Intrepretations of Bill Shankly's famous quote – "Football isn't a matter of life or death, It's much more important than that" – vary.
One is that it speaks to the wild passion that drives the game, the tendancy of its fans to suspend all rationality for 90 minutes and believe – truly believe – there is much more at stake than 3 points or a place in the next round of competition. Certainly this week, when England's hopes of playing in World Cup 2014 are either realised or thwarted over two games, that all-consuming belief will surface one again.
But here's the truly beautiful thing about the beautiful game. At times, it's true. Football really is a matter of life or death, the difference between peace or war, part of a fork in the road of human history. At times, football has changed the world. Here we remember six such occasions.
Almost a century had passed since Ottoman forces killed in the region of one million Armenians during World War One. With tensions still fraught, it was a football match that finally brought the two nations together to reconcile their differences.
On the invitation of the Armenian President, the two heads of state sat side by side as their nations took to the field in an otherwise meaningless World Cup qualifier. A peace settlement was discussed, and with a resolution on the horizon, white doves were released in the stadium. Days later, an accord was signed.
Didier Drogba was a divisive figure during his time in England, enraging as many rival fans with his diving and foul play as he delighted the Chelsea faithful with his scintillating goals. But in his native Ivory Coast, the striker embodies something very different: peace.
In the aftermath of beating Sudan 3-1, ensuring their qualification to the 2006 World Cup, Drogba, flanked by his teammates, dropped to his knees in the Ivory Coast changing room and made a televised appeal to the countries warring factions to lay down their arms and end five years of civil war. ‘Forgive,’ he implored them (see video above).
Peace talks resumed, and in 2007 the White Elephants played a match in the former rebel stronghold, Bouaké, bringing the leaders of both sides and their armies peacefully together for the first time.
As one of the greatest talents ever to grace the international stage, Pele was used to making the world stop and draw breath. But arguably the most powerful performance of his career came not at a World Cup, but during a pair of exhibition matches in Nigeria in 1967.
Santos had arrived in Lagos in the midst of a bloody civil war, but the football-mad country were so keen to see Pele play, both sets of forces agreed to a 48-hour ceasefire. Fellow striker Lima summed up the experience: "It was strange because the whole country was divided and in conflict. But as soon as they found out the game was to take place that was put on hold. It was a tiny pitch, I remember it well, the people arrived carrying chairs on their heads in order to watch the game."
Inmates at Robben Island – the South African prison famous for being where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated – spent two years requesting the authorities grant them permission to play football, being punished every time for their temerity. Until one day in 1966, when the wardens relented.
The Mankana Football Association was born, with Rangers taking on Bucks in the league's first game, using one of the only books allowed in the prison library as a guide: the FIFA rule book.
No record of final score in that game survived, but a more important legacy was the hope it gave inmates – one of whom, Jacob Zuma, went from playing in the heart of the Bucks defence that day to being the current president of South Africa.
The end of World War Two and the break up of Germany had left the country’s national pride in tatters, with the state still struggling through post-war depression.
Against the odd, the West German team made it through to the 1954 World Cup Final in Switzerland where they were to face the formidable ‘Mighty Magyars’ of Hungary, a side unbeaten in 32 games – including a 8-3 demolition of the very same West Germany side in the qualifying rounds.
In perhaps the biggest upset in the history of World Cup finals, West Germany went two goals down, then defied the odds to come back as 3-2 winners in a game that came to be known as ‘The Miracle of Bern’.
Football had restored national pride to the state (it was the first time since before WWII the German national anthem was played at a global sporting event), and riding the wave of euphoria, the economy boomed, helping give birth to modern day Germany.
Despite having been at war with one another for five months, British and German troops in Ypres managed to arrange an unofficial ceasefire on Christmas Day, 1914.
With no shots having been fired on Christmas morning, soldiers ventured out of their trenches into no-man’s land to recover their fallen comrades. A football was kicked out from a British trench, and so began perhaps the most famous football match of all, altering the very course of world history, if only for a few hours.