Ayatollah’s in Iran, (English) in Afghanistan

On September the 21st of this year, 11 men from England, and 11 men from Afghanistan, will gather on a field in Colombo, Sri Lanka, for a spot of cricket.

Of course, this isn’t just any cricket match. It is a group stage match in the 2012 ICC World Twenty20 Cup. It’s a marquee match in a marquee event.

Like most countries that will be competing in Sri Lanka this fall, Afghanistan’s history is linked to Britain in a myriad of different ways. In fact, most of the time, when England is playing an international cricket match, it is against a former colony: it is conquerer versus conquered, prisoner versus jailor, revolutionary versus oppressor.

In the case of Afghanistan, the country was seen as the dividing line between the British Empire and the Russian Empire, and therefore saw invading force after invading force for centuries. Furthermore, unlike England’s other former dominions, there are currently British boots on the ground in Afghanistan. Around 9,500, give or take.

412 British soldiers have died in the fighting since 2001, including 18 just this year, and the number of Afghani civilians that have died in the conflict since 2001 is incalculable, though conservative estimates put it in the tens of thousands.

England and Afghanistan will of course not be the first two nations involved in an armed conflict to compete against each other in an international sporting event, but I think it will add an interesting subtext to the tournament. Especially since, technically, Britain is not at war with the government of Afghanistan, they are at war with the Taliban. They are not invading, they are liberating. Or vice versa. Depends on who you ask. Like I said: subtext.

Hopefully, for all concerned parties, it will be a friendly little cricket match, one which sees the minnows Afghanistan make their country proud and give the English a good scrap.

Personally, I would rather keep politics completely out of sport. Yeah, sure, there are moments when it heals, when it transcends. Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics comes to mind. So does Sean Avery. Jackie Robinson, too. As does South Africa winning the Rugby World Cup

But too often it is Munich ’72, or Le Guerra de Futbol, or the USA boycotting Moscow ’80, or the Soviets boycotting Los Angeles ’84, or Tommie Smith and John Carlos* . Or even, more recently, the deadly football riots in Egypt which really had absolutely nothing to do with football.

And on a more subtle level, events such as the Olympics, the European Championships, and, truthfully, most international cricket matches, are gross exercises in nationalism: You live on that side of this imaginary line in the sand, and therefore we are enemies.

Sure most of the time it is harmless fun, I guess, and maybe I am making too big of a deal out of it, but what it comes down to is that I don’t think we should be mixing sports and politics at all, or sports and nationalism. Or politics and music, for that matter. Politics are the opposite of sport, they are the death of sport. If the ICC wants to talk about the “spirit of the game” then they should stop allowing it to be politicized. (You, too, US State Department.)

And because of that, the Indian Premiere League, despite being a big steaming pile of cricket killing ebola to some, is actually what might save it in the end, because it removes all those imaginary boundaries. Players from New Zealand line up alongside players from Holland, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. It’s utopian, even.

To bring it all back home: there will be an interesting subtext to the England v Afghanistan match on September the 21st of this year, but I really do wish that that subtext did not exist. That it was simply a cricket match for us all to enjoy with a pint and a friend.

*I was quite hesitant to include that one. At the end of the day, it was a divisive gesture, and against the spirit of the games – it politicized a pure moment. I am interested to hear readers’ comments however. Also: the 1984 Miracle on Ice: patriotic hallmark for the USA? Or a globally divisive victory that set back Soviet-US relations? You make the call.

6 Replies to “Ayatollah’s in Iran, (English) in Afghanistan”

  1. Whilst I agree that it must be handled with care, I think you have missed out the best example of sport and politics mixing: Basil D’Oliveira. That was a case where sport and politics /had/ to mix and did so to the improvement of both.

    1. Yes, you are correct, I should have included it. A gross oversight on my part. And as mentioned in the blog, there are times when sport mixes with politics and the outcome is positive. And there are even times when politics needs sport in order to affect meaningful change.

  2. What about Zimbabwe? It is all well and good saying sport and politics should not mix but sometimes they do, and when such occasions occur there needs to be a response which is inevitably political. As Brandon mentions above, the D’Oliveria affair is the prime case of politics entering sport.A couple of other examples: how long should a foreign born player live in a country until they qualify to play for the nation – that is pretty political. And what about the decision to play in Dubai, a place where homosexuality is banned? Additionally, every decision on where international tournaments take place is riven in politics. For example, when England still dominated cricket administration the World Cup was in England, India broke the stranglehold and are now dominant in terms of location of tournaments and their television rights. Finally, you are incorrect about the IPL – no Pakistan player has played since the Mumbai bombings (something which I am planning on writing about soon!)

    Sorry to sound so negative, but the assertion that sports and politics either should not or do not mix just does add up to me.


    1. I’ll grant you the IPL. That was a mistake. Sometimes I shoot from the hip and get nailed for it. I look forward to reading your post about it!
      But your first paragraph seems to reinforce my point that politics ruins sport, and therefore should not be allowed to mix. I mean, I get what you are saying, but maybe we are both taking two paths toward the same outcome?
      Really, though, it is too late, we have gone too far down the river, the two entities are hopelessly entwined. All we can do is hope that the relationship inspires positive change and not divisiveness or bloodshed.
      It is also a terribly complicated topic, one that I enjoy exploring. Thanks for reading and commenting: and please do not apologize!

  3. I thought this was really interesting.

    Naturally, it’s impossible to keep politics out of anything, including sport. Politicians legislate on things like television rights, for example.

    More recently, there’s the situation in Ukraine, where they have one of their ex-leaders in jail after a very suspicious and concerning court case and she now is supposedly being abused. And yet, a major footballing tournament is going ahead and not many people have expressed serious concerns about playing there.

    My dad once argued for political interference in sport, and said that all countries currently at war should be barred from playing international sport. Then we pointed out that Great Britain would therefore be barred, and he quickly changed his mind.

    Although there is a fascinating subject behind England v Afghanistan, I don’t think much will be made of it. But perhaps it will have positive repercussions in Afghanistan for the population. Sport can unite people, and I suppose its a few hours escapism too.

    Generally, I think sport has been a positive thing when mixed with politics. BUT I think sport has done the most political good when carried out by sportsmen, and not governments making decisions on sportspeople/bodies/teams behalfs. But then, like with the Zimbabwe situation, there are times teams (eg the England tour a number of years ago) wished the gov would step in rather than leaving it to them to decide. Sport can have massive political reperccusions.

    And I don’t think anyone can forget the photos of Michael Atherton and Mugabe. I believe he regrets ever shaking his hand.

    It’s a difficult balance, and I’m not sure any country has it 100% right.

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