A World Cup Miscellany: Group H

This is the last in a series of brief and miscellaneous perspectives on the World Cup groups and nations (here’s Group A, Group B, Group C, Group D, Group E, Group F, and Group G).  The mostly light-hearted intention is to both provoke and satisfy curiosities, to utilize Eric Hobsbawn’s notion that “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people,” and to fill some space towards the World Cup frenzy…

Has anyone else ever been fooled by the title of Ryszard Kapuściński 1991 book The Soccer War?  The first time I stumbled across it many years ago, before I had learned of Kapuściński’s fame as a writer and journalist, I assumed it was about soccer causing, or maybe solving, a war.  That sounded good.

It turns out, however, that the title of the book comes from one essay about a four day war between Honduras and El Salvador; a war that was ostensibly sparked by the result of 1970 World Cup qualifiers.  Other essays in the book address topics having nothing to do with soccer: the murder of Patrice Lumumba, torture in Guatemala, Turkey’s contest with Cyprus, the Nigerian civil war, etc..  It turns out, despite the almost completely marginal role of soccer, to be a damn good book.

Returning in a 2010 World Cup preview to The Soccer War, and remembering how little of it actually had to do with soccer, seems appropriate to a consideration of Group H (matching Honduras with Spain, Switzerland, and Chile).  Thanks both to the story of the brief 1969 Honduran war with El Salvador and the story of its 2010 qualification for this World Cup—which apparently “helped to heal Honduras” after a traumatic political struggle in 2009—the Central Americans seem to be exhibit A in the power of sport over politics.

What’s more, South Africa is a nearly perfect host for such stories, given the well-known ways in which sport created some sense of national unity in the delicate days after the end of apartheid.  In the famous words of Nelson Mandela, “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to unite in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.”

But with all due respect to Mandela, we should all know that the power of sport is more complicated than that.  Power can be used for good or for ill, and it always derives from a complex nexus of social forces.  Take, for example, how Kapuściński concludes his essay on the Honduras-El Salvador “soccer war”

The soccer war lasted one hundred hours.  Its victims: 6,000 dead, more than 12,000 wounded.  Fifty thousand people lost their homes and fields.  Many villages were destroyed….

These are the real reasons for the war: El Salvador, the smallest country in Central America, has the greatest population density in the western hemisphere (over 160 people per square kilometer).  Things are crowded and all the more so because most of the land is in the hands o fourteen great landowning clans…For years a part of the landless poor has been emigrating to Honduras, where there are large tracts of unimproved land…In the 1960’s, unrest began among the Honduran peasantry, which was demanding land…Relations between the two countries were tense.  Newspapers on both sides waged a campaign of hate, slander and abuse, calling each other Nazis, dwarfs, drunkards, sadists, spiders, aggressors and thieves.  There were pogroms.  Shops were burned.

In these circumstances the match between Honduras and El Salvador had taken place.

The “soccer war” was not about soccer; it was about poverty, inequality, and xenophobia.  In Central America in 1969 soccer was the spark that ignited a war, but in other contexts soccer may hide or obscure related social problems.  With Switzerland, for example, it has been interesting to watch how xenophobic politics such as banning minarets gets negotiated with the fact that their national team depends heavily on immigrants (with players of Turkish, Albanian, Congolese, Spanish, and Serbian descent set to appear in South Africa, to say nothing of the more dramatic mix on the Swiss U-17 World Cup champions).  Likewise, for all its dramatic success using sport to unite a diverse nation, South Africa still hasn’t figured out a game that can dampen fears of Zimbabwean immigrants imagined to be a threat to employment or Nigerian immigrants imagined to be a threat to safety.

So while a nation like Honduras may gain some relief from its political problems through this rare trip to a World Cup, soccer will not solve those problems.  In some cases it may even exacerbate them.

That doesn’t, however, mean we can’t enjoy the soccer with a reasonably clear political conscious.  In fact, a Time magazine article with thoughts from a representative of the Honduran left-wing “resistance,” suggests that even the country’s political radicals won’t miss the games:

“Yes we are going to support the team, especially the men in the resistance. It would be a lie if I said we were not,” says feminist activist and opposition organizer Gilda Velasquez. However, she warns, soccer is an “unhealthy distraction” — an “opiate used by the media to keep the country happily asleep.” Mindful of the soporific peril, she adds: “The most we’ll do is watch the game for 90 minutes, but we won’t watch the ads.”

That sounds like good advice to us all: watch the 90 minutes but don’t watch the ads.  And remember that despite grand claims about the power of the game to start or stop wars, and simplistic attempts to make national teams represent nation states, the power of an event like the World Cup is always less (and more) than it appears.

Group H: The Group of _______________

ESPN's 2010 FIFA World Cup Murals by the Cape Town-based AM I Collective

As a start to my own simplistic attempt to make statistical representations of the nation states in Group H, it seems appropriate to note that in a literal sense Group H is the Group of [Least] Death: it has the highest average life expectancy of any quartet in the tournament.  With three countries where you can expect to live to about 80 (Spain at 80.9, Switzerland at 81.7, and Chile at 78.6), along with Honduras at around 70.2 (which is not great—but not terrible for the poorest country in the tournament outside of Africa), lives here are long.

