WATERLOO — To the average fan, a World Cup game between Switzerland and Serbia might just seem like a clash between two strong soccer nations.
But dig deeper and you’ll find greater context.
“When Switzerland plays Serbia there are incredible tensions between the players,” said Tim Elcombe, an associate professor of kinesiology and physical education at Wilfrid Laurier University.
“It’s because there are a couple of players on Switzerland who are Albanian and one was born in Kosovo. So then if you know the tension between Serbia and Kosovo, you start to understand why this game matters so much and why there is so much attention.”
Every match at the World Cup, currently running in Qatar, has its history on and off the pitch.
And Elcombe, and his team at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, break down every tilt as part of the World Cup and Global Politics Project.
The web hub goes way beyond scores and schedules and examines the relationship between politics and sport by providing a bevy of material including a World Cup historical primer, match previews and tables and indices rating countries’ happiness, freedom and GDP, among other things.
“It’s really a way to connect international affairs and the World Cup,” said Elcombe, who is also a fellow at the Balsillie school. “Especially with it being in Qatar and so much attention on the political side of it.”
Elcombe, a lifelong soccer fan whose area of expertise is sports and ethics, got inspired for the project while on sabbatical in Britain — mostly in Wales — in 2015.
“Being in one of the British environments of sport really drew me into looking at sport through an international or global lens,” he said. “It really heightened how different sport is in North America than it is in the rest of the world.”
Elcombe received a grant from the Balsillie school, which allowed him to hire some students to help populate the website while also getting support from colleague Alanna Harman, an assistant professor of kinesiology and physical education at Laurier, as well as from a peer at the Cardiff Metropolitan University in Wales.
The project is packed with content but it’s the daily briefs that are the real eye-opener. Each one breaks down the day’s match in an interesting and educational way.
Like the one that set up a group stage match between the United States and Iran, which described the first time the nations met in 1998.
“Described as the most politically charged game in football history, the Iranian team were instructed by the Ayatollah to disregard FIFA protocol which required them, as the visiting team, to initiate handshakes with their American competitors,” the preview read. “However in an act of peace, each Iranian player handed the Americans a white rose — before historically defeating the USA in a match that led to celebrations in the streets of Iran, raising concerns of the Iranian leadership.”
The United States won 1-0 this time around.
Or read up on the “complicated history” between Croatia and Canada, fuelled further by Canadian skipper John Herdman, who was accused of disrespecting the Croatian contingent before their group stage tilt at this year’s World Cup.
“What they (FIFA) want to claim is that the only way football can do its work is if everyone leaves their politics at the side when these competitions begin,” said Elcombe. “Then we allow nations, that otherwise wouldn’t get along, to show up and compete. But it’s impossible. So, it becomes more of an issue of how do you deal with the inevitable political complexity?”
Elcombe hopes to use the news hub as a pilot project and see it continue to evolve for 2026. That’s when Canada co-hosts the World Cup with the United States and Mexico and, once again, politics, global relations and sports will collide.
“As soon as it goes to North America, Canada is going to be scrutinized for its human rights issues and for all sorts of things,” he said. “The United States is going to take the brunt of it, but there is no doubt in my mind that it will be part of the conversation in 2026.”