Stop the war: we've scored]: Nothing inspires dictators, mafiosi and politicians like football, says Simon Kuper

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The Independent Online
Twelve days ago Andres Escobar scored the own goal that allowed the United States to beat Colombia 2 - 1 in the World Cup. On Saturday Escobar was shot dead in Medellin, his home town. He knew how much losing to the Yankees would hurt his compatriots. A Colombian radio station had asked him to stay on in the US to commentate on the remaining matches, but he told a friend it was his duty to go home and face his people. 'My body hurts for what I've done,' he said. 'I would do anything for this shirt, this country.'

Pity Colombia: the World Cup was going to be its chance to show the world that it does more than sell cocaine. Instead, it only showed how even the game bows before the coca lords. Before that fateful game with the US, the Colombian coach received a phone call instructing him to drop Gabrial Gomez from his team and play Herman Gaviria, from Medellin, instead. Otherwise, went the message, we'll kill you and Gomez. The coach made the swap.

When a game matters to billions of people, it ceases to be just a game. Football can help to make wars and revolutions; it fascinates mafiosi and dictators. This World Cup is affecting the domestic politics of every nation taking part.

Every quartier in Africa will be sitting around the local television set tomorrow night, rooting for the Nigerian Super Eagles against Italy. The World Cup is Africa's one chance to beat the world, and this time, since Cameroon and Morocco have been eliminated, Nigeria are its last hope.

'The victory of the Super Eagles at the World Cup could help restore the dwindling image of Nigeria abroad,' suggested Colonel Ola Oyinlola, the top military administrator in Lagos.

The President of Cameroon, Paul Biya, was even more desperate. He held elections in 1992, lost, then rigged the vote. His last popular act dates back to 1990, when he arbitrarily recalled Roger Milla to the national side. Milla was 38 and playing for a team of waiters in Reunion, but he scored four goals in Italy. This year he was 42, and Biya put him in the team again. The coach was hopping mad, and Cameroon exited from the Cup after losing 6-1 to Russia. But Milla did get the goal.

The worse off a country, the more football determines its politics. This World Cup has changed little in Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, but when the 1978 competition was held in the Argentina of the generals, they stopped spending money on boring things like roads and hospitals and schools and spent it on the World Cup instead. Argentina won, helped by a bribe to Peru (whom they had to beat by four goals in a group qualifier) of 35,000 tons of free grain, dollars 50m in unfrozen credits and probably arms, too.

After the final against Holland, all the people were in the streets chanting 'Argentina]' The generals were cheered, and immediately tried to notch up another triumph by starting a war with Chile over three small islands in the Beagle Channel. But the Vatican mediated, and the junta was forced to look for triumphs elsewhere.

So in a sense, the Falklands war belongs to the aftermath of the World Cup. The World Cup song Vamos Argentina] Vamos a ganar ('Go on Argentina] Go and win]') was cranked out again for that war - in the way that the marching tune, Pra frente, Brasil ('Forward, Brazil'), written for the 1970 World Cup, became the theme tune of the Brazilian junta.

Some say the Argentine generals surrendered to Britain in May 1982 for fear the country might otherwise miss the World Cup in Spain. But winning in 1978 had never looked like saving the generals. If the poor and frightened are champions of the world, they are pleased to be champions of the world and unhappy to be poor and frightened. Maybe bread and games are all the people want, but as the Argentine film director Osvaldo Bayer noted, in 1978 there was 'not much bread, lots of games'.

Silvio Berlusconi, leader of the Forza ltalia ('Go, Italy') party, became Prime Minister by identifying himself with the national football team. ('Would you vote for a party named after a football chant?', I asked a political scientist friend. He thought for a bit. 'Yeah, probably,' he replied.)

Berlusconi managed to harness football where others failed, because he is president of AC Milan, the best club in the world. He took over Milan in the mid-Eighties, shortly after they had been relegated for a bribery scandal, and soon had them beating allcomers. AC Milan are everything Italy wants to be. The best comment I read on the Italian elections described a bar in which upstairs 40 people were attending a Forza Italia meeting, while downstairs, 80 were watching a Milan game.

Let's not be too cynical. Maybe politicians who hang around football just can't help themselves: really, they are fans. 'All men love football,' the Dynamo Kiev president said to me. He should know: Dynamo, thanks to friends in high places, hold licences to export nuclear missile parts and gold. Or take General Franco: he once won the football pools, and could recite Real Madrid line-ups going back decades. And the Colombian president will roll up his trousers to show you his football scars. Carlos Menem, President of Argentina, loves to be photographed with football stars. He has just been to the US, but watched Argentina's games on television in his hotel room. 'If I get to Boston and we lose, I will get the blame,' a senior diplomat quoted Mr Menem as saying. But he must have smiled a little when he heard of Maradona's drug bust: a friend of Fidel Castro, Maradona has attacked his president's Thatcherite economic policies, and when Maradona speaks millions of voters listen.

The Bolivian president did watch his team live. Asked whether he shouldn't be attending to domestic priorities, the answer came: 'In Bolivia, the World Cup is the top domestic priority.' No joke.

King Fahd's family, also in the US, has long maddened coaches of the Saudi national team by introducing its own tactics. When the Dutch coach Leo Beenhakker was fired in the spring, the king himself rang Mr Menem for advice on a new manager. The Argentine Jorge Solari got the job.

Boris Yeltsin would wish for the king's powers. Last year 14 players wrote to Mr Yeltsin's sports adviser demanding that the Russian manager, Pavel Sadyrin, be fired. In the days when football stars were sent to Siberia, the letter would never have been written. But this is the new Russia, and the Yeltsin government agreed that Sadyrin should go: after all, it was the players who had to perform in the US, not Sadyrin's apparatchik friends who run the side. But Sadyrin stayed - the old guard runs the country, and Mr Yeltsin can do nothing about it. Most of the rebel players engaged in public self-criticism and recanted, but four - including Andrei Kanchelskis of Manchester United - held firm and are watching the World Cup on television. 'They do not exist,' said Sadyrin, in words familiar from Soviet days.

Football reveals a lot about a country. The Netherlands can seem to be a staid place, but when Holland beat Germany in Hamburg in June 1988, 60 per cent of the population celebrated on the streets. Though a Tuesday night, it was the largest public gathering since liberation from the Nazis. Amsterdammers threw bikes (their own?) into the air and shouted, 'Hooray] We've got our bikes back]' (During the occupation the Germans, in the biggest bike theft in history, had confiscated all Dutch bicycles).

Even the Dutch were surprised at their own behaviour. After all, Holland and Germany are allies within the EU, and most Dutch trade is with Germany.

World Cups - which usually cause more deaths than goals - can cost countries a lot of money. As no one in Brazil works during the tournament, each competition costs about pounds 2bn in lost production. And thousands of Irishmen who would normally have spent their money at home are spending it in Florida.

For Helmut Klopfleisch, this World Cup is special, even if Germany fail to win. Mr Klopfleisch was born in East Germany in 1948, but always supported West Germany. He travelled the Eastern bloc cheering them on, and the Stasi, sparing no expense, secretly tailed him in places such as Sofia, Prague and Poznan. He was often arrested and interrogated.

When he sent a telegram wishing the West German team well in the 1986 World Cup, the Stasi screamed: 'How dare you wish the class enemy good luck?' Mr Klopfleisch stood firm: 'Football in this country of yours is no better than in Iceland or Luxembourg.' He flew home from the US this weekend, his money having run out.

'Football against the Enemy', by Simon Kuper, is published by Orion, pounds 14.99.

(Photographs omitted)