03/21/15

Football and Politics: An Inseparable Couple

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With the rise in nationalism and diplomatic tensions across the world, the old canard that sport and politics should be kept separate is increasingly outdated.

Russia’s 2018 World Cup has come under scrutiny due to their role in the Ukrainian conflict, with notable politicians such as British deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, calling for FIFA to axe Russia as the host. In 2014, prior to the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, several English athletes approached Team England asking for guidance on how to respond to heckling from a partisan crowd. The Scottish referendum on independence was just weeks away and 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. Indeed the English athletes received a warm welcome and the eventual referendum on September 18, 2014, saw the Scots vote against independence. The Scottish referendum was also followed with considerable interest in Catalonia, an autonomous region in Spain whose separatist movement has often been compared to that of Scotland’s. Just five days before Scotland’s independence vote, the La Liga game between Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao at the Camp Nou was another fascinating example of the Gordian Knot that is sport and politics.

For the first time in Barca’s 115-year history, the club sported the iconic yellow and red colours of Catalonia in front of their home crowd. The decision was awash with political nuances. The yellow and red strip denotes the Catalan flag, La Senyera. Furthermore, the build up to the game had been marked by the tri-centennial Diada Nacional de Catalunya (National day of Catalonia), a commemoration of the regions defeat during the War of the Spanish Succession on September 11th, 1714.

Catalonia has long harboured a strong separatist movement and Spain’s economic crisis has only served to reinforce these sentiments. Throughout Barca’s existence, the club has provided an outlet for Catalan nationalism, especially during the reign of Fascist dictator, General Franco, whose policy of ‘cultural genocide’ threatened to extinguish Catalan identity altogether. General Franco used Real Madrid as an arm of his virulent anti-Catalan policy, seeing the capital’s club as another means through which to suppress Catalonia and humiliate Barca.

Franco prohibited the flying of La Senyera at Blaugrana matches while the Catalan language was prohibited. Real Madrid versus Barcelona was no longer a football match but more a de-facto battleground between the centralist powers of Franco and the separatists of Catalonia. Referring to the clubs role during this era, renowned Spanish author Manuel Vazquez called Barcelona “the symbolic unarmed army of Catalonia.”

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Despite the politically infused kit change, La Liga accepted the clubs request to wear the Senyera shirt. This was followed by a statement released by the Blaugrana denying the club mixed sport with politics.

The Senyera shirt is not being worn because of the 11 September [National Day] – we are doing it to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the fall of Barcelona at the hands of the troops of Philip V and the French in 1714.”

The move delighted followers of the Catalonia independence movement. Club defender Gerard Pique, who was born in the city, made the link explicit after he joined a march for Catalan independence and tweeted a picture of himself and his son, Milan, who was wearing the shirt. This example serves to reinforce the argument that it is nigh-on impossible to keep sport free from politics, despite the pretence of those in charge.

Thus rather than pretending there is no ‘political football’, the solution may lie 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. Should Barcelona have been allowed to wear a shirt that was championing the Catalan cause? That’s down to ones interpretation of what constitutes corrosive politicisation, a question with no easy answer. In this instance, Barca’s political maneuverings brought neither the security nor integrity of football into disrepute and as such, perhaps unwittingly, La Liga followed Shaun McCarthy’s advice and decided that the kit change was not a ‘corrosive aspect of politicisation.’

As recently as November 2014, 80% of people in Catalonia backed independence for the region in an informal, non-binding vote. The ballot went ahead despite fierce opposition from the Spanish government. The game between Barcelona and Real Madrid this weekend will be the first played at the Camp Nou since Catalonia’s unofficial referendum vote. This will only foment the antagonism surrounding the fixture and undoubtedly inspire yet more gestures of political defiance.

As the clock hits 17:14,  chants of ‘Independencia’ will bellow down from the stands of the camp nou. It is and always has been a politically infused chant remembering the date Catalonia lost it’s independence. So 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.

@LH_Ramon25

Part of this article was originally published on These Football Times

03/25/14

Ferenc Puskas: The Football Star That Awoke a Nation.

