Post-Colonialism on the Pitch

When former colonies face off against their ex-oppressors.

Martin Bernetti / AFP / Getty Images
Martin Bernetti / AFP / Getty Images

RIO DE JANEIRO — Is the colonial period really over? Of the former colonies represented in the World Cup this year, only four — Argentina, Australia, Brazil, and the United States — have ever beaten their former masters on the football pitch. For Chile, that could be about to change.

International football has few features more defining than the grudge match: that contest where the opponents brought together have a particularly seething historical enmity. To paraphrase the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, "[football] is the mere continuation of politics by other means." The mutual loathing is often at its peak when, at some point in the past, one of these nations colonized the other; in such cases, when the teams meet, the rawness of these historical wounds is still plain for all to see.

Zinedine Zidane was reminded of this in 2001 when France played Algeria, its colony for 132 years, for the first time. It was a game that the Real Madrid and Juventus legend would later describe as the worst moment of his professional career. Zidane, whose parents hail from Algeria, was described disdainfully in the lead-up to the match as a "Harki" — a term for Algerians who fought alongside the French whilst their countrymen struggled for independence. The game was abandoned with France ahead after a pitch invasion, and the two countries have not played each other since. But there’s a decent chance that they’ll have another meeting very soon: a quarterfinal match here at the historic Maracanã stadium on America’s Independence Day, July 4.

France would have another famously uncomfortable encounter with a former colonial subject just one year later. They were beaten 1-0 by Senegal — making its World Cup debut — in the teams’ first match of the 2002 tournament, and the new conquerors celebrated with conspicuous glee. However, the West Africans’ excitement seemed more to do with the fact that they had defeated the reigning champions than anything else. Senegal, exploited for its slaves and its acacia gum between the 17th and 20th centuries, had ample reason to retain a historical grudge, but the game was an occasion largely free from rancor. This was perhaps because Senegal’s eventual parting from France in 1959, unlike Algeria’s just three years later, did not come at the cost of many thousands of lives. They were not a state whose emancipation meant wading through blood.

Chile and Spain have a rivalry with particularly deep roots, given the Iberians’ rule over the Latin American nation for almost three centuries. Yet they also appear to have a relationship relatively free from bitterness, which is probably for two reasons. First, Chile declared its independence from Spain in 1818, which has allowed any tensions a very long time to dissipate. Second, on a related point, the last two hundred years have given Chile ample opportunity to find all manner of new enemies. The most enduring of these are Peru, following a series of disputes over borders and resources; Argentina, with whom points of contention range from old wars and tiny islands to simply its perceived arrogance; and the United States, whose Central Intelligence Agency admitted prior knowledge of the 1973 coup that overthrew Chile’s president Salvador Allende. And this year, the Chilean team may be good enough to overpower any of its rivals, colonial or otherwise.

Every four years, the World Cup will throw up passionate conflicts. Every so often, as Algeria will tell you, they’re accompanied by an extra, volatile element. Maybe the great Dutch coach Rinus Michels, his tongue not so far from his cheek, was onto something with his oft-repeated remark that "football is war." But when it comes to colonizers playing football against their former colonies, the wordsmith Bergen Evans said it best of all: "We may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us."

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