Football and Politics – Politics in Football
R Arun Kumar
ARGENTINA won the FIFA World Cup. Millions of football crazy fans heaved a sigh of relief. Messi achieved his dream, cementing his place as one of the greatest footballers of all time. There are many surprises in this edition of the world cup. Morocco reaching semifinals is one among them. The other one is the elimination of another fan favourite Brazil in the quarterfinals, denying the chance to enjoy a mouthwatering Brazil Vs Argentina semifinal. Of course, the failure of countries like Germany and Belgium to pass through the group stages was a surprise. On top of all these is the performance of African and Asian teams – Saudi Arabia upsetting Argentina in the first round, followed by Japan defeating Germany, the play of Senegal, apart from Morocco – all were indicators of the emergence of football outside of traditional powerhouses in Latin America and Europe. This is a good sign or is it too early to predict! Time will answer.
But the purpose of this essay is not to discuss these matters. It is about how politics combined with the great football spectacle. This began with the questioning of the right of Qatar to host the World Cup. Allegations of corruption to win the bid or the hosting rights were doing rounds right from the day Qatar was declared as the host. These allegations gained much wider traction with the arrest of some prominent politicians in Europe who were found to be involved in such corrupt practices. This brings to fore the entire issue of commercialisation of sports, neoliberal influence on culture (of which sports are an important component) and the vested interests that command organisation of sporting events.
Sports editor Dave Zirn, who works for Los Angeles Times and Nation argues that “Global mega-events like the World Cup and Olympics have become incredibly effective tools for reorganising an economy on neoliberal grounds…They are a neoliberal Trojan horse aimed at bringing in business and rolling back the most basic civil liberties”. Similarly, Jules Boykoff, a professional football player, states: “Celebration capitalism is disaster capitalism's affable cousin. Both occur in states of exception that allow plucky politicos and their corporate pals to push policies that they couldn't dream of during normal times. But while disaster capitalism eviscerates the state, celebration capitalism manipulates state actors as partners, pushing economics rooted in so-called public-private partnerships. All too often these partnerships are lopsided: the public pays and the private profits”.
Zirn extends this argument a little further: “Celebration capitalism also provides a 'once-in-a-generation opportunity (for police and military forces) to multiply and militarise their weapons stocks, laminating another layer on the surveillance state”. He buttresses this point by giving examples from all the Olympics and World Cups that were organised within the last three decades. Construction of 'FIFA standard stadiums', evictions for the purpose and security are also some of the conditions imposed on host nations, insensitive to the popular concerns, forget about the discontent they create. “Sporting mega-events shape the economic, political and personal destines of masses of people, with zero accountability for the trial of displacement, disruption and destruction they leave behind”. These really put into context the entire human tragedy that went into the construction of all those mega stadiums in Qatar to host the world cup. Many had discussed the death of migrant workers who constructed these wonderful modern-day ‘monuments’ for us to enjoy the spectacle that we all watched. The State of Qatar was also blamed for being inconsiderate to the plight of the migrant workers. But missing in this entire discussion was the role of FIFA, IOA and such other sporting associations, which are intrinsically undemocratic and not at all responsible to the common people.
Eduardo Galeano, in his Soccer in Sun and Shadow clearly explains the role of politicians and their greed in promoting such mega sporting events: “Soccer and fatherland are always connected, and politicians and dictators frequently exploit those links of identity”. Recall the picture of the Khalif of Qatar patiently, smiling and indulging around Messi during the presentation of the World Cup! Or Macron, offering his shoulder to a dejected Mbappe after their heart-wrenching loss in the final! Or Bolsonaro campaigning in the recent presidential elections in Brazil (which he lost) in the famous yellow jersey of the Brazilian football team and trying to appropriate it. All of them are sending a message to their respective constituents – the citizens of their countries – that they are very caring, concerned and associate themselves with the emotions of the common people who identify with the sport.
The second overt political gesture that immediately caught the attention of sports lovers all over the world was from the teams themselves. German team had closed their mouths shut during the start of their first match, indicating their explicit displeasure over the denial of freedom of expression in Qatar. The Iranian players refused to sing their national anthem in protest against their regime’s attack on women who are demanding their rights and everyone appreciated their stand.
It is nobody’s argument that Qatar is a State that does not deny basic democratic rights like, right to organise, express dissent, right to freedom of expression, choice, etc. Neither is Iran such a State. Both are autocracies and refuse to heed people’s views, forget about their demands. Such policies of these States have to be protested. But the question here is, what is happening in many of the European countries or the advanced capitalist countries? Workers in Germany, Britain, US and many other countries in Europe are protesting against the attacks on their rights to unionise and protest and against labour reforms. The austerity measures introduced by the governments are met with resistance. These so-called advanced democracies are brutally suppressing protests. We all know how police force was used on Occupy Wall Street protesters to vacate the park in New York. We have seen images of how French police used tear-gas shells and baton charged workers and Yellow Vest protesters. Similarly now the UK government is talking about bringing about a law to ban strikes. It would be great if the football players of these countries, or when they are playing in these countries, express their dissent and protest against such attacks. Can we expect the football federations of such players to stand with them, if and when they express their opinions and views on such attacks? This is the real million dollar question! It really involves millions!
The great Socrates, captain of an earlier generation football team, was a doctor and a Left activist who always stood by the working class in Brazil. Of course now we have a Richarlison (who scored the famous acrobatic goal for Brazil in this World Cup) and a Paulinho who have expressed their support for Lula. Then there is Colin Kaepernick (who plays American football or Rugby) who started taking a knee against the attacks on Afro-Americans in the US and supported the Black Lives Matter movement. Now many teams, sports persons across sports, including the Indian cricket team are taking a knee against racism.
Another political gesture that was found in Qatar, brought out into the open by the Morocco players, is the open display of their support to the Palestinian cause. After their win, they went around the stadium displaying the Palestinian flag. In fact, in Qatar, many were reporting that Palestinian flags and symbols of their resistance like their scarf, were most sought out articles along with the jersies and flags of the playing nations. This is an important reflection of the feelings of not only Arabs who thronged the stadiums, but also of the people from various other countries who visited Qatar to watch the action live from the stadiums. This prevalent sentiment should not and cannot be ignored. Those who have taken notice of the German protest, unfortunately or rather deliberately are downplaying the significance of this expression of support for Palestine. This once again exposes the bias and double standards of the so-called advanced democracies and their pen-pushers.
Galeano wrote this about a budding football player: “From the moment of birth, that child is forced to turn his disadvantage into a weapon, and before long he learns to dribble around the rules of order that deny him a place. He learns the tricks of every trade and he becomes an expert in the art of pretending, surprising, breaking through where least expected, and throwing off an enemy with a hip feint or some other tune from the rascals songbook”. Messi had showed how this is done on the field, so did other footballers (sad part is that some famous Brazilian football names have openly supported Bolsonaro for whatever reason, betraying their class of origin).
Now it is our turn to twist and turn, feint and ‘throw off the enemy’ – neoliberalism and the capitalist womb from which it grew to such monstrous size. That would be a much cherished and satisfying victory for all of us. The whistle has blown!