Sport making the art of the possible-possible?

Can sport make the art of the possible - possible?

Can sport make the art of the possible – possible?

Sport has a role to play in making the art of the possible, possible.

On June 2nd 2015 the New York Cosmos beat Cuba 4-1 in a friendly soccer match. The match symbolised a new era of foreign relations between the United States and Cuba.

Raul, the former Real Madrid and Mexican star who played for the Cosmos commented that “It was an honor to play against the Cuban national team,” Raul said. “They have a talented team and we felt it was a very good game. Football brings people together and we saw it today.”

The match  was part of a broader range of interventions that have attempted to draw a line under five decades of estrangement.


  • 2nd June the USA and Cuba resume sporting relations
  • 1969 Pele compared Tuesday’s intervention to that of the Brazilian side Santos visiting Nigeria in 1969
  • 1978 the last time a US soccer team had played in Cuba
  • 1999 Baltimore Orioles (baseball) played in Cuba and in May (2015) Havana announced that the baseball team would return later in the year
  • 1999 Cuba had 1 physical education teacher per 458 inhabitants
  • In terms of soft power sport Cuba has used sport for utilitarian and ideological purposes including the promotion of national prestige, health, defence, labour productivity, and integration.
  • 2014 -215 Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro pledged full restoration of ties on 17 December. The two leaders met in Panama in mid-April
  • 2015 Cuba completed the release of 53 political prisoners
  • 2015 Cuba, in May, was formally removed from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism, a critical step toward rapprochement 54 years after Washington cut off relations at the height of the cold war and imposed an economic embargo
  • At June 4th the FIFA World Rankings for Men and Women saw the USA ranked at 27 (Men) and 2 (Women) and Cuba 107 (Men) and 96 (Women).

Some analysts warn that as the two countries move to re- open embassies, the Republicans still pose a potential hurdle in the agreement to end more than 50 years of hostility.


 It is more than 50 years since Chataway and Goodhart produced their account of international sport in A War without Weapons (1968).

Victor Cha, the former Director of Asian Affairs for the White House, in Beyond the Final Score (2009) has penned one of the few inside accounts of sporting diplomacy and argued that:

  • Sport matters because it can provide opportunities for interventions
  • Sport matters because it can be less aloof than some forms of diplomacy

The UK House of Lords report on Persuasion and Power in the Modern World (2014), pointed to the necessity of balancing hard and soft power tactics and the role that sport could play.

Grix et al (2015) have interrogated the way in which some countries have utilized sport as part of a soft power strategy.

Hard and soft power is often seen to be  what one country does to another. International cultural relations can potentially go well beyond this because of the emphasis on mutuality.

There is a plethora of research from which politicians, civil servants and sports administrators can learn.

Sport matters because it has (i) universal appeal that crosses language and cultural barriers; (ii) the capacity to develop temporary feel good factors; (iii) the ability to foster conversations between countries that take place around sporting events and the capacity to develop some human capabilities.

BUT we need to know in a much more nuanced way what works and what does not work.


If  sport can make the art of the possible, possible and we should exploit it to the full. It provides a potential space around which other resources can be brought into play. It is not a solution in and of itself.

 It is not as if the world has its problems to seek. What is new is the contexts in which we live today and what tools we have to resolve these problems and issues.

The world economic forum identified the top four international trends are worsening income inequality; unemployment; rising geo-strategic competition, and intensifying nationalism. Additional concerns included rising population levels; weakening of democracy; climatic change, health and increasing water stress.

 With each world problem there is a temptation to simplify matters, find a quick solution, identify, sometimes wrongly, aggressors, transgressors and or victims.

But humanity like power politics is not that simple. The issues we must confront, while imposing in their scale are expansive in their reach, must be faced with fortitude and with a co-operative, collaborative spirit.

Consequently foreign diplomats, ambassadors, civil servants, cultural agencies, communities and countries need to have a wide variety of tools at their disposal.

Why would you not use anything if it can be evidenced that it can make a contribution?

Sport should be one of these tools. We need to take advantage of sports’ global currency, and further the part that sport can play in winning friends for countries.

We need to find an effective framework, language, set of principles through which international cultural relations can and should operate through sport and other facets of culture.

To forge long standing meaningful international cultural relations issues of mutuality, reciprocity, trust and co-operation have to be further enabled.

 The role played by non-state institutions and agencies working below the level of government is crucial.

Sport has a role to play in making the art of the possible, possible. Making sports policy, sports investment, sports research, sports advocacy, commitment, alignment, and the power of universities and civil society working for people, places and communities.


