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Accueil > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2012 > July 2012 > The Politics of Football

The Politics of Football

Sunday 1 July 2012, by Michael Reford

It is that time again: Every four years fans around the world get to enjoy the European Championship. Whether in domestic leagues or at the international level, politics seem to be omnipresent in European football. The most important question that arises from this is: why football?

With every major tournament, the eyes of the world fall upon the host nations as any relevant issue, be it sports related or not, becomes intensely scrutinized. As such, racism has been at the centre of discussions about Euro 2012. This is a common issue in football, not only in Europe but around the world. It is simple to blame some Ultra groups that have racist tendencies but the problem stems from a larger issue. The immigration question has become central in mainstream European politics and it has been manifesting itself in football stadiums from both Poland and Ukraine all the way to the UK’s Premier League —one of the most prestigious and popular football leagues in the world.

The pre-tournament ‘Stadiums of Hate’, an inflammatory, poorly presented documentary on Polish and Ukrainian culture within stadiums, comes to mind. Addressing the common problem of racism — not new in Eastern European countries — it presents specific Ultra groups displaying anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi symbols in stadiums. Taking this evidence and relating it on a wider scale to the Polish and Ukrainian public makes it appear as if there is approval of racist behaviours and involvement on a much wider scale. But there is a distinction between racism and anti-immigration policy that must be made clear. And minority with a unique culture is not an accurate representation of the wider population.

In another instance, a quarterfinal match between Germany and Greece brought together two nations in the midst of a pan-European debt crisis. What occurred on the field seemed to be an emulation of what has been happening to the Greek people. The Greeks were left to salvage a few ounces of pride from kick-off as they were at the mercy of a skilled German side. Angela Merkel was present at what was dubbed “the bailout match” . As a major creditor, Merkel has been pushing for repayment and austerity in Greece . Her attendance came with political connotations as to show a presence over the Greek counterparts. Jeers, whistles and chants directed at Merkel brought the political situation between both countries to the forefront. With the ongoing debt crisis overshadowing the match, Germany’s win was politically symbolic.

During a group stage match between Poland and Russia, past and current political tensions came to light. Outside the stadium, small demonstrations took place accusing Russia of the murder of Lech Kaczyński who died in a plane crash en route to a memorial service for the Katyn Massacre in western Russia. Many Poles are wary of Russian involvement in the death of their head of state as investigations on both sides gave different conclusions. Violent clashes on the streets of Warsaw exposed Cold War era tensions as Russian fans marched down the main street waving flags in what was interpreted as a show of Russian nationalism.

But the intersection of football and politics does not only happen during the European Cup. On the domestic league level, one can look to Spain. The Spanish cup final pitted Athletic Bilbao against Barcelona at a predetermined neutral ground in Madrid. The result was a rude welcome by right-wing nationalist groups marching for “Spanish unity”. The situation was exacerbated by comments made by politicians on both sides regarding potential whistling of the Spanish anthem. After all of the political build up, one could forget that a cup final was indeed occurring. At the end of a one sided game, the Barcelona captain, Carles Puyol, was seen celebrating by hoisting both Catalan and Basque flags in what can be interpreted as a show of solidarity and support for two persecuted provinces. The tension from General Franco’s cultural oppression in these two provinces still endures and was brought to light in a footballing context.

Football has also sparked political issues with much wider international implications. After the death of Tito, Serb and Croat nationalist sentiments had been steadily growing and were at an all-time high when a match was to be played between Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade in Zagreb in May 1990. The result was a riot in the stadium that pitted Dinamo’s Ultras, the Bad Blue Boys against another equally nationalistic Ultra group, Red Star’s Delije. Serb policemen were brought in to control the situation but when they beat a fan on the pitch, Zvonomir Boban, a Zagreb player unleashed a kick on the policeman in defence of the fan. The riot at Maksimir stadium and the symbolic kick became a flashpoint for the civil war that was to follow while Boban became a symbol of Croat nationalism. On that fateful day, Red Star’s Delije were led by Zeliko “Arkan” Raznatovic who would later form a Serb paramilitary group known as Arkan’s Tigers made up of Delije members.

Explosions of conflicting ideas have a history of occurring within the football world but there have some positive instances in which the futures of nations are affected by a dramatic win. Leading up to France’s 1998 World Cup, inflammatory comments made by far-right political leader Jean-Marie Le Pen about the ethnicities of French national players — and whether the players were truly French — fuelled built up tension throughout a country whose present and future was rooted in multiculturalism. Key players of foreign descent such as Zidane, Thuram, and Desailly were instrumental in the French victory and what followed was a mending of pre-tournament social and cultural division within France. Nationalistic sentiment engulfed the nation that had been struggling to come to terms with a new multiethnic and multicultural identity.

Football is an international game and with this comes international attention, which players, fan groups, or ultras can use to their advantage. FIFA and UEFA have strict measures banning political gestures and displays in order to avoid potential problems but despite this, European politics still manages to seep into the game on the professional level.

The explanation for why politics are involved in football can be perhaps explained by George Orwell’s interpretation of competitive sport: “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. In other words: it is war minus the shooting.”

What sports and politics seem to have in common is the passion and the struggle to win, the emotion of representing an ideal and the bond forged through victory or defeat. It is no wonder that politics manifests itself in such a setting. It is a combination of the excitement of sport and conflict, an extension of ideals, a representation of culture, a battle on the pitch and in the stands, and a microcosm of current social struggles and political conflict.