After Youcef Atal was banned for 7 games for pledging his support to Palestine in a Ligue 1 game, and Gary Neville’s regular political escapades whenever he so desires – the question of politics and football, and whether they should be separated, or indeed can be separated, is often raised.
First, it is important to be clear, this is not a new phenomenon. Some might have you believe that the new ‘woke left’ are forcing politics into places it shouldn’t exist. Indeed, Lee Anderson, the MP for Ashfield, said that ‘fans don’t want politics brought into football’ as though it had not been there in the first place. This is, of course, untrue, both in the UK and on the continent. Older football fans will remember the infamous matchup between Red Star Belgrade and Dinamo Zagreb in May 1990, in which the Bad Blue Boys (a football ‘firm’ whose ranks were amongst the very first to join the paramilitary ranks in the Yugoslav war) launched attacks on Red Star Belgrade fans, in one of the only sports events which some claim ‘started a war’. Indeed, it is still impossible to separate FC Barcelona from the ongoing debate about the status of Catalonia as a sovereign state. Or, much closer to home, the hostile rivalry between Celtic and Rangers is primarily fuelled by disagreements about the status of Northern Ireland and religious differences between the two fanbases. Quite clearly, politics and football have come hand in hand before. It is naïve to suggest that politics and political issues have just appeared in football in the last few years because of some hard left conspiracy. Football and politics have always co-existed, and yes, they always should.
Perhaps the most important reason we should keep both politics and football intertwined is for the good that it very well can do. There is perhaps no better example than Marcus Rashford’s fantastic work during the pandemic, which saw him raise twenty million pounds to for FareShare UK and, crucially, convincing the government (who had recently voted to stop free school meals) to provide an extra GBP 120 million to prolong the school meals scheme. This was at the same time as the Tory MP for Ashfield, Natalie Elphicke, said he should spend ‘less time playing politics’. Perhaps the key thing to consider here is the wealth of influence Rashford was able to have by performing a political and humanitarian act. This certainly reflects how footballers being involved in politics can have a genuine impact: because of this influence, and involving himself in political discourse, disadvantaged schoolkids around the UK were better off. Had he taken the advice of Elphicke, maybe they wouldn’t have been. This certainly shows us that football has enough power to impact politics, so why should it not if we are doing the right thing?
To not mention the controversial 2022 World Cup would do this question a disservice. The competition highlighted to the maximum the controversial cultural differences between the East and the West and raised questions surrounding the involvement of politics in football, and not just for England. The tensions between Iran and their own theocratic regime were prevalent when their national anthem was booed and the players refused to sing the national anthem, a political gesture that no one appeared to have a visible objection to. However, when it was announced that the England National Team would wear ‘One Love’ armbands in response to the Qatari governments lack of acceptance for the LGBTQIA+ community in all forms, there was debate on both sides of this relatively fragile coin. The Football Supporters Association (FSA) clearly argued that LGBTQIA+ supporters had been ‘let down’, and newspapers such as the Australian Muslim Times called for more ‘respect to be shown’ to the country’s values. No matter where you stand on the debate, one should always be in support of the right to express an opinion, and indeed the right to combat it. Not only did the debates in Qatar inspire important political discussion, but they also showed that when it comes to football on the world stage, it is impossible to separate it from politics. Would it be just to suggest that Iranians shouldn’t use the biggest global stage in the world to express their disdain for a theocratic regime? Would it be fair to say to people that they shouldn’t have political discussion surrounding things, just because football is involved? We wouldn’t necessarily suggest it anywhere else.
We can’t, and shouldn’t, separate football from politics. They both reflect two heavy things in public life and when we try too hard to separate them, we risk the chances to do good in the world by using the power and influence football has. We risk also the potential for people to make genuine protests on the world stage when everyone can see, and fight against humanitarian and political problems that face us. Also, we risk limiting people’s genuine freedom of speech to discuss issues surrounding culture and human rights and much more. But most importantly, football and politics have always been intertwined, because they are two things that are close to people’s hearts – to separate them so forcefully would be to disrupt the natural course of human behaviour.