Your Guide to the Potential Geopolitical Grudge Matches of the 2014 World Cup

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Dec. 6 2013 3:56 PM

Potential Geopolitical Grudge Matches of the 2014 World Cup

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FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke holds up the name of Uruguay during the Final Draw for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil on Dec. 6, 2013, in Costa do Sauipe, Bahia, Brazil.

Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images

“Sports is the continuation of war by other means,” Carl von Clausewitz should have said. Yes, events like the 2014 World Cup may be fun to watch in their own right, but for many of this, the most interesting part is watching countries act out international conflicts on the playing field (or the pool).

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. Follow him on Twitter.

I’m not the Slate staffer you want to go to for soccer expertise, but following today’s World Cup draw, here is my preview of the tournament based solely on geopolitical rivalry and historical enmity:

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• Group A
Brazil, Cameroon, Croatia, Mexico 

• Group B
Australia, Chile, Netherlands, Spain 

• Group C
Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan 

• Group D
Costa Rica, England, Italy, Uruguay 

• Group E
Ecuador, France, Honduras, Switzerland 

• Group F
Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria 

• Group G
Germany, Portugal, United States, Ghana 

• Group H
Belgium, Russia, Algeria, South Korea 

Well, like last time around, it’s pretty slim pickings as far as rivalries in the group stage. Fans of 16th-century European history might be interested in the Spain-Netherlands match. Before the Iran-Nigeria meeting on June 16, you’ll want to check out the West Point Combatting Terrorism Center’s recent report on Iranian intelligence activities in West Africa, though it all seems a bit speculative at this point. U.S.-Germany could have some interesting overtones depending on how salient the NSA issue is by then.  

Of course, the stakes of this sort of thing only get higher when we get into the knockout rounds. If the American side somehow survives its “group of death,” we have the possibility of U.S.-Russia in the round of 16, a Cold War rivalry that’s been heating up again lately due to disputes over Syria and Edward Snowden. The admittedly unlikely prospect of Iran-France in the Round of 16 could also be interesting given how heated things got between the two in the recent nuclear negotiations.  

A U.S.-Iran showdown, perhaps less tense than it would have been a year ago, couldn’t happen before the quarterfinals. Same with the historically fraught France-Algeria.

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) the draw won’t allow the most tense rivalries until at least the semifinals. So we’re pretty unlikely to see England and Argentina play for the Falklands, South Korea and Japan have it out over Dokdo/Takeshima, Greece and Germany settle the Eurozone crisis, Ivory Coast meet recent military intervention force France, or a Croat-Bosnian war re-enactment, unless some pretty miraculous runs happen.

Guess we’ll just have to watch the soccer.