Football is known to be inclusive. It is a sign of peace among the nations. However, when it comes to politics, football has its impacts on certain aspects of the field. These impacts could come directly, such as footballers becoming politicians after their retirement or they could come indirectly, just like the clashes between two nations who had political issues against one another. All these events are proof that Football Impact on Politics has been both detrimental and beneficial for both sides.
European football has been a major force, particularly in preserving the unique characteristics of European nations and promoting solidarity among them. This transition started during World War II when the sport experienced tremendous growth despite tumultuous political conditions.
During this time, European football developed into a weapon for international relations, a platform for political protest, a vehicle for political propaganda, and a method of social pacification, according to Macon Benoit. Football stadiums in Europe started to serve as places of safety and political protests, reflecting the continent’s shifting political climate.
Politics and football are linked by noteworthy figures who went from playing the game to holding political office. Former Marseille player Ahmed Ben Bella later served as prime minister and president of Algeria. After an unsuccessful bid in 2005, George Weah, who played football for 18 years in both Africa and Europe, was elected president of Liberia. In 2008, Kaj Leo Johannesen, a former member of the Faroe Islands national football team, was appointed prime minister. Albert Gudmundsson and Oleg Malyshkin, two other footballers, got into top political positions in their respective countries.
Analyzing Football’s Impact on Politics
The use of sports to affect diplomatic, social, and political relations is referred to as sports diplomacy. Sports diplomacy has the potential to bridge cultural gaps and unite people. Utilizing sports and politics has historically had both positive and negative effects. Today, we’ll discuss all the impacts football has had on politics.
Club’s political identity in England
While many football clubs maintain a neutral political stance, certain clubs exhibit distinct political leanings. For instance, supporters of Sunderland are inclined towards the left, often chanting “The Red Flag” during marches, as per YouGov statistics. In contrast, the hooligan group Seaburn Casuals is notorious for its far-right affiliations. In a notable incident preceding the 1998 FIFA World Cup, a police raid resulted in the arrest of 26 Seaburn Casuals members, some of whom were associated with neo-Nazi organizations like Combat 18.
Liverpool, as a city, has a longstanding reputation for activism, particularly evident during the 1990s dockers strike, which even saw footballer Robbie Fowler expressing support by wearing a solidarity t-shirt. Bill Shankly openly linked his political beliefs to his football philosophy, emphasizing a socialism that promotes mutual cooperation and shared rewards.
Nearby, Everton also boasts a substantial left-leaning fan base. Additionally, certain non-league clubs have garnered support from fans vocally opposed to racism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination. Examples include Clapton and Dulwich Hamlet. A splinter group from Clapton FC, known as Clapton Community, has adopted symbols like the flag of the Spanish Second Republic, supported the October 2020 Polish protests, and extended a welcoming hand to refugees and the LGBTQ+ community, fostering an inclusive atmosphere within football.
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Political Rivalries in Spanish Football
Beyond the local derbies, a lot of the rivalries in Spanish football are influenced by political reasons, whether they be of an ideological or geographic origin. The complicated network of identities and connections among Spanish clubs has been described using the term “morbo,” which roughly translates to morbid fascination and animosity. Within the nation’s hooligan gangs, there is an unofficial system of alliances and rivalries that is frequently based on their political affiliations.
The conflict between the right-wing supporters of Atlético Madrid and the left-wing group linked with Sevilla is one of these alignments that stands out the most. Sevilla is frequently considered the middle-class club in the Seville derby, whereas Real Betis is recognized as being more working-class.
The largest fan bases of Real Madrid and Barcelona tend to be right-wing in El Clásico, Spain’s most storied rivalry. This animosity is brought on by their symbolic representations of Castile and Catalonia, a division that grew worse under Francisco Franco’s fascist rule in the middle of the 20th century and continues into the 21st. Barcelona supporters frequently support the Catalan independence cause, thus inflaming the resentment of supporters of other teams.
Barcelona’s perspective of being the victimized team in their relationship with Madrid contrasts with their local rivalry with Espanyol, whose owners believe Barça is unfairly favored by Catalan politicians due to their team’s affinity with Spanish unionism.
Real Madrid and Athletic Bilbao have always had a rivalry based on divergent ideologies and cultures, but in the age of global exposure and recruitment, the competitive element has diminished, largely because Athletic prioritizes local players to stress regional pride.
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When Football and Politics Clash in Italy
The Rome Derby, known as the Derby della Capitale in Italy, has often been marked by political tensions. Some ultras associated with Lazio have displayed swastikas and fascist symbols on their banners and engaged in racist conduct during these matches. An alarming incident occurred during the 1998-99 season when certain laziali unfurled a 50-meter banner with the inscription, “Auschwitz is your town, the ovens are your houses.” Black players from A.S. Roma have frequently been subjected to racist and offensive behavior during these encounters.
Lazio also developed a fierce rivalry with Pescara Calcio in the late 1970s. Italy’s right-wing football fan bases, such as those seen in AS Lazio, are well-documented and often unapologetic for their political affiliations.
However, on the other side of the spectrum, AS Livorno provides an alternative perspective. Rooted in its working-class dock origins, the politics of AS Livorno’s fans mirror the socialist ethos of the city. Symbols of communism and the iconic image of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara are commonly found at their stadium, as witnessed by our writer during a recent visit to AS Livorno this year.
Football Impact on Politics in Other Countries
Celtic’s left-leaning fanbase can be traced back to its historical roots as the club of Scotland’s exiled Irish community, which has fostered a sense of solidarity with marginalized groups. Symbols of Basque and Palestinian flags have made appearances at Celtic Park, and the renowned Green Brigade proudly identifies itself as “a broad front of anti-fascist, anti-racist, and anti-sectarian Celtic supporters.”
