Political Football: A Force for Good

Russian President Vladimir Putin plays w

“To be honest I was nervous about coming to summer school in England because of this F****** political situation in Russia.  I wasn’t sure I would make friends but I had no problems and everyone was very friendly.”

It was intriguing to hear the insight of this Russian teenager while working at a British international summer school. The student had arrived in England with preconceptions. He was well aware of deteriorating diplomatic relations after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and believed that forging new friendships might prove difficult.

His situation was thought provoking. The rise in nationalism and political tensions across the world mean sport is faced with a similar conundrum. Prior to the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, several English athletes approached Team England asking for guidance on how to respond to heckling from a partisan crowd. With the Scottish referendum on independence just weeks away there were fears that Scottish nationalists would use the games to voice animosity to the ‘Auld Enemy’. A spokesman for the Glasgow 2014 games reassured Team England that such an event would not materialise. “While friendly rivalries will exist between athletes on the field of play, we look forward to Scottish crowds expressing their passion for world-class sport in a family-friendly atmosphere.” Indeed the English athletes received a warm welcome but such security concerns are increasingly salient.

From the most egregious example of the murder of 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team by Palestinian Nationalists at the Munich 1972 Olympics, to the political shenanigans surrounding the Olympic boycotts of the Cold War era, athletes’ apprehensions regarding their security are not misplaced. Such overt political statements are inimical to sport’s integrity as well as security.

Ahead of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics there were real concerns regarding the safety of gay and transgender athletes, spectators and campaigners after the Russian government passed a law which criminalised support for ‘non-traditional’ relationships. During preparations for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, England manager, Roy Hodgson, expressed his concerns for the safety of both fans and players after violent protests had marred the Confederations Cup a year earlier. In 2012, ahead of the Euros in Poland and Ukraine, the British Foreign Office and ex-England defender, Sol Campbell, advised fans of a different ethnicity to stay at home because of entrenched racism and violence. When asked on a Panorama documentary – Euro 2012 Stadiums of hate – whether fans should travel to Poland and Ukraine, Campbell replied “Stay at home and watch it on TV…Don’t even risk it…you could end up coming back in a coffin.”

This sense of insecurity is bound to have a knock-on effect. The family of England footballer, Theo Walcott, decided against travelling to Euro 2012 after heeding the warning of Campbell and others. Walcott’s brother, Ashley, tweeted:

“Unfortunately my dad n i have taken the decision not to travel to the Ukraine because of the fear of possible racist attacks and confrontations.

 ‘Something’s aren’t worth risking but begs the question why hold a competition of this magnitude in a place that cannot police itself for foreigners of any creed to feel safe.”

Furthermore, is it possible for athletes to give their best performances in such hostile environments? Some of the responsibility lies with international governing bodies and their decision making processes when choosing venues to host major sporting events. That said with the proliferation of nationalist sentiments across Europe, it is likely that new cultural, social and political tensions will erupt in host nations. Following the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 back in July, Russia once again came under intense scrutiny with politicians – notably the UK’s deputy leader Nick Clegg – calling for FIFA to axe Russia as the hosts of the 2018 World Cup. “…You can’t have this – the beautiful game marred by the ugly aggression of Russia on the Russian Ukrainian border.” Clegg declared.

A World Cup in Russia could certainly stir feelings of tension and apprehension among those involved, especially if Ukraine were to qualify. However as David McArdle (co-founder of Futbolgrad) argues, stripping Russia of the World Cup would further isolate an already isolationist country and would also act to strengthen Putin’s rhetoric against the West. This is the crux of the debate. It’s yet another illustration of the old canard that politics and sport should be kept apart. This is a beautiful but romantic ideal. Sport and politics are inseparable as demonstrated in FIFA’s belief that rather than boycotting Russia 2018, the tournament can be used as a “force for good.” A political statement if ever there was one. What FIFA are backhandedly suggesting is that football should be used as a political tool. Thus rather than pretending there is no ‘political football’, the solution lies in tackling the problem head on. Shaun McCarthy, ICSS Director of Research and Knowledge Gathering, has suggested that the most prudent way forward involves forging some form of convention that protects sport from corrosive aspects of politicisation.

Event organisers, national and international governing bodies must attempt to seize the opportunity to use sport to bridge divisions. As with the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, it must be a priority to ensure that all those visiting the 2018 World Cup in Russia feel confident that the utmost is being done to uphold the integrity of the sport but also the security and well-being of all those involved. Let’s stop pretending we can keep sport free from politics and rather focus on how we can harness a positive relationship between the two.

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