Football and Politics: A worldly romance

Yaseen Shelbaya , Thursday 12 Jul 2018,
Egypt forward Mohamed Salah and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov
Egypt forward Mohamed Salah and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov while attending a banquet in Grozny, Russia, Friday, June 22, 2018. (Photo: Ramzan Kadyrov Press Service via AP)

The political atmosphere clouding the World Cup in Russia is not uncommon in the world’s most popular sport.

Even before the World Cup got underway, it was obvious that politics would take a center stage, with several incidents overshadowing the build-up to the football's most prestigious showpiece.

With Russian president Vladimir Putin not having the best of relationships with the western world, thanks to a series of actions that includes the 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and the poisoning of a former spy in England earlier this year which London blamed on Moscow, the stage was set for none-football wrangling ahead of the World Cup.  

Several European countries, including England and Denmark, decided not to send officials to the World Cup while others mulled an outright boycott of the tournament.

British Labor MP Ian Austin stated that he did not want governments to send their teams to Russia because it would help Putin manipulate the World Cup “for his own-self-glorification”.

A series of racist incidents in Russian football before the World Cup were also alarming, prompting England full-back Danny Rose to tell his family not to come to Russia “because of racism and anything else that may happen”. Rose feared his family’s safety would be in danger because they are of African descent.

Russian football has been plagued with incidents of racist behavior over the years. Fans have been spotted throwing bananas at black players and chanting racist songs.

Many of the fears proved unfounded at a racism-free World Cup but politics was still heavily involved when the tournament kicked off.

Politics in Russia

An honorary Chechnya citizenship given by the region's leader Ramzan Kadyrov to Egypt star Mohamed Salah stirred controversy, given Kadyrov's much-criticised human rights record.

Multiple reports have said Salah was used for political leverage by Kadyrov but the Chechen leader denied any such claims. 

Furthermore, the ‘double-headed eagle’ celebrations of Switzerland duo Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka in a 2-1 Group E win over Serbia have resulted in both players being fined over €7,000 euros each by FIFA for promoting political messages.

FIFA’s ‘Disciplinary Code’ and ‘Stadium Safety and Security Regulations’ detail specific rules and regulations which prohibits the “promotion or announcement of political or religious messages…inside or in the immediate vicinity of the stadium” during, before and after games.

The Swiss internationals have Albanian-Kosovan origins and performed the celebration to make a symbol to their ethnic heritage. The incident was controversial because Kosovo used to be a Serbian province until it declared independence in 2008 in a move never recognized by Serbia.

The World Cup has also opened the floodgates for a drastic change in Iran as women were allowed to watch a group-stage game against Portugal on a big screen in a Tehran stadium despite a long-standing ban, which has been in place since the country's 1979 Islamic revolution.

The relationship between politics and football can be seen clearly when focusing on how political leaders exploit the sport for political and economic gain.

The popularity of football makes it easier for politicians to use it as a tool to connect with the mass public.

Consequently, the World Cup also presents itself as an opportunity for leaders to boost their popularity and revamp the image of their nation.

Propaganda and perceptions spewed by western media have portrayed Russia in a mostly negative light to westerners. However, Putin is seeing the World Cup as his opportunity to bolster his and Russia's image.

Putin opened the tournament on 14 June with a speech welcoming fans, saying that the Russia World Cup will be “open, hospitable, and friendly”. The wording was carefully chosen by Putin in attempt to further drain out the stereotypes that have afflicted Russia.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, French President Emmanuel Macron and Croatia President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic have attended World Cup games, cheering on their nations from the stands.

Leaders use the World Cup and football as a medium to spread propaganda and promote new policies that would be otherwise difficult to pull off.  It is only natural for the most popular sport to become a platform for any political plots.

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