In the world away from the beautiful game, football and politics are usually kept away from polite conversation because they tend to be combustible subjects. In a similar vein, it’s probably also not a surprise that FIFA require the football to be free from governmental interference. At times though it feels as if that attempt is often proved futile.
In practice, football and politics persistently flirt with each other. The literal meaning of the Greek word “politics” appears to have been the “affairs of the city”; football, similarly, is the people’s game. Such close relations to the popular means these two are always going to be in some form of relationship.
In 2018, with the World Cup being located at the heart of international geopolitical tensions, the link has become explicit. Talk of English tournament boycotts entered into political chatter on account of the current fractious Russian-British state relations. Meantime, Gareth Southgate, the England manager, recently mused on the problems of English concerns regarding Russian racism at a time when “we haven’t resolved the issue in our own country”.
In such circumstances, it’s worth reflecting on why politics and football cause such difficulty when they mix and, maybe, consider reasons why they shouldn’t.
As anyone who regularly goes to football knows, things that damn the other side will fall into chant material. And “things” will occasionally be beyond the pale or even illegal. This causes enough problems at club level where macabre insults about tragic accidents, anti-semitism and racism still pop up in the heavily mediatised Premier League where cameras and microphones abound. At international level, the problem gets bigger in line with scale. Football as war is a common theme but it can find its actuality in the very real conflicts that countries have faced in international political history.
As diplomatic relations with Russia break down, it would be wise for British politicians, no doubt aware of English supporters desire to follow the national team anywhere, to keep football out of the frying pan of tensions. Not least because, after the skirmishes at Euro 2016, Russian and English supporters need no additional kindling for existing antagonisms.
A glance through the history of football and state politics working in tandem also shows plenty of cause for concern. In his autobiography, “El Diego”, Maradona explained the catalyst behind his era defining performance against England- the Falklands war in 1982:
“It was like beating a country, not a football team.…This was our revenge, it was…recovering a part of the Malvinas. We all said beforehand that we shouldn’t mix the two things but that was a lie. A lie!”
Maradona’s explanation goes to show how the political and the sporting can interweave. However, this is not always with consequences that stay, largely, on the field.
In another example close to home, Foreign Office officials will undoubtedly look back through history, and regretfully, at a direct attempt made by British politicians to enter the footballing fray. This was the Foreign Office’s decision to involve the English national team in the attempted policy of Hitler appeasement. A direct order from the Foreign Office led to the Stanley Matthews-powered England team presenting Nazi salutes in a friendly against Germany in Berlin’s Olympic stadium in 1938. The gesture was made in the presence of both Hermman Goering and Joseph Goebbels and as Matthews later recalled, “All the England players were livid and totally opposed to this, myself included”.
It’s worth remembering the effect that sport and, particularly football, has on the popular imagination. A sporting team or tournament can capture attention brilliantly and with that comes the basis for the concept of sponsorship. It is not for nothing that FIFA, according to Forbes, received $1.5bn in sponsorship revenue from the 2014 World Cup. In that context, politicians, who are in the business of seeking popular attention, would instinctively recognise the power of that kind of association. However, whether done in good faith or bad, even a brief glance at the history tells you that the co-option of sport with politics is not a simple matter with simple consequences.
“The most important of the unimportant things in life” said the renowned Milan and Italy coach Arrigo Sacchi of football. Sacchi had a point; this is the game that people go to in order to escape the realities of everyday life. At the very least, it’s the game that helps people to experience life’s realities in a more exciting, more visceral way.
However, given that political reality can involve offence, division and sometimes even violence, it’s always worth understanding where the politics must be distinguished from the game. Football may never be completely divorced from the political paradigm but it’s best to ensure, as far as possible, that there remains a healthy separation.