06/1/15

World Cup Boycott: “It Doesn’t Smell Good”

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“I am not certain, but it doesn’t smell good,” Sepp Blatter opined.

It was a particularly astute observation. Only, Blatter wasn’t referring to the skulduggery that has landed Fifa in the eye of its most turbulent storm during his 17-year tenure as president. Instead, he was questioning the timing of the arrest of seven Fifa officials on the eve of the federations congress in Zurich. The arrests were part of an indictment led by the United States Department of Justice in which 14 individuals are under investigation for allegedly accepting bribes and kickbacks estimated at more than $150m over a 24-year period. Swiss federal prosecutors have also launched a criminal investigation into the awards of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup tournaments to Russia and Qatar.

Blatter told Swiss television station, RTS, that he suspected the arrests were an attempt to “interfere with the congress” at which he had been re-elected for a fifth term as Fifa president.

“No one is going to tell me that it was a simple coincidence, this American attack two days before the elections of Fifa,”

The 79-year-old continued “Why would I step down? That would mean I recognise that I did wrong. I fought for the last three or four years against all the corruption.”

US attorney general, Loretta Lynch, had said corruption in football was “rampant, systemic and deep-rooted”, yet in spite of this damming assessment, and widespread calls for Blatter’s resignation, his chutzpah was unwavering. “I am the president of everybody, I am the president of the whole Fifa” he triumphed, as obdurate in victory as he was in the face of adversity.

It is worth remembering plenty were happy to see the Swiss football administrator return to office. Blatter holds a strong base of support within many Football Associations outside Europe and North America. As this Bloomberg report details, his work directing power and funds away from Europe to the smaller and poorer countries, has ensured that while Blatter is regarded by many in the West as a cartoon villain, to the rest of the footballing world he is a saint.

Nevertheless, to those calling for reform and hoping that the arrests in Zurich would pave the way for the dawn of a new Blatter-free era, the 79-year-old’s re-election was disheartening. Particularly for FIFA’s most vocal critic, UEFA. Before the election, UEFA president Michel Platini had urged Blatter to resign, refusing to rule out the possibility of European teams boycotting the World Cup.

UEFA’s pre-election gambit aimed at swaying votes in favour of Blatter’s opponent, Prince Ali Bin al-Hussein, has led them into a cul de sac, and Platini has since made it clear that he does not want a World Cup Boycott. That said, he remains under pressure, with calls for such an action having strengthened since Blatter’s re-election. England’s Football Association chairman, Greg Dyke, has been particularity vocal in pledging enthusiastic support, claiming that a boycott would need to involve “10 large countries” to have an impact.

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Dyke (left) said Platini (right) must unite Europe in a boycott 

Speaking on BBC Radio 5 live’s sport week, Dyke said “There would certainly be us, there would certainly be the Dutch, there would certainly be the Germans who have been demanding change. The FA chairman also believes that most South American countries opposed Blatter in the election, but admitted “They [Fifa] would only take serious action if there’s enough [opposition willing to act].”

Danish Uefa ExCo member Allan Hansen is also said to be of a similar mindset and has proposed to stage a new competition featuring sides from Europe and South America. In reality however, there are no guarantees a boycott would achieve any tangible reform in a hurry.

Blatter has demonstrated his intransigence knows no bounds. The man himself said he intends to “leave through the front door and leave with a clean house.” After four terms in office, he is not about to relinquish power, at least not without a long fight.

In addition, Fifa’s World Cup qualifying draw is due to be held on July 25 in St. Petersburg, Russia. Despite the fulminations of Dyke and British politicians, it is hard to envisage circumstances in which significant numbers agree to withdraw their participation from the qualifying draw, especially in a time-scale of just under two months. Then of course their is the risk of missing out on the financial windfall that competing in the World Cup and its associated sponsorship brings.

On Saturday June 6, UEFA will meet in Berlin to discuss their next step. Talks of a boycott will be high on the agenda however it will not be a united ship. Spain, France and of course Russia are three of the 18 European countries who were said to have opposed UEFA’s reform mandate, voting for Sepp Blatter.

Minus the backing of UEFA president Michel Platini and with no guarantees that Europe’s pro-reformers can rely on the support of the South American contingent, the boycott campaign could be derailed before it’s even truly in motion. For example, could England rely on the backing of Argentina given the history of fraught diplomatic relations between the two? And that is where the real problem lies – in geo-politics.

With so many stakeholders involved, what is the true purpose of this boycott?

On face value, a UEFA-led protest against FIFA does not appear to be grounded in political pragmatism but rather moral objection. It would be propagated as a boycott against the unscrupulous and corruptive malpractices of Fifa. A means of enacting much needed change and jettisoning Sepp Blatter. However, would such a protest also be based upon the supposition that Russia are a guilty party in the chicanery of the bidding process. It could be a diplomatic minefield.