Otherwise, the trends for Group H are relatively positive but also relatively non-descript.  Beyond life expectancy, the only thing I could find where this quartet topped the other World Cup groups was for average rankings on the “Happy Planet Index.”  As they explain the Index: “The nations that top the Index aren’t the happiest places in the world, but the nations that score well show that achieving, long, happy lives without over-stretching the planet’s resources is possible.”  Out of the 143 ranked nations, having Spain at 76th, Switzerland at 52nd, Honduras at 10th, and Chile at 46th was good enough to better all the other World Cup groups on average psycho-eco sustainability.  Strangely, however, the Happy Planet Index seems to almost be biased against soccer success: of the top 20 countries only three are in the World Cup (Brazil at 9th, Honduras at 10th, and Argentina at 15th).

The other somewhat obvious connection between these nations is in language: including Spain, Chile, and Honduras as primarily Spanish speaking nations makes Group H the only one in the World Cup where three group-mates share a primary language (Switzerland is an outsider with German, French, Italian, and Romansh as official languages—but still, with the exception of German, they’re all Romance Languages).  You might think that would make for potential globalized soccer connections but it doesn’t seem to.  Honduras has three players plying their trade in Italy and three in England, but zero in Spain.  Chile also has three playing in Italy, but only two in Spain (along with others in Greece, England, Russia, Mexico, Turkey, Brazil, Argentina, France, Portugal, Germany, and the United Arab Emirates).  Spain and Switzerland, perhaps needless to say, have no players working in Honduras or Chile (the only three Spanish players playing abroad are in England, while Switzerland has seven in Germany and four in Italy but none in Spain).  Despite spreading their language far and wide, the Spanish here come off as quite insular.  Nevertheless, combining the linguistic similarities with Group H having the best life expectancy of any quartet in the tournament, I’m labeling it the Group of Life and Linguistics.

Who would advance if there were any justice in the world?

In the terms of my secret formula combining soccer history and global politics, Chile has a checkered past.  Even aside from (or perhaps related to) the long reign of Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean national team is most famous in World Cup lore for violence and deception.  The Chilean’s 1962 World Cup match against Italy, known as the ‘Battle of Santiago,’ was described by David Coleman as “The most stupid, appalling, disgusting and disgraceful exhibition of football, possibly in the history of the game…This is the first time these two countries have met.  We hope it will be the last.”  Then in 1989 Chilean goalkeeper Roberto Rojas executed one of the most famous cheats in World Cup qualifying, cutting himself with a razor blade to fake injury and escape from a match at Brazil.  Chile was suspended from both the 1990 and 1994 World Cups.  They did have a decent showing in 1998—and my general feeling is that Chile has moved on and deserves another shot.  I also mostly liked the Michelle Bachelet era—having an agnostic single mother pediatrician as President is quite a statement—so in my mind Chile is in for the chance at redemption.

Spain’s checkered history bears some similarities, but is generally of a different sort.  In modern World Cups they’ve done no better than a few quarterfinals, and are usually considered classic underperformers.  But their 2008 European championship merits their co-favorite status for South Africa 2010 and I have no problem with that.  I don’t fully understand the regional politics in Spain, and am suspicious of whether Catalans such as Xavi and Puyol should have the right to obscure the Spanish flag logo on their socks, but mostly Spain seems worthy of advancing: they are in.

That leaves Switzerland and Honduras on the outs, which isn’t quite fair.  Sure Switzerland may be trending xenophobic while relying on immigrant talent on the pitch, but mostly the Swiss seem to be a pretty good example of a peaceful, thriving democracy.  And, as noted above, the World Cup just seems to mean a lot to Honduras.  But at the end of it all, if there is anything I’ve learned in putting together these eight World Cup group previews, it is that there is rarely any justice in the world.

Group H – Some Stats

FIFA rank Betting odds on winning the Cup Population GDP per capita Rank out of 182 nations on the Human Development Index Life expectancy Rank out of 143 nations on the Happy Planet Index A subjective ranking of how much the WC matters by country(1-32)
Spain 2 4 46 mil. 29700 15 80.9 76 17
Switzerland 26 200 8 mil. 43000 9 81.7 52 32
Honduras 40 1000 7.5 mil. 4100 112 70.2 10 5
Chile 15 66 17 mil. 14300 44 78.6 46 18
- FIFA rank is based on the “FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking” updated April 28th, 2010
- Betting odds on winning the World Cup are from the “win-market” best odds as of May 12th on the Guardian web-site.
- Population is rounded from estimates drawing on various sources in Wikipedia.
- GDP per capita is in US dollars and based on 2008 list by the International Monetary Fund “derived from purchasing power parity (PPP) calculations.”
- The Human Development Index rank is from the United Nations Development Program combining 2007 data on “Life Expectancy, Education, Standard of living and GDP.”
- Life expectancy in years is based on the 2009 list from the CIA World Factbook for “overall life expectancy at birth.”
-The Happy Planet Index “reveals the ecological efficiency with which human well-being is delivered” and is produced by the New Economics Foundation (nef).
- The 1-32 ranking of how much the World Cup matters is my own totally subjective sense of how much the country as a whole cares about how the team performs in South Africa; it is intended entirely in fun.

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