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(Ferenc Puskas 1927 – 2006. Photo from www.theguardian.com )

Cristiano Ronaldo is set to leave yet another indelible mark on the history of Real Madrid. With 240 competitive goals to his name, he sits just two behind ex-Galactico, Ferenc Puskas, who is fourth in the Los Blancos all time scoring charts. This puts the Portuguese phenomenon on the brink of surpassing yet another landmark in his decorated career.

However while the 2013 Ballon d’or winner will exceed Puskas’s achievements within the realms of football, the Hungarian’s exploits beyond the field of play transcend any goal scoring honours. In light of events in Ukraine the story of this revolutionary footballer is worth re-visiting.

Born in 1927, Puskas is Hungarian footballs greatest exponent. Short and stocky of build, the striker was prolific at both club and international level. For Hungary, he scored 83 goals in 84 appearances and in 1954 he led his nation to a World Cup final, narrowly losing 3-2 to the might of West Germany. Puskas was in footballing terms, light years ahead, capable of producing brilliance others could barely fathom let alone replicate. However while many marvelled at his bewitching left-foot, the powers in his own country saw his ingenuity as a problem.

Having been occupied by Germany and then Russia, Hungary had endured times of significant hardship during World War Two. Under the ‘iron fist’ of the Soviet Union the country’s new hard-line apparatchik, Matyas Rakosi, had implemented a state dictatorship rivalling that of his comrade Joseph Stalin. Freedom of speech was non-existent. Thousands of Hungarians were sent to camps and prisons. Like so many other Communist states, sport was used as an ideological battleground. Football became both a vehicle of solidarity and one with which to challenge the West.

But in a political system which espoused collectivism, Puskas was a free spirit. He played for a team that was the antithesis of the martinet regime they represented. The ‘Marvellous Magyars’, an epithet you would hardly associate with a Communist dictatorship.

In 1953, on the 25th of November – led by their virtuoso captain – the Magyars travelled to Wembley unbeaten in three years. However facing England was a different proposition. The English were indomitable at their prestigious home and football remained a proud bulwark of a diminishing British Empire. This was a clash of two footballing greats with contrasting ideologies. England’s Capitalist Imperialism vs. Hungary’s Communism. Gusztav Sebes the Hungarian coach (and member of the Communist government) re-affirmed this:

“The bitter struggle between capitalism and communism is fought out not only between our societies, but also on the pitch.

Captains Ferenc Puskas and Billy Wright lead their teams out at Wembley Stadium back in 1953.

Left Hungary captain Ferenc Puskas, right England captain Billy Wright, leading their teams out at Wembley Stadium back in 1953.

Hungary triumphed sweeping England aside 6-3. Puskas scored two, including his famous – drag back goal – which screamed individuality.

A year later the two sides met again, this time at the newly built Nepstadion in Budapest. Hungary eviscerated England 7-1, Puskas again scoring two. The Hungarian government attempted to bill these successes as a triumph of the Communist system. Yet the performances had been down to the sprezzatura of players like Puskas who defied convention. Football allowed Puskas to do things exactly the way he wanted.

That same year the man nicknamed the “Booming Cannon” led his team to a World Cup final. However the disappointment of losing to their ideological rivals West Germany was too much to bear, both for the Hungarian public and Rakosi. The disbelieving mob poured onto the streets venting their anger at the draconian regime. The protests became a prelude for the 1956 Hungarian revolution.

Rakosi on the other hand took matters into his own hands and found his scapegoat in the shape of Hungarian goalkeeper, Gyula Grosics. Grosics was detained and charged with spying however the case fell through due to a lack of evidence.

Puskas would experience similar treatment. After Hungary lost to Czechoslovakia the national football association banned him for “laziness on the pitch.” However the regime needed its sporting heroes and he was pardoned just a couple of months later.

Hungary’s triumphs on the field and the exploits of their captain created a new sense of national identity. The team’s success helped the country open their eyes to the possibility of independence from their Soviet occupiers. According to Hungarian writer Peter Esterhazy, the success of the Magyars can be seen as a symbol of the 1956 rebellion. In a BBC article about Hungary’s triumph at Wembley, the writer claims Puskas became “the hero of a fairy-tale, who triumphs where ordinary men cannot.”

