This month, nearly a billion people, including millions of Americans, will tune in to the world’s most popular sporting event, the World Cup. ESPN and ABC will be broadcasting every game from the host country Brazil in real time. This will be an opportunity for President Obama to display his affection for what Brazilian soccer great Pele calls “the beautiful game.” He could give a boost to the sport at home — and work a bit of soft power diplomacy abroad.
Obama is a soccer dad. Both of his daughters, Malia and Sasha, have played soccer, and Obama has cheered them from the sidelines. During the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Obama took time off from the economic summit in Toronto to watch the US play Ghana on TV. While on official tour in Japan this April, Obama played soccer against a Japanese robot. In an interview with Univision Deportes, the president commented, “We did quite well in South Africa. I think we’ll do well in Brazil, although the US is in a really tough bracket.”
Political leaders have often used athletics for political and diplomatic, sometimes with good results. Nelson Mandela famously embraced the South African rugby team to extend a hand to white South Africans. China’s Zhou Enlai used an invitation to the US table tennis team to help open up relations between our two countries, coining the phrase “ping-pong diplomacy.” In contrast, President Jimmy Carter’s boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was widely seen as counterproductive. More recently, President Bill Clinton tried to use baseball diplomacy with Cuba by supporting a trip of the Baltimore Orioles to Havana, and he endorsed wrestling diplomacy with Iran by sending the US national team on a tour of that country where wrestling is the national sport. Unfortunately, political differences between the countries meant these contacts could only achieve so much.
The World Cup in Brazil offers Obama an interesting set of choices, not without some risks.
Even filling out a bracket, as he has with NCAA basketball tournaments, could yield benefits. He might predict, somewhat with tongue in cheek, that the US will fell mighty Germany and end up in the finals against host country Brazil. He should praise Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff for her stand against racism in international soccer, while avoiding the fraught issue of protests in the host country against the cost of the games. US-Brazil relations have hit a bumpy patch, especially after revelations that the National Security Agency had listened in on conversations of Brazilian leaders. The World Cup offers Obama the opportunity to engage the host country on the terrain of sports, and repair a bit of the damage — without interjecting the United States into Brazilian domestic politics.
President Obama has already announced that Vice President Joe Biden will lead the official US delegation to the World Cup. Unlike the Sochi Olympics, where the United States deliberately sent a low-level delegation, emphasizing gay rights to the consternation of host leader Vladimir Putin, Obama seems intent on honoring the host country with his choices. We think that he should up the game and add First Lady Michelle Obama to the group, and select a number of women soccer players such as Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy, both inductees into the National Soccer Hall of Fame, to accompany Biden and Michelle to Brazil. He would be signaling the importance of soccer in America’s athletic future, while showing that female athletes should be as highly respected as their male counterparts. The women’s US soccer team has won the World Cup twice, and soccer has become one of the most popular sports with young US women.
While the number of young boys and girls playing soccer has grown dramatically since the 1990s — it’s the fastest growing sport in the United States — in order to compete at the highest level internationally, more young and talented athletes need to opt for soccer when making early choices about what sports to participate in.
During the World Cup, President Obama will have significant opportunity to promote soccer at home, while also reaching out to Brazil and most importantly to the world. It’s a sports diplomacy moment that he should seize.