Epic Soccer-Like Battles of History

Here's our martial World Cup wrap-up -- where the beautiful game is just war by other means.

Michael Steele/Getty Images
Michael Steele/Getty Images

In his classic book on English soccer hooligans, Among the Thugs, the author Bill Buford suggested that violence among English soccer fans in the 1980s had its roots in a displaced and unsatisfied need for mass conflict. A people who had for centuries fought wars among themselves, with neighbors and in the far corners of the globe, found in hooliganism a new source for the adrenaline generated by being part of a violent mob. That may also be true, but sometimes the parallels with war originate with what happens on the field. 

It doesn’t take much to get soccer commentators talking about war. Even if they’re not watching England vs. Germany, they love narrating the hostilities on the field with phrases like “defensive battle”, “artillery barrage”, and, yes, “midfield general.” But these terms are mere generalities, wholly insufficient for describing momentous clashes like the ones in Brazil over the past month.

Over the past month, we at Midfield General, Foreign Policy‘s special World Cup blog, have explored everything from the economics of Lionel Messi and Russian soccer’s “Russian problem” to the fate of countries competing against their former colonial overlords. We’re grateful to all of our excellent contributors, and we thank you for following along.  

As we look back on this year’s exciting tournament, we want to give those beloved commentators a hand while paying tribute to Buford’s analysis. So cue the bugle fanfare, because Midfield General is pleased to suggest some new warlike analogies, this time to actual battles. Here they are — for every one of the 16 knockout matches. All we’re saying is Lionel Messi should have read up on Jan III Sobieski, okay?

Brazil 1-1 Chile (3-2 on penalties)

Battle of Balaclava, 1854

Sometimes an invading force manages to come within a whisker of victory, yet the final act of the battle becomes an enduring tragedy. Like the British troops at Balaclava who nearly overtook the Russian positions on the Crimean peninsula, Sebastián Pinilla almost conquered Brazil when his shot went off the crossbar in the last minute of extra time. His miss opened the door to a shootout where he and his compatriots scored only twice, a failure almost as great as the Charge of the Light Brigade.

Colombia 2-0 Uruguay 

Battle of the Scheldt, 1945

Once in a while, there appears on the field of battle a warrior so skilled that he elicits both admiration and fear from his enemies. In this World Cup, it was James Rodríguez, whose effervescent talent left his opponents stunned, just like Corporal Léo Major did when Canadian forces pushed into the Netherlands towards the end of World War II. Major singlehandedly captured almost 100 German soldiers, who by then must have felt a bit like Uruguay without Luis Suárez.  

Netherlands 2-1 Mexico

Battle of Salamis, 480 B.C.E.

When one side is so close to victory, sometimes the other has to use all of its guile to turn the result on its head. Mexico were leading 1-0 with only a few minutes left in regulation, but Arjen Robben seemed to draw inspiration from Themistocles as he sprung a fatal trap. The Athenian general lured the superior Persian navy into an unwise attack in a constricted area — just like Rafael Márquez’s ill-advised tackle on the edge of the six-yard box. Both proved to be fatal mistakes.

Costa Rica 1-1 Greece (5-3 on penalties)

Battle of Agincourt, 1415

After stiff fighting against a stolid foe, an outnumbered nation rallies behind an inspirational leader to win by unconventional means. This is the story of Henry V and his longbow archers at Agincourt. It’s also the story of Keylor Navas and the deadeye Costa Rican penalty kickers. The latter won despite playing half the match with only 10 men.

France 2-0 Nigeria

Battle of al-Qadisiyyah, 636

Even hardened war veterans who have defended their country admirably on many occasions finally get their comeuppance. For the talented goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama and the stalwart defender Joseph Yobo, this moment came against France. For the venerable Sasanian general Rustam, tasked with protecting Mesopotamia, it came against the Rashidun Caliphate. 

Germany 2-1 Algeria (extra time)

Battle of Yorktown, 1781

In the midst of a crucial engagement against a well-organized enemy, it is always useful to have someone covering your rear. For George Washington, it was the Count de Grasse sailing his fleet up from the West Indies and into the Chesapeake Bay. For the German defense, it was Manuel Neuer, who touched the ball 21 times outside the 18-yard box.

Argentina 1-0 Switzerland (extra time) 

Battle of Ichi-no-Tani, 1184

In some conflicts, individual performances rise above the fray and remain in the collective memory for centuries. The interplay between two supremely gifted Argentine attackers, Lionel Messi and Ángel di María, spelled defeat for the Swiss. For the Taira clan, the dual nemeses were the famed warrior Minamoto no Yoshitsune and his trusty henchman Benkei.

