The politics of football - André DeBattista

The politics of football - André DeBattista

During the Franco era, becoming a fan of FC Barcelona was in itself an act of political defiance. Photo: Mitch Gunn/

During the Franco era, becoming a fan of FC Barcelona was in itself an act of political defiance. Photo: Mitch Gunn/

‘Football and politics should not mix’ – so says conventional wisdom. The trouble with trying to exclude politics out of most spheres of society is that it is somewhat impossible.

Politics is an organic concept. It may be encouraged and distorted by organisations or governments, but it can never be imposed since it partly depends on the grassroots. Partisanship often mars our understanding of politics. However, political parties needn’t be involved in political intrigue.

A mere glance at workplace dynamics reveals how politics works in the most unexpected of ways – people congregate around influential persons, and this can affect their interests. This leads to the formation of factions and loyalties. In many ways, this is politics with a small ‘p’.

Football is one area rife with this kind of politics. Firstly, football clubs often represent cities or towns thus drawing allegiance out of particular areas sharing similar social, historical and economic scenarios. Secondly, football depends on visuals.

Flags, logos, anthems and symbols created traditions which stir emotions and encourage loyalty from supporters. Thirdly, there is a commercial aspect of football which may lead to corruption at the highest of levels and power politics.

We need not look far to see some of these elements at play. If one looks at the reasons behind some contested derbies, one will find some deep-seated (often long dead) political conflicts borne out of particular socio-political realities. The intense rivalries between Liverpool F.C. and Everton; Celtic and Rangers; Roma and Lazio; all reflect several of these tensions.

Other football clubs became rallying points for regional nationalism, particularly during periods when such political expressions are discouraged. Spain provides excellent examples. FC Barcelona is the ultimate symbol of Catalan nationalism. It was one of the first clubs to declare Catalan as its official language and it often proudly displayed the Catalan flag on its coat of arms.

When this was banned during the Franco era, becoming a fan of FC Barcelona was in itself an act of political defiance. Its motto, Mes que un club (More than a club), reflects its political role.

Similarly, Athletic Bilbao has become a symbol of Basque national identity. Its policy is to recruit football players from the Greater Basque area in Spain and France. Naturally, both teams have an intense rivalry with Real Madrid.

In Malta, rivalries between football clubs tend to be based on geographical proximity rather than politics. However, the political aspect of football comes to the fore during international matches, when England plays Italy.

This rivalry has its roots in the political conflicts of the 1920s and 1930s. Although the political scenario changed completely, the football animosity between the two supporting factions remains. This rivalry will be subdued this time around since Italy failed to qualify to the World Cup final.

International football remains the most political of all. National teams evoke patriotic loyalties. State representatives often attend international matches. The Fifa World Cup is the most well-known of these competitions.

This competition is the brainchild of Jules Rimet, who viewed football as the best way to unite nations, particularly in times of high political tensions. There were reasons for Rimet to believe this. A favourite anecdote doing the rounds in the 1920s recalled that English and German soldiers on the war front played football together on the Christmas Eve truce.

There have always been unsavoury regimes who sought to make use of such tournaments to gain some legitimacy or, at least, an international platform

Even though many teams were initially reluctant to support his initiative, the Uruguayan government agreed to host the tournament and fund the travelling costs for the different football teams. Rimet had to plead with European federations for them to take part. Only four heeded his call. His tournament survived and, today, over 200 football associations compete to get a place in the final.

Rimet was not a political person. He was a devout Roman Catholic and a Christian Democrat who believed in principles of fair play, respect and cooperation. He refused to indulge in the more subtle aspects of football. He did this at his peril – the tournament was criticised when it was held in Mussolini’s Italy in 1934.

There is a risk of doing that today. Commercial interests have undoubtedly overshadowed many aspects of the beautiful game. The main political issues have been ignored, and, thus, various tournaments are shrouded in accusations of incompetence, corruption and mismanagement.

There have always been unsavoury regimes who sought to make use of such tournaments to gain some legitimacy or, at least, an international platform. Argentina, then under a military junta, hosted the 1978 World Cup. Four years later, in 1982, it gave another international spectacle through its illegal and brutal invasion of the Falkland Islands. The actions of the Argentinian government squandered the goodwill generated by the international competition. You cannot fool all the people all the time.

Legitimate, democratically elected governments might find that the World Cup tournament attracts the sort of attention that they would rather avoid. Accusations of corruption and scandal marred the tournament in South Africa and Brazil. It will be hard to ignore the rot at the highest levels of Fifa when it decided to award the honour to host the tournament to Russia and Qatar.

Russia will find it hard to shake the image of an international pariah which often defaults on matters about human rights and international law. The questions surrounding its bid to host the World Cup will further damage its image. Russia does not seem to care about its international image. However, Fifa’s credibility depends primarily on how it is perceived.

Its reputation as a den of corruption and political intrigue is not likely to improve in this edition and the forthcoming 2022 tournament. Qatar is the most unsuitable of places to host a World Cup, and all the phases of this edition are marred by scandal, corruption and maladministration – not least that involving the treatment of foreign workers in the oil-rich state.

One hundred days before kick-off, a promotional video was released showing Fifa President Giovanni Infantino kicking a ball with Vladimir Putin in one of the Kremlin’s staterooms.  It is hard not to grimace at that image since it succinctly sums up part of the problem with this international football tournament – that is, the pervasive influence of corrupt power politics.

This video was filmed without the slightest hint of embarrassment. It is a trend which will only serve to tarnish the image of the beautiful game. It will be hard to shake off the feeling that, over a prolonged period, the image of football will be dragged further down into the mud. Jules Rimet’s ideal has been betrayed.

André DeBattista is an independent researcher in politics and international relations.

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