Soccer’s Pre-emptive Public Holiday Curse

By | March 1, 2020

Soccer can sometimes feel like an alternate reality, an escape. On a hard-earned weekend, a manual laborer and his friends might be able to gather for a couple of hours and kick the ball around.  Sheltered children shuttled in minivans from their identical suburban houses to florescent-lit schools can find release on the pitch. A miniscule, almost negligible percent of those children will be able to make their escape their career. Soccer will be their profession. For most people, however, life and labor will be focus elsewhere. Watching and playing soccer will only ever be escapes.

In rare moments, however, the wonder of soccer so vastly exceeds expectations that it bursts from the confines of pastime and hobby into the real world. When a town or nation is tightly gripped by the suspense of a high-stakes match before a victory, fans celebrate their eventual conquest with fervor. This blog will provide an overview of some of the diverse soccer inspirations of public holidays.

Some countries have grand aspirations. They seek supremacy in the world, or to unseat those who had presided over them unjustly. For European powers like Germany, Italy, or England, and for South American masters like Brazil and Argentina, success comes only from the glittering sheen of a Jules Rimet Trophy. Anything less is wasted potential. When success does come at that level, however, it brings with it the joy of true fulfillment. Fans take to the streets and celebrate in perfect harmony with strangers. Their chants reverberate throughout the nation.

In 1970 Brazil, this was particularly true. The World Cup title earned two consecutive days of public holiday from a Médici government that hoped to capitalize on goodwill. Decades of team-building yielded an existential accomplishment. Brazil overcame the nations that had so long belittled it. Victory for Brazil then transcended soccer. Years later, as Brazil gained respect as an “emerging power” politically and an established superpower in soccer, titles carried less weight. There was no public holiday when Brazilian players brought home the World Cup title in 1994 or 2002.[i]

Overseas, England has hoped to be able to declare a public holiday while France has glorified several. In 2018, an English squad with a lot of momentum advanced to the World Cup semifinals. They looked poised to claim the championship, and their fans were poised to celebrate. Over 200,000 petition signatories and then opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn called on parliament to declare a Bank Holiday—a British national holiday—in the event of a championship victory.[ii] Unfortunately, that holiday was not to be. Instead, England’s centuries-old political rival and neighbor across the channel would take home the cup on its national holiday—Bastille Day. Exactly twenty years earlier, in 1998, France enjoyed a similarly coincidental celebration as the national team won the cup the day before Bastille day.[iii] For countries dominant in politics and soccer, holidays celebrate only the highest successes.

(Clips of 2018 World Cup celebrations in France)

For other national squads, surviving a few rounds of elimination is enough to warrant celebration. In 2002, South Korea declared a public holiday so that its citizens could watch their team square-off in the semifinals against Germany. This holiday, however, would not be the happiest, and the tournament’s co-hosts would be sent on a short trip home after losing 1-0 to Germany.[iv] Several days later, Turkey had its own national holiday spoiled. Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit gave public workers a half-day holiday so they could watch the game—one which they would lose 1-0 to Brazil. For both Turkey and South Korea, advancing to their first-ever World Cup semi-finals was reason enough to celebrate.[v]

In celebrations, countries set their own standards.  In 2014, advancing to the World Cup quarter-finals was reason enough for Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to grant his country a public half-holiday to watch the match, which they would lose 2-1 to Brazil.[vi] The bitter taste of defeat was sweetened by the fact that this was still Colombia’s most successful World Cup campaign to date. Declaring or formally considering a public holiday for your national squad seems to be an effective way to send them packing. Though leaders likely declare public holidays only once they suspect their squad has met its match, the superstitious amongst us will discourage any public holidays until the tournament is over.

A poor showing in the World Cup is for some teams the thing of dreams. Many countries rarely qualify if ever. In 1998, a dedicated team from Jamaica qualified for its first—and so far, only—World Cup. To the chagrin of many business owners and the delight of countless fans, the Jamaican leader declared a public holiday.[vii] Eight years later, Togo qualified for its first-ever World Cup and declared a public holiday to celebrate.[viii] Across the Atlantic, Trinidad and Tobago declared a public holiday for its nation of 1.1 million citizens when their team earned the country’s first-ever World Cup berth.[ix] In 2018, Panama declared a national holiday for its first World Cup qualification.[x] A few countries over, Peru qualified for its first World Cup in over thirty years and gave its own citizens the day off.[xi]  As expectations and the curse would suggest, these teams were all eliminated as quickly as possible.

(What qualifying for the 2018 World Cup meant to Panama)

Though also bad luck on the pitch, Cameroon’s 1994 soccer-inspired public holiday seems to have at least been politically successful. Four years after advancing to the 1990 World Cup quarterfinals, Cameroon once again qualified for the World Cup. That 1994’s squad’s qualification came at a convenient time for recently re-elected incumbent president Paul Biya. The United States accused his government of voter fraud and intimidation. The opposition planned a general strike for October 11th. Unfortunately for them, Cameroon qualified for the World Cup on October 10th. Biya used the relatively minor success as an excuse to declare a public holiday on the 11th. This eliminated the possibility of the originally planned strike, and another was never scheduled.[xii] Unfortunately, the holiday curse hit Cameroon’s soccer team nonetheless, and the team was eliminated in group play. National holidays do not seem to do much good for national teams with games yet to play, but they can be of great value to adoring fans and calculating politicians. While it is most likely the case that countries only declare public holidays for teams still in contention when their team is outmatched, those who believe in curse may want to discourage any pre-emptive celebrations.


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