Belgium 2-1 United States (extra time)

Battle of the Alamo, 1836

For what seems like an eon, a superior army fails to break down dogged defenses. At last, reinforcements prove too much for the besieged Americans. Except for a brief moment of hope — Julian Green, in this case — the outcome is decided. Davy Crockett couldn’t save the Alamo, either.

Brazil 2-1 Colombia 

Battle of Ulundi, 1879

This fight between the British army and the Zulu nation was fraught with atrocious violence on both sides, much like the constant fouling somehow tolerated by Spanish referee Carlos Velasco Carballo. Before the British triumph, the young Prince Imperial of France — at 23, only a year older than Neymar — was felled in a Zulu ambush. The lieutenant leading his patrol was disdained for his carelessness, not unlike Thiago Silva after his unnecessary suspension

France 0-1 Germany

Battle of Leipzig, 1813

Though their leader was an undefeated veteran of prior campaigns, much of the French side was made up of inexperienced youngsters. After an early reverse, they failed to break through the German lines and ended in meek surrender. Take your pick: Napoléon or Didier Deschamps; Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann, and Raphaël Varane or French conscripts.

Argentina 1-0 Belgium

Second Battle of Adobe Walls, 1874

Sometimes one moment of genius, even one born of chance, is enough to turn the tide. So it was with American settler Billy Dixon’s famous long shot, which supposedly hit a Comanche chief from almost a mile away, spooking his comrades enough to defuse their attack. Dixon himself cited luck for his amazing feat — the bullet probably traveled for a good five seconds — just as Gonzalo Higuaín might someday recall the deflected pass that gave him a chance to score the perfect volley.

Netherlands 0-0 Costa Rica (4-3 on penalties)

Battle of Yangcun, 1900

Occasionally a war is so dreary, so draining, that at its end the combatants — even the losers — can only shake their heads and go home. There were few casualties in this phase of the Boxer Rebellion, but the heat of the Chinese summer was punishing enough, as it was in Salvador. And in the battle between the Eight Nation Alliance and the Chinese forces, the Europeans suffered some friendly fire, not unlike when Louis van Gaal pulled his goalkeeper, who was crushed, for the shootout.

Brazil 1-7 Germany

Operation Iraqi Freedom, 2003

Shock and awe were the feelings across Brazil after just half an hour of this unprecedented pounding. Similarly, the lightning attack by the United States and its coalition forces led to the disintegration of Saddam Hussein’s army within weeks, but there was still a sting in the tail, just like Oscar’s last-minute goal, that portended tough times to come.

Netherlands 0-0 Argentina (2-4 on penalties) 

Battle of the Somme, 1918

A stalemate that never seemed to end. Britain and France stood up against the German Empire but neither side gained territory despite enormous effort and blood left on the field. It was one of the most horrid days in World War I — if not history. The battle was a gruesome war of attrition that left both sides depleted. The Argentines won, but at what cost

Brazil 0-3 Netherlands

Retreat from Kabul, 1842

It’s bad enough when an army has to retreat following an embarrassing defeat, like Brazil losing 7-1 to Germany or Britain’s Sir William Elphinstone losing control of his seat of power in Afghanistan. But when that retreat turns into a massacre, it’s downright shameful. Elphinstone ended up a hostage of Afghan prince Akbar Khan, with about as much of his dignity intact as Thiago Silva. But at least Silva survived.

Germany 1-0 Argentina (extra time)

Battle of Vienna, 1683

It was the original “call in the cavalry” moment. After a day of fighting the Ottomans left thousands of casualties on each side, the Polish army took the high ground. Then they led one of the biggest mounted charges in history, essentially ending the battle within a few hours. German coach Joachim Löw also had to call in the cavalry to end a stalemate after a long and grueling battle; he told Mario Götze to get off the bench.

That’s all from Midfield General. We hope you had fun. See you back here for Russia 2018!

All images via Wikimedia Commons except for the following:

Battle of Somme: Imperial War Museum/Flickr Creative Commons

Operation Iraqi Freedom: KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images

Second Battle of Adobe Walls: Kim Douglas Wiggins, via Wikimedia Commons

Battle of Alamo: Asif Ali/Flickr Creative Commons

 Twitter: @altmandaniel

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