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The politics of football: Russia’s World Cup 2018

Jun 12,2018 - Last updated at Jun 12,2018

Britain's Foreign Minister Boris Johnson has recently, and controversially, suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin will try to bolster Russia's image through hosting the World Cup in a similar way to how Adolf Hitler used the Olympics, when it was held in Nazi Germany. This claim carries many debatable assumptions, especially when one considers the diplomatic row between the UK and Russia which saw both countries expelling diplomats after the British alleged Russia poisoned a former spy in the UK with a deadly nerve agent. While this thesis is debatable, one has to study how a popular sport, such as football, is employed to cater to political purposes. 

Football is the most popular sport of all time for a good reason. The only negative reason for which one might feel resentment towards football is because it allegedly caused the death of Bob Marley. Besides this, football instills the sense of unity where different colours of skin chant the same anthem. It instills a sense of community, regardless of being an imagined one, of team-work, brotherhood, organisation and coherence. It develops discipline and evokes belonging in a world that tries to deterritorialise you even from yourself. Football is a healthy exercise both mentally and physically. Technically, it is a game of bodily chess on a larger board. Moreover, football leagues around the world are an educational atlas of capitals and geographies. The poetics of football, furthermore, help you understand the politics of race and geography. 

A Palestinian national football team, for example, was not formed untill the late 1990s, after the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority. The team was always challenged by security and financial distress ever after its establishment. Football was originally introduced in Palestine during the British mandate, when there was a British Army Football League, in which played Arab and Jewish teams, along with teams with British soldiers and police forces. Only the second and third World Cups in history, in 1934 and 1938, witnessed a mandatory Palestinian national team, whose players were ironically Jewish only. Incidentally, fascist Italy did not only win the World War I, but also the very second and third World Cups of 1934 and 1938 represented by its football national team. After all, football was, and continues to be, the sport of the masses. The masses who watch from the side-lines, however, are as involved as the people on the green pitch. It is no wonder then that the crowds and supporters are usually referred to as “the 12th man of the team”. This is why football teams usually have an advantage playing at home over their away games. Being and playing “at home” is presumed to be familial, familiar, authoritative and puts you in control. 

Subsequently, Benito Mussolini, the leader of the Italian National Fascist Party, established the Italian Football League, known hitherto as Serie A, to instill a strong sense of nationalism amongst the people of Italy. Football regulations during the 1930s were also fascist. For example, to participate in the World Cup, particularly the first three world cups of 1930, 1934 and 1938 before the end of the World War II, you had to prove and determine your historical familial roots. Thus, you were not allowed to play against the football team you had once represented. This was considered national betrayal. Mussolini, therefore, had the greatest of chances to organise and influence the masses during the World Cup of 1934. Referees were allegedly bribed and all was done to ensure Italy was the team to win the World Cup. The colours of the players’ outfits usually reflect the nation’s flag. The fascist salute given by the Italian team in 1934 during their national anthem provoked widespread booing from spectators; Italy changed their outfit from blue to all-black to reflect the colours of the fascist party when they played France as instructed by Mussolini. Sport was furthermore used by Adolf Hitler to assert the superiority of the Aryan race above all others. He intended to participate in the World Cup with a well-presented football team to show the rest of the world that Germans, represented by both footballers and crowds, were as civilised as everyone else and appreciated good sports like everybody else. The 1936 German Olympics were organised and planned perfectly for such a purpose. All this was organised to facilitate the spread of Nazism.

There is always a very thin line between nationalism and racism, between nationalism and chauvinism. There is always a very thin line between the individual and the state, between nationalism and liberalism. Although nationalism can become anti-imperialism and a form of resistance, there is still a very thin line between imperialism and nationalism. Nationalism, therefore, poses the most dangerous threat, because it leaves no room for revision or self-criticism. Racism can become an extension of nationalism, too. The overwhelming pride of belonging to a race can indeed extend to becoming an antagonistic feeling towards other races. While racism, like colonialism, awakens in the marginalised and the victim a sense of belonging and self-consciousness, nationalism is seen as corruptingly exaggerated and extreme. Nationalism is sovereign because it was born in an age of Enlightenment after the French Revolution. Subsequently, it has resulted in nations dreaming of freedom; nations which romanticise the dream over reality. This kind of dreaming and the very strongly inflated bond of national pride through an imagined community often sends men and women sacrificing their lives in the name of race, nationalised religion and homeland. It is no wonder then that the primary campaign embraced by The Union of European Football Associations is “No to Racism” whereby it aims to eliminate racism, discrimination and intolerance from football in recent years. 

Football can be nationally politicised to promote a political regime on an international stage, a means through which a leader can articulate a nationalistic identity, and form public opinion. During the first half of the twentieth century, football perfectly served such a purpose, and continues to do so.


The writer is author at Palgrave Macmillan and an assistant professor in post-colonial and English literature at the American University of Madaba, Jordan. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times

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