In 1956 there was a nationwide insurrection. At the time Puskas’s club side –  Budapest Honved – were in Spain for a European Cup game. The Hungarian football federation attempted to prevent the match going ahead however Puskas was defiant, announcing the team no longer recognised the federation’s authority. Furthermore he openly voiced support for the revolution and defected to Spain.

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Puskas at Real Madrid

A Communist athlete had taken a stand against a government that had tried to stymie his individuality. The Soviets sent in the tanks and the uprising was brutally crushed. Puskas became a pariah but he began a new chapter at Real Madrid. Fearing for his life, he did not return to Hungary until the fall of Communism in Europe. In 2006 he passed away in Budapest.

But what significance does this story hold today? The 1956 Revolution was during the height of the Cold War era. The Hungarian insurgents had hoped that the West would intervene but help was not forthcoming. Recently Ukraine was plunged into turmoil after a rebellion against their Russian-backed Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. Russian troops have since flooded into Crimea in an attempt to annex the Ukrainian territory. The majority of Crimean’s have voted in favour of re-joining Russia but the European Union, the U.S. and Ukraine’s interim Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, have denounced the referendum. Some have warned we are teetering on the edge of a new Cold War.

At the opening ceremony of the Sochi Winter Paralympic’s, Ukraine pointedly sent out just one athlete as their flag-bearer to protest against Russia’s occupation of Crimea. Two other Ukrainian athletes covered their medals on the podium in a silent protest. The situation resonates with historic events in Hungary. Then as now, athletes used sport as a medium to express themselves. Thus the story of the Marvellous Magyars and Ferenc Puskas could not be more relevant.

Regarded as one of the greatest European footballers of all time, Puskas was also a revolutionary. In a country torn apart by a deep political schism, he was a figure whose footballing achievements helped people forge a new identity. Puskas awoke a nation to the possibility of change.

Ferenc Puskas – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hJYXvqenhVs

01/9/14

“Nothing Against the State”: European Football and Fascism

I was slightly perplexed when I heard Nicholas Anelka had been lambasted by the French Sports Minister, Valerie Fourneyron, for what at first sight, appeared nothing more than an inconspicuous goal celebration. ‘La quenelle’ – a reverse Nazi salute?  Even Arsenal’s French manager, the studied and renowned Arsène Wenger, expressed his bewilderment:

“Nobody knows in France what it means. Some make it an anti-system movement; some make it an anti-Semitic movement. I think personally I don’t know, I have never seen this movement.”

After scoring the first of his two goals in West Brom’s 3-3 draw with West Ham back in December the French striker, who it must be said is no stranger to controversy (just ask Raymond Domenech), celebrated with what has been described as a pseudo-Nazi salute with anti-Semitic connotations.

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Anelka and his comedian friend Dieudonné – the quenelle (Photo from http://www.spi0n.com/)

Quenelle’ – loosely translated as a spice dumpling in French is the word used to describe Anelka’s gesture. Its appearance strongly resembles a downward facing Nazi Salute, with the non-saluting arm placed upon the other to symbolize it being held down, as a regular Nazi salute is of course not acceptable. Patented by the French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala (who goes by Dieudonné), Anelka’s actions prompted widespread condemnation from both political and sporting circles.

Anelka responded to this furore by claiming that the celebration was “just a special dedication to my comedian friend Dieudonné” and that he is “neither a racist nor an anti-semite”. Dieudonné asserts the quenelle is anti-establishment rather than anti-Semitic. But this is a man who has been fined on a number of occasions for inciting racial hatred and whose humour consists of saying “When I hear Patrick Cohen speak, I think to myself: ‘Gas chambers … too bad [they no longer exist].”

With the FA investigating his controversial gesture, Anelka could face a lengthy ban of 5-10 games. The former French international has pledged not to repeat this action, yet whether his plea of blissful ignorance holds any weight is another question. The fact he dedicated the celebration to Dieudonné, a man who openly voices some deplorable views, makes it hard to sympathise with Anelka. At a time when anti-Semitism in football has found voice in whispers, the FA must act swiftly to make an example of this particular incident.

