's because Australia did not meet the criteria of qualifying or not qualifying by fewer than two points, to be included in the sample in any of the world cups between 1958 and 2010.

    We can still investigate what happened here as a result of our qualifications, though the results would look pretty underwhelming on a graph.

    Between 1958 and 2010, Australia qualified for the cup in 1972, 2006 and 2010 (an underwhelming result by the standards of world football).

    In the years before and after qualifying for these tournaments, Australia initiated a total of zero disputes (although the COW MID dispute series ends in the middle of 2010, and there may have been disputes initiated by Australia beyond that date).

    So that means we were pretty unaggressive to begin with, and qualifying for the tournament did little to change that.

    In fact, as Dr Bertoli writes: "Countries where soccer is not the most popular sport experienced no change in aggression from the World Cup. These countries include the United States, Japan, New Zealand, Ireland, Australia, the United Arab Emirates, Jamaica, and Trinidad."

    But history shows that Australia is not immune from tensions arising out of international sport, as evidenced by the infamous Bodyline cricket series of 1932-33.

    Bodyline involved the deliberate tactic on the part of the English cricket team of bowling fast, short balls directly at a batsman in order to deliberately intimidate him.

    In an era when helmets were not used, the tactic caused injuries to multiple Australian players.

    This resulted in some terse cables between the cricket boards of both countries, nearly sparking a diplomatic incident that was only calmed when prime minister Joseph Lyons convinced the Australians to back down in the interests of avoiding the economic consequences of a British boycott of Australian goods.

    So, what's the solution?

    Dr Bertoli suggests that sporting events could be created where teams compete as small regional blocks.

    This, he says, would make neighbouring states allies rather than adversaries.

    He continues: "While this format could increase animosity between the competing regional blocks, practitioners could minimise any negative political fallout by refraining from pitting neighbouring regions against each other."

    So perhaps Australia might join up with New Zealand in pursuit of sporting glory? Hmm, maybe not.

    If you're unhappy with that idea, Dr Bertoli proposes preventing avoidable games between countries with underlying political tensions.

    He suggests opposing bids to hold major sporting events in "countries where leaders show a penchant for using nationalist sentiment to increase support for aggressive foreign policies".

    "For example, allowing Putin to host the 2014 Winter Olympics and 2018 World Cup was a poor decision; international sports organisations should not make similar mistakes in the future."

    Food for thought when you're watching Australia take on the world this World Cup.

    Sources

    • Bertoli, A. Nationalism and conflict: lessons from international sport (2017)
    • Palmer, Glenn, Vito D'Orazio, Michael Kenwick, and Matthew Lane. 2015. "The MID4 Data Set: Procedures, Coding Rules, and Description." Conflict Management and Peace Science. Forthcoming.


    ABC




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