09/12/14

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.

02/7/14

Random Rambles Part I: Bayern’s Trendsetters and Sochi Grievances

So Nicholas Anelka is awaiting the result of his appeal against the FA’s decision to ban him for his quenelle gesture, Brazilian protesters are still threatening to crash this summer’s world cup fiesta, Bayern Munich fans demonstrated a forward thinking approach to homosexuality in football and the Sochi Winter Olympics are upon us and the maelstrom surrounding the games only seems to be worsening. You can add stray dogs and journalists to the list of groups who feel a sense of injustice.

Over the next few days I will be posting my thoughts on the aforementioned issues starting with Bayern’s forward thinking fans and Sochi’s growing list of grievances.

“Football is everything, including gay”

As I have frequently mentioned football has an omnipotence to mobilise change and last Sunday’s game between Bayern Munich and Eintracht Frankfurt demonstrated a refreshing facet of this. During the match the supporters of Bayern Munich unveiled a banner that read “Fußball ist alles, auch schwul” (Football is everything, including gay). Football clubs often involve themselves in campaigns tackling social discrimination, whether it be racism, sexism or homosexuality however what was so refreshing about this incident was seeing the fans take the initiative.

Bayern Munich fans unveil banner reading "Football is everything including gay" (Photo from http://suedkurve-muenchen.org/wp-content/gallery/fc-bayern-eintracht-frankfurt-02-02-2014/30.jpg%5D)

Bayern Munich fans unveil banner reading “Football is everything including gay” (Photo from http://suedkurve-muenchen.org/wp-content/gallery/fc-bayern-eintracht-frankfurt-02-02-2014/30.jpg%5D)

At times maligned and frowned upon, some football supporters (especially the more stalwart and passionate elements) have come in for criticism regarding their behavior and attitudes towards race, gender and sexuality. This is often justified and on occasions discrimination has plagued the stands of football stadia. Yet given the power and sway some of these fan groups hold, if they can transmit forward thinking and positive ideals to a global audience then the social significance of this should not be underestimated.

The Bavarian club’s supporters message was simple and hopefully it takes hold across the world. Just like anything, your sexuality should not be an issue and recently the archaic dogmas surrounding homosexuality within football are being challenged. From Robbie Rogers being an openly gay player in the MLS, to Thomas Hitzlsperger coming out and becoming the highest profile name to talk about his sexuality within football, the Bayern banner constitutes another step forward. There is a long journey ahead before we can render the game so many of us hold dear as all-inclusive but recent events represent progress.

It is worth noting the Bayern supporters also organised an impressive choreography dedicated to their former president Kurt Landauer, a Jew who was persecuted during the Nazi regime. So hats off to the supporters of Bayern Munich for jettisoning the old and exhibiting a forward thinking approach. Lets hope others take heed.

The grievances pile up at the Sochi Olympics.

Just a line on the Sochi Winter Olympics, which are now officially under way. Vladimir Putin and the Russian government could do with taking a leaf out of the Bayern supporters books.

The Olympics is a celebration of ‘sporting civility’ which includes such principles as ‘democracy, internationalism, equal rights and civic education’. That the Winter Games are being held in Russia, a country which in 2013 signed a statute criminalising support for ‘non-traditional’ relationships’ is questionable to say the least. Although the Russian government have insisted the law doesn’t forbid homosexuality, but merely prevents dissemination of gay ‘propaganda’ among those under eighteen, the issue has become a hot bed of controversy.

LBGT supporters take to the streets to protests against the Sochi Olympics. (Photo from www.businessweek.com)

LBGT supporters take to the streets to protests against the Sochi Olympics. (Photo from www.businessweek.com)

Gay and liberal activists across the world have expressed their outrage at this obsolete law, which if breached can incur penalties from fines to jail sentences and for foreigners even deportation. More worryingly the president of the Russian Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Sports Federation, Konstantin Yablotsiky, has claimed that the law has to an extent legalised neo-Fascist anti-gay groups to become more active, with violent attacks on LGBT protesters a common occurrence.

The astronomical cost of the games (the most expensive in history) has also led to widespread discontent among Sochi residents and the allegations of corruption and environmental damage aimed at those who constructed the Olympic village has further damaged the hosts reputation before the games have even begun. Furthermore there remains a major concern over security at the Olympics with the threat of terrorist attacks ever-present. Add this to the latest developments which has seen a mass culling of stray dogs and journalists having been left without suitable accommodation and it becomes hard to make one water tight case for why Sochi should be hosting an Olympic games.

The ignominious law regarding gay rights and the numerous blunders cannot be readily altered. But sport can act as a catalyst for change and this may be the one saving grace. Using the words of New Zealander Blake Skejellerup, a gay speed skater who came out after competing at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics:

“Sochi gives us an opportunity to highlight Russia’s anti-gay propaganda laws and say: this is wrong. Don’t underestimate how powerful that could be.”

Unfortunately Skejellerup narrowly missed out on qualification for Sochi however he is right, if anything at all the 2014 Winter Olympics constitute a possibility for progress, not just in Russia, but across the globe.