Stan Collymore, ex-professional and now football pundit responded to the incident, saying he didn’t believe politics should mix with sport and that footballers should leave such issues to the politicians. Maybe but we must remember footballers are voting people just like the rest of us and as long as they are not voicing, tweeting , gesturing, or communicating views which disseminate political extremism and/or messages that incite racial hatred then I believe they have a right to a political opinion. However that is neither here nor there. My main point is, as Sid Lowe explores in his book Fear and Loathing in La Liga “Like it or not, sport and politics do mix, no match is so infused with politics as the Clasico”.

Political expressions during El Clasico are common place.

Political expressions during El Clasico are common place.

Indeed the history of this fixture highlights the purpose of this article. The political backdrop to El Clasico owes much to the Spanish Civil War and the Fascist dictator General Francisco Franco’s oppression of Catalonia. For the Catalan people, Real Madrid, a team based in the Spanish capital, became something of a standard bearer for the Franco regime. It was a regime which the majority in Catalonia virulently opposed and was a continuation of the regions ongoing struggle for autonomy. Franco ruthlessly manipulated the passion of Spain’s bitterly divided football supporters and made the sport an arm of his Fascist policy. Consequently FC Barcelona became a symbol of Catalan defiance. This is just one example in which fascism is interwoven in football’s history.

So without getting bogged down in the minutiae of the Anelka saga I would like to raise a wider issue. The quenelle incident is just the latest chapter in an ongoing narrative which has seen far right, fascist sentiments take hold within European football.

Football and its Fascist past.

“It’s only a game but behind the image of football lies a history of coercion, corruption and manipulation by the three most powerful fascists of the 20th century.”

This is one of the opening statements in the BBC’s documentary Football and Fascism. Benito Mussolini, General Franco and Adolf Hitler all exploited the popular culture of football for the benefit of their regimes. Mussolini used Italy’s triumph in the 1934 World Cup (hosted by the Italians) as an opportunity to gain International prestige and mold a national identity for Fascist Italy while under Hitler, the Nazi’s intimidated, threatened and murdered footballers who refused to bend to their will.

Italian team line up for the 1934 World Cup saluting Benito Mussolini.

Italian team line up for the 1934 World Cup – Fascist salutes.

On the face of it the nature of a sport like football to an oligarchy like Fascism is quite obvious. It is a sport which teaches values of discipline, adherence to rules, cohesion as well as stalwart passion for one’s team. International sporting success can also be extrapolated to wider contexts such as asserting and showcasing a nation’s superiority and dominance, something which was a leitmotif in all three of the aforementioned Fascist regimes. Nonetheless with the extinction of these dictators and their totalitarian states one might think Fascism’s place in football died with them – not quite.

Benito Mussolini or Il Duce as he was known said “Fascism is a religion. The twentieth century will be known in history as the century of Fascism.” Unfortunately it would appear such ideologies have managed to inexorably slither into the 21st century too.

Football Supporters and Fascism

For a while now it has been well documented that some sets of supporters across the Europe harbour fascist views.

Back in 2012 a group of Zenit St Petersburg fans called for non-white and gay players to be excluded from their team (Photo from the Telegraph).

Back in 2012 a group of Zenit St Petersburg fans called for non-white and gay players to be excluded from their team (Photo from the Telegraph).

Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Italy, Spain and Holland are just a number of countries among many others which have seen incidents of racism and utterances of fascism plague their football. Extreme cases have even seen hard core fan groups like those at Zenit St Petersburg openly voice their displeasure at seeing non-whites play for their club.

In England the situation has vastly improved and gone are the days where far right parties like the National Front held sway in the terraces and monkey chants were regularly hurled at black and ethnic players. However even British football, which did so much to nullify the hooliganism and racism which bedevilled the game in the 1970’s and 80’s, has seen right-wing views appear through those cracks left unsealed.