Some circles have described a World Cup boycott as “Soccer’s nuclear option”, a sure fire way to foment political tensions. Following the arrest of Fifa officials, Russian president Vladimir Putin was quick to wade into the debate, accusing the US of meddling outside its jurisdiction.

“It’s another clear attempt by the USA to spread its jurisdiction to other states. And I have no doubt – it’s a clear attempt not to allow Mr Blatter to be re-elected as president of Fifa, which is a great violation of the operating principles of international organisations.” 

Since his re-election, Sepp Blatter has also launched diatribes at his detractors. The Fifa president highlighted that both England and the US had lost their bids for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar respectively, claiming that, the attempt to unseat him was led by a spiteful media campaign in both countries.

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Both are examples of the shrewd defence adopted by Putin and Blatter. In effect they are playing the role of spin doctors. It is no secret that political relations between Russia and the West have reached their most fractious since the Cold War years. Blatter’s line portrays the US and England as vindictive and irrational, willing to use all manner of subterfuge to prevent Russia and Qatar from holding a World Cup, in turn wresting the event for themselves. Putin is beating a similar drum. Ratcheting up an anti-imperialist rhetoric, suggesting that these attempts to destabilise Fifa and the World Cup are political revanchism, hidden under the guise of anti-corruption.

To some, his line of arguement will resonate. Especially given that calls to boycott the 2018 Russian world cup — as a means of protest against their role in the Ukrainian conflict — have already circulated within Western media and politicians. Only recently, 13 bipartisan US senators wrote to Blatter encouraging him to pull the plug on Russia 2018. Last year, the former deputy Prime Minister of Britain, Nick Clegg, affirmed that a boycott would be a “very potent political and symbolic action”, words that undoubtedly contributed to his inclusion on Russia’s blacklist.

The dangers of a politically charged boycott against Russia are well documented and UEFA will be anxious to distance themselves from such allegations. Unfortunately for Dyke and UEFA however, any withdrawal from the 2018 Russian World Cup would invariably be framed as such. In fact, the significant contribution of British and American politicians in particular, might prove detrimental to the legitimacy of a ‘moral’ boycott or the creation of a ‘Clean Cup’ – a separate competition designed for boycotting nations.

Let us, just for a minute, remove ourselves from our Western bubble. Were the 2018 and 2022 World Cup due to be held in England and the US, would there be the same level of public outrage regarding Fifa’s latest shenanigans? Would we be calling for reform with the same rancour? It all appears a little disingenuous.

Of course, many will argue that the corruption and opacity that we seek to expunge are the only reason the World Cups went to Russia and Qatar. Indeed, a boycott of the Qatari World Cup on humanitarian grounds is well founded given the tragic death of around 1,200 migrant workers, and the continuation of the oppressive Khafala employment system.

There is no doubt Fifa has become a kleptocracy in desperate need of radical rehabilitation. But the problem is, until the Swiss and US prosecutors place key figures behind bars and provide concrete evidence of bribery and corruption, the ground upon which an ‘ethical’ boycott of Russia 2018 would stand, remains shaky.

Admittedly, the indictments and investigations will likely take years to bear fruit. And in this instance, the phrase innocent until proven guilty might be worth heeding. Without robust evidence of Russian wrongdoing in the bidding process, a World Cup boycott could have far-reaching, geo-political consequences. The move would certainly scupper any progress that has been made in reaching a détente with Russia. In terms of the footballing community, it would also create disillusion and frustration among the players and fans of boycotting countries.

Therefore, such talks are neither prudent nor timely. Fifa needs a makeover, but at this moment in time, a boycott would cause more problems than it would solve.

@LH_Ramon25

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

03/6/15

Russia 2018: Could the World Cup be Boycotted?

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This article is published in full on Futbolgrad. You can also follow them (@Futbolgradliveand their owner (@homosovieticus) on twitter.

 

09/12/14

Political Football: A Force for Good

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“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.

06/17/14

Corruption, Deceit and a Betrayal of Values: Does FIFA Mirror Sport?

Retrieved from The Guardian. Photograph: Paul Childs/Action Images

Retrieved from The Guardian. Photograph: Paul Childs/Action Images

 

The 2014 World Cup in Brazil has kicked off with a bang and millions have been gripped by football fever. We’ve had goals galore, red cards, last minute drama and rapturous atmospheres. We’ve gone from the sublime to the absurd, from Lionel Messi’s majestic goal for Argentina against Bosnia Herzegovina on Sunday, to the petulance of Portugal’s Pepe and his fracas with Germany’s Thomas Muller on Monday.

We are only six days into the World’s greatest footballing fiesta and we are mesmerised. Mesmerised in a world of fantasy, one that convinces you that watching Switzerland against Ecuador, a game that holds not one iota of personal significance, is the most important event at that moment. There lies the magic of such sporting events. They offer a form of escapism.

In the last week, fans of different nationalities, creeds and colours have united on Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana Beach to dance, sing, party and above all share the World Cup experience. A political researcher in Eastern Europe tweeted that Russia appeared to be a more jovial place; observing that people were more interested in talking about Germany against Portugal rather than their disdain for Ukraine.

