Watch: As India and Bangladesh Clash, Let’s Not Lose the Sporting Spirit

Cricket fans have recently turned matches between the two sides into an ugly display of competitive nationalism on social media. These clashes have been spurred by on-field tensions and gratuitous political rhetoric.

Sport, wrote George Orwell in a short essay at the end of 1945, is “an unfailing cause of ill-will” and what is unfolding online between Indian and Bangladeshi ‘netizens’ seems to be a text-book illustration of that principle.

I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield. Even if one didn’t know from concrete examples (the 1936 Olympic Games, for instance) that international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred, one could deduce it from general principles.

Nearly all the sports practised nowadays are competitive. You play to win, and the game has little meaning unless you do your utmost to win. On the village green, where you pick up sides and no feeling of local patriotism is involved. it is possible to play simply for the fun and exercise: but as soon as the question of prestige arises, as soon as you feel that you and some larger unit will be disgraced if you lose, the most savage combative instincts are aroused.

Orwell was writing about the tour of Britain that Dynamo Moscow, then the premier footballing side in the Soviet Union, made in November-December 1945.

World War II had ended a few months earlier and the two nations which had fought the Nazis side-by-side as allies were now facing each other on the soccer field.

The Soviet footballers aroused great curiosity, especially as they were men of few words but great footballing technique, and carried identical blue bags which mystified reporters until they realised these were stuffed with food they had brought from Moscow because of British post-war rationing.

In a series of sold-out games, Dynamo beat Arsenal and Cardiff City, and drew with Chelsea and the Glasgow Rangers.

Football lore today regards that visit as a grand success but Orwell, as a contemporary political commentator, saw things differently. He wrote in the Tribune: “Now that the brief visit of the Dynamo football team has come to an end, it is possible to say publicly what many thinking people were saying privately before the Dynamos ever arrived. That is, … if such a visit as this had any effect at all on Anglo-Soviet relations, it could only be to make them slightly worse than before.”

Three months later, in Fulton, Missouri, Winston Churchill made his infamous ‘Iron Curtain’ speech, and though he was no longer the British prime minister, historians date the onset of the Cold war to his March 1946 oration.

So perhaps there is a lesson in all this for Bangladesh and India.

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