As a policy tool sport has a long history of opening doors for countries. It is a tool that foreign diplomats and civil servants should not forget but they need to understand in a more nuanced way what works where and when and under what circumstances.


FIFA 2015, myth, equality and women’s football

The progressive march of women’s football offers a different story from that of corruption, governance and the FIFA arrests of May 2015.

The 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup takes place in Canada from 6th June.

10 key facts at June 2015

  • 30 million participants world wide and growing
  • FIFA global investment in women’s football, in one year, amounted to $38,934,824 US
  • Estimated economic impact of $337 across Canada
  • 1991 inaugural FIFA Women’s World Cup
  • 2015 twice as many teams have qualified when compared to 1991
  • 1795 reference to a women’s football match, Musselburgh, Scotland
  • The FIFA Women’s World Cup is the largest single sporting event in the world for women
  • 8 FIFA Presidents since 1904, one more to be elected, all men and the co-option of women onto the FIFA Executive Committee did not occur until 2012/13
  • At June 2015 Germany was top of the FIFA Women’s Rankings which are made up from 138 countries
  • Since 2008 FIFA have targeted have targeted, grassroots development programmes for women in Jordan, Syria, Myanmar, North Korea, Eritrea and Palestine to name but a few places.

Myth no 1: Women’s football is not global

 While 12 teams competed in 1991, 24 teams, from six confederations [Africa, Asia, Europe, North, Central America and the Caribbean, Oceania and South America], qualified for the event in Canada: USA, Costa Rica, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil, England, France, Spain, Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, Nigeria, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, China, Japan, Republic of Korea and the hosts Canada.

The FIFA Women’s World rankings include 138 countries and of the teams ranked in the top 20 in the world only Italy and Iceland will not be present in Canada.

 Myth no 2: Women’s football is not popular

 The 2014 FIFA survey indicates that women’s football has more than 30 million participants worldwide and that FIFA is responsible for the largest sporting event in the world for women.

We regularly hear that in the USA more women play football than men.

The number of registered players is estimated to be about 4,801,360.

 In absolute terms, Turkey (46,353) and the Netherlands (11,734) have shown the biggest increase in the number of players.

Europe (UEFA) recorded 1,208,558 registered female players in 2014.

FIFA indicate that the number of registered women players is 4,801,360.

 Myth no 3: Women’s football is new

 It is myth to suggest that women’s football is new, for clearly it is not.

  • 1795 One of the earliest references to a women-only football match is recorded near Musselburgh, Scotland.
  • 1881 Britain’s first recorded international women’s football match played in Edinburgh. A team representing Scotland beat one from England 3-0, with Lily St Clair scoring the opener.

The first FIFA Women’s World Championship was held in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1991, fulfilling a pledge made by then FIFA President João Havelange at the 1986 FIFA Congress in Mexico City.

The next hosts of the FIFA flagship competition for women were Sweden (1995), the USA (1999 and 2003), PRC (2007) and Germany (2011).

 Myth no 4: Women’s football has no economic impact

 The impact of major sporting events upon local economies is one of the popular arguments used by cities and governments to rationalize such events. The rationale should not be gender specific.

The Minister of Health and Regional Affairs for Northern Alberta, Rona Ambrose, noted that this is the first major sporting event hosted from coast to coast in Canada, with matches to be played in: Vancouver, British Columbia; Edmonton, Alberta; Winnipeg, Manitoba; Ottawa, Ontario; Montreal, Québec; and Moncton, New Brunswick.

It is estimated to have an economic impact of $337 million across Canada.

Inequality continues to persist- for winning the FIFA Men’s World Cup Germany received £22 million while the winners in Canada will receive about £1.2 million.

Myth no 5: The FIFA Presidents men have championed equality

 FIFA maybe a multibillion-dollar organization with estimated reserves of $1.5 billion US dollars, govern the worlds most popular game, but since its foundation in 1904 all 8 Presidents have been men.

Yet the tipping point to opening up the possibility of further progressive change may have been triggered when US Attorney General Loretta Lynch ordered the arrests of top FIFA officials.

  • The co-option of women onto the FIFA Executive Committee did not occur until 2012/13

 In claiming to be global, football has to continue to press the case to avoid the charge of being football for some and not all.

It would be clearly be a further myth to accept that equality exists in world football for as current events clearly demonstrate it is inequitable, facing corruption charges, and in simple governance terms lacking in transparency, accountability, and levels of trust that football enthusiasts all over the world can buy in to.

Yet the progressive march of women’s football is impressive and is much needed in the aftermath of FIFA’s corruption scandal.

Read more about Sport, Inequality and Social Justice on the Academy of Sport’s website.