Granted the gas chamber hissing noises directed at Tottenham and monkey gestures directed at players might not be full-blown fascist salutes but they open up a Pandora’s box of all those atrocities and iniquitous values that millions died fighting against. An equally worrying facet of this, is the manifestation of Fascist sentiments among football players themselves.

Footballers and Fascism.

In the aftermath of Croatia’s World Cup play-off victory against Iceland back in November 2013 in Zagreb, Croatian defender Josep Simunic picked up a microphone to address the jubilant crowd.  “For the homeland” Simunic shouts.  “READY” the crowd responds. Simunic was subsequently hit with a 10 match ban after being found guilty of chanting a pro-Nazi slogan. The war call is a vestige of a slogan used by Ustashas, the pro-Nazi Croatian regime that ruled the state during the Second World War. The same chant has been coupled with the Nazi salute by Croatian fans in the past. FIFA have set a precedent by banning the Australian born Croatian who will miss the World Cup as a result.

Giorgos Katidis 'celebrates'  his goal with Nazi salute. (Photo from Reuters).

Giorgos Katidis ‘celebrates’ his goal with a Nazi salute. (Photo from Reuters).

However this is not an isolated incident. In March last year Greek footballer Giorgos Katidis was banned for life from playing for the national team after his goal celebration was accompanied by a Nazi salute. The AEK Athens player took to twitter to say “I am not a fascist and would not have done it if I had known what it meant”. Yet in a country which has seen the birth of the neo-fascist political party Golden Dawn, who I might add received 7% of the popular vote during the 2012 national Greek elections, it is hard to believe Katidis was completely naive to the meaning of his salute.

Of course Paolo Di Canio’s infamous Roman salute to the fans of S.S Lazio (their more extreme groups professing to hold far right sentiments) following their triumph in the Rome derby in 2005 provides more fuel to the burning fire. The salute harks back to the hegemony of Mussolini and Di Canio himself has admitted to being intrigued by Italy’s far right history and once stated “I’m a fascist not a racist”.

It is a fascination shared among other Italian footballers. In the book Football, Fascism and Fandom (Gary Armstrong and Alberto Testa) a number of prominent Italian players are mentioned in connection with far-right politics. These include AC Milan’s Christian Abbiati, revealed in 2008 as an associate of the Milan based neo-Fascist gathering Black Heart, and Fabio Cannavaro who once held aloft an Italian flag bearing a fascist symbol while playing in Madrid as well as others have been tarred with this brush.

Football and Fascism: why the re-emergence?

What has caused this ignominious spread of fascist sentiments in football? One must remember that football has always been known as the people’s game. It is the most popular sport in the world and plays a modern-day role akin to that of the Roman gladiatorial games, bread and circuses, assuaging discontent and occupying the masses. Football is a microcosm of society, and the stadiums have become a place where public opinion or more recently grumbles of disaffection have become more profound.

The worst recession the world has experienced since the 1930’s has given rise to extremist politics and it is the far right which has undergone somewhat of a renaissance. Mass unemployment, wretched living conditions and widespread immigration has allowed parties that once trod with caution to regurgitate the trite old prejudices of ‘race’ and ‘national identity’.

Notably far right parties such as the French National Front, The Danish People’s Party and the Flemish Vlaams Belang, among others are increasingly gaining popular support. While they remain careful not to align themselves with openly neo-Fascist parties such as Golden Dawn and Hungary’s Jobbik, Europe is veering dangerously towards an environment which saw Fascism take hold in the 1930’s. Although it is unacceptable to espouse such views in day-to-day society, football remains a ready vehicle for extreme ideologies to mobilise support.

Unfortunately this tars the image of a game we hold dear. FIFA and other governing bodies must do their utmost to quash these overt displays and although football has made an example of players like Simunic and Katidis, we must ask ourselves is this enough to deter such expressions from re-occurring.

With Nicholas Anelka currently under investigation for his quenelle gesture it will be interesting to discover what the FA feels is appropriate retribution. It may seem severe but a draconian crackdown is in order, by taking the attitude of its just and ‘few’ and its only ‘ a game’ we slip into the dangerous trap of letting history repeat itself. After all it was football which proved integral to the regimes of some of Fascism’s most infamous dictators.