With “ping pong diplomacy” we mean the table tennis friendly matches between United States and China, harbinger of the visit of the American president Richard Nixon to the Asian country. It was the firs step toward the thawing of the relations between two countries which only had in common the hate for the Soviet Union. Not that much. but enough to put in work the balance of power.
The political genius of Henry Kissinger had been glorified for that. The Secretary of State understood the importance of sport in international relationships. Actually, his intuition was propitiated by an accidental occurrence.
During the ping pong world cup in 1971, in Japan, the American player Glenn Cowan is the involuntary protagonist of an unlucky episode: he finishes too late the training with the Chinese team and loses his bus, which don’t wait for him. The three times world champion Zhuang Zedong is a bit hesitant, but he knows that they can’t leave Cowan alone. So he offers him a ride, the hotels of the two teams are really close to each other, after all.
Even without the internet, the news spreads quickly: an American in a Chinese bus is not an everyday thing, not in the middle of the Cold War. Reporters and photographers run immediately at the hotel, craving for a scoop. That’s the moment when Kissinger has the epiphany.
He is a controversial character, a Nobel Peace Prize who is involved in many violations, from the Vietnam war, to the coup in Chile, to Operation Condor: worse than Barack Obama, who left troops all around the world, worse than Aung San Suu Kyi, who does nothing to avoid the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar.
Kissinger will be back in sports less than two decades later, to be precise in 1988. Thanks to his network of relationships, he obtains, for the United States, the organization of the 1994 soccer world cup, winning the competition with Brazil, basically the homeland of football.
Back then, Kissinger is an exception in the USA – mostly because he is German. He is a great supporter of Greuther Fürth, the team of his hometown, he will become friend of the president of Juventus, Giovanni Agnelli and he’ll be his guest at the stadium. But that’s Europe, overseas there is a completely different situation. The United States don’t even have a professional league of soccer – football is a different thing out there – it will be created just in time for the world cup.
Sport and entertainment don’t necessarily need to be separated, as the halftime show during the Super Bowl demonstrates. The ’94 world cup will not change this rule, which is familiar to the Americans, but not to the rest of the planet. Everything is subordinated to sponsors, broadcasting rights, revenues. This world cup edition is the break between football of the past and the present – hopefully not the future, but we aren’t going in the right direction.
Kissinger’s world cup – he’s also a member of the organizing committee – is a meat grinder and the most excellent victim is a certain Diego Armando Maradona. The competition needs a front man, someone capable of attracting the public to the stadium or to the TV set. Someone famous even for an audience who don’t know nothing about football and don’t care about (talented) players like Baggio, Hagi or Valderrama.
The slight problem is that Maradona is a drug addict, overweight and hasn’t played a game in months. Nothing that can’t be solved, though, he is good as new in a record time. How? Thanks to ephedrine, an alkaloid with a chemical structure similar to amphetamine. That’s not a great improvement, compared to cocaine, but according to many rumors Maradona will not be drawn for an anti-doping control.
A “gentleman” agreement (this can’t be official!) immediately disappointed. Can you trust Kissinger (after what he did throughout history) and another “weaver” like the president of FIFA João Havelange, who will be accused of corruption? Of course no. After the second match with Nigeria, Maradona’s number is the one drawn for anti-doping controls and he will be disqualified for an excess of ephedrine in his blood (how come???).
Conspiracy theorists say that Maradona pays for the accuses to FIFA: games played at absurd timetables, at midday in summer, with high rates of humidity; no interest for the player’s health; everything sacrificed to the altar of the god of money. Maradona makes a strong comparison between the organization of that world cup and the death of Ayrton Senna, happened just few months earlier. Formula1 starts to think about safety only after the loss of the legendary Brazilian driver. Same doubts of four years before, Italy ’90, when Maradona complains about allegedly rigged draws and Argentina is heavily damaged by the referee in the final match with Germany. All things that make sense, that’s why suspicions lingers on.
For the record, Brazil will win Kissinger world cup, the fourth of its history. The dedication of this triumph is for Senna, who was competing for his fourth world title as well, until the fatal curve of Tamburello, Imola. The players celebrate the pilot with a banner that says “aceleramos juntos, o tetra é nosso”, let’s speed up together, the fourth is ours.