If Peter Pan’s ‘Neverland’ were to host a sporting event, it would be the World Cup because while it has the power to unite, it can also make people forget. Forget about the atrocities transpiring in Iraq and the Middle East; forget about the economic disparity which has seen the anti-World Cup demonstrations continue in Brazil and in relation to sport, forget about the widespread corruption and deceit which has not only tainted footballs world governing body – FIFA – but also sport in general.

You are probably sick to the stomach of hearing about FIFA’s transgressions, or should I say ‘alleged’ transgressions in order to avoid being branded a racist. For that is the latest tirade launched by FIFA’s president, Joseph ‘Sepp’ Blatter. Unable to offer any plausible answers to the latest corruption allegations hurled at FIFA against Qatar’s successful 2022 World Cup bid, Blatter resorted to playing the racism card. Addressing delegates from Africa and Asia – two federations who, coincidentally, are said to have benefited most from Qatar’s alleged bribery – Blatter said:

Once again there is a sort of storm against FIFA relating to the Qatar World Cup. Sadly there’s a great deal of discrimination and racism and this hurts me.”

These comments came in the wake of a Sunday Times report accusing Mohamed Bin Hammam, the former President of the Asian Football Confederation, of paying $5 million in bribes to secure the 2022 World Cup for Qatar. Bin Hammam was a member of FIFA’s powerful 24-person executive committee when the vote took place in 2010 and a huge proportion of his payments reportedly went to representatives from the African federation. This, less than a month after similar allegations were directed at the former vice-president of FIFA, Jack Warner, who after Qatar’s successful bid, allegedly received personal payments from a company controlled by a former Qatari football official.

The opacity of FIFA, especially in regards to their decision making processes, coupled with the hubris of Blatter and his cronies will allow them to unabashedly fend off such allegations. Blatter’s chosen line of defence is ironic, given his notoriously laissez-faire attitude towards racism in football. But FIFA apart, the real concern is that sport in general appears to be losing sight of its ethical values.

Sport has traditionally been thought to have a positive role in society. To many it stands as a bastion of physical prowess and moral virtue; abiding by the rules and playing fair is considered to have redemptive and educational qualities. This sporting esprit de corps reached its apogee during the mid-Victorian era in Britain. However has this notion become archaic?

British investigative journalist, Andrew Jennings, will tell you that kleptocracy and callousness is hardly reserved to football’s international governing body. Jennings is a proven bête noire of FIFA and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and has revealed a multitude of their wrong-doings, penned in two of his publications: The New Lord of the Rings and Foul! The Secret World of FIFA: Bribes Vote Rigging and Ticket Scandals. Delve a little deeper and sport has become plagued by a myriad of aberrant behaviours.

Match-fixing and unlawful gambling has grown to unprecedented levels, with football, cricket, tennis, badminton, basketball and motor racing all under siege. Recent research carried out by the International Centre Security for Sport (ICSS) in conjunction with the University of Sorbonne, Paris, revealed that around $140 billion is laundered annually through sport betting.

Doping  and use of performance enhancing substances continues to be a widespread problem and the sophisticated and professional nature of the Lance Armstrong doping scandal – uncovered back in 2012 – prompted The World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) Director General, David Howman, to admit the problem is getting “too big for sport to manage.” Furthermore, the Lombardian ‘win at all cost’ ethic often espoused has led athletes, coaches and administrators to flagrantly neglect the moral codes of sport in pursuit of success and riches.

Money and power are at the nexus of our society. These values have trickled into sport. Thus, does FIFA merely reflect a modern sporting trend? Or can we blame the suits in charge of sport for the corruption of its moral ideals. Mathew Syed, a sports columnist for The Times, has suggested that it appears to be the latter, especially with regards to football.

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“The real ugliness in football is to be found not amongst those who play it, but among those who run it: the corruption, the complacency and ticketing policies that, at this World Cup [Brazil 2014], have disenfranchised millions of ordinary Brazilians.

In the same article, Syed also highlighted the heart-warming sight of the camaraderie and spirit that sport can inspire when Italy’s Claudio Marchisio and Giorgio Chiellini spontaneously helped relieve Englands Raheem Sterling of cramp by stretching his legs. A part of FIFA’s mission statement reads verbatim:

“FIFA’s primary objective is to improve the game of football constantly and promote it globally in the light of its unifying, educational, cultural and humanitarian values, particularly through youth and development programmes.”

Revisiting FIFA and the World Cup, there is nothing wrong with major sporting events which, paraphrasing Karl Marx’s words, “provide an opiate for the masses.” The World Cup presents people with an opportunity to escape from the banality of everyday life. However the problem arises if people start to accept that corruption, deceit etc. are ingrained in sport. In order for football – and sport in general – to return to the halcyon days of fair play and morality, organisations such as FIFA need to start practicing what they preach and we need to continue making our voices heard. Getting rid of Sepp Blatter would be a start.

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