Hamburg’s second club, in contrast to the negative aspects often associated with football, has earned a reputation for taking public stands against racism, homophobia, and sexism. Their fan activism primarily revolves around advocating for the people of St. Pauli, Hamburg’s red-light district, but their support transcends borders, inspiring other left-wing clubs. Hapoel, originating in the 1920s as part of a sports club affiliated with the trade union movement, maintains friendships with anti-fascist supporter groups worldwide, including Celtic and St. Pauli, and prominently features the iconic image of Ernesto Guevara on club banners.
A common thread emerges among clubs like St. Pauli, AS Livorno, Liverpool, and Boca Juniors, all hailing from port towns. La Boca, situated in Buenos Aires’ docklands, was home to Italian and Spanish migrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Conversely, across town, River Plate earned a reputation as the “aristocratic” club, with both clubs preserving their traditional identities.
Standard, having been in the Belgian top flight since 1921, reflects the industrial town’s socialist history, marked by standing up against figures like King Leopold III and participating in the General Strike of 1960-61. Bahia, since a fan takeover in 2013, has emerged as one of the most progressive clubs in world football, actively promoting inclusivity, and women’s safety in the stadium, and advocating for various social issues, including anti-racism, LGBTQ rights, and environmental concerns.
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Political Clashes Among Nations in Football
Some football matches among the nations have ended in dispute due to political reasons. This is evidence that politics can also have an impact on football and it’s just not the other way around. But the only thing that we are sure of is politics has always left a negative impression on football. Below are several cases where football matches were ended abruptly for a single reason, political disputes.
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The Football War
Although the moniker “Football War” might suggest that the conflict was triggered by a football match, its underlying causes ran far deeper. The root issues encompassed land reform disputes in Honduras and challenges related to immigration and demographics in El Salvador. In June 1969, Honduras and El Salvador faced off in a two-leg qualifier for the 1970 FIFA World Cup. The initial game in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa on June 8, 1969, resulted in fan skirmishes and a 1-0 victory for Honduras.
The situation escalated significantly during the second match on June 15, 1969, in the Salvadoran capital of San Salvador, where El Salvador won 3-0, leading to even more violence. On June 27, 1969, the playoff match occurred in Mexico City, concluding with El Salvador’s 3-2 victory after extra time. That same day, El Salvador severed all diplomatic relations with Honduras. They cited the mass expulsion of 11,700 Salvadorans from Honduras, accusing Honduras of failing to prevent crimes like murder, oppression, rape, and plundering. El Salvador also claimed that Honduras had not taken effective measures to address these acts of genocide or provide reparations to affected Salvadorans.
The organized military action commenced in the late afternoon of July 14, 1969, as El Salvador imposed a blackout and its Air Force deployed passenger planes with explosives as makeshift bombers to attack targets within Honduras. After prolonged hostilities and international pressure, El Salvador withdrew its troops on August 2, 1969. The Organization of American States (OAS) played a role in compelling this withdrawal by threatening severe consequences if El Salvador persisted in its resistance. Honduras pledged to ensure the safety of Salvadorans residing in its territory but declined to agree to reparations for Salvadoran citizens.
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Iran vs the World
During the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France, Iran achieved their first World Cup victory in their second game, defeating the United States 2–1. Hamid Estili and Mehdi Mahdavikia scored the goals for Iran. Despite expectations of tension due to the political differences between the two countries, both sides displayed a remarkable gesture of goodwill. They exchanged gifts and flowers and posed together for a photograph before the match.
However, in 2010, relations between Iran and the United Arab Emirates soured when the Football Federation of the Islamic Republic of Iran lodged a complaint with the Asian Football Confederation regarding the misuse of the name “Persian Gulf.” This complaint stemmed from the UAE’s misrepresentation of the Persian Gulf name during a match between Iran’s Sepahan and the UAE’s Al Ain, where Emirate television displayed banners with an alternate name for the Persian Gulf. Additionally, comments from the UAE comparing the three disputed islands (Greater and Lesser Tunbs and Abu Musa, held by Iran) to the occupation of Palestine further strained relations, prompting calls for a downgrade in ties. The dispute also led to the cancellation of the Islamic Solidarity Games scheduled to be held in Iran.
It’s worth noting that Israel, which was one of the AFC’s founding members after gaining independence in 1948 (previously competing as Mandatory Palestine/Eretz Israel), faced difficulties in regional competitions. Following a tense 0–1 loss to Iran in the final of the 1974 Asian Games in Iran, Kuwait, and several Muslim and Arab nations refused to compete against Israel. Subsequently expelled from the confederation, Israel spent several years attempting to qualify for the OFC (Oceania) before eventually becoming an official member of UEFA (Europe).
Some Other Conflicts
In 2009, France and the Republic of Ireland faced off in a crucial 2010 FIFA World Cup qualification play-off. The victor of this two-legged tie would secure a spot in the 2010 FIFA World Cup held in South Africa. Following a 1–1 aggregate draw, the match extended into extra time at France’s National Stadium.
The decisive goal came from France’s William Gallas, but controversy arose as Thierry Henry was observed handling the ball twice before passing it to Gallas for the score. This incident was famously dubbed the “hand of Frog,” drawing a parallel to Diego Maradona’s “hand of God” goal in the 1986 World Cup match between Argentina and England. The situation escalated into an international incident, with Irish Taoiseach Brian Cowen demanding a replay and the French President responding by suggesting that Cowen should focus on politics.
In UEFA European Championship qualification, certain teams are kept from being drawn together due to political or historical disputes. For instance, Gibraltar and Spain are separated due to the disputed status of Gibraltar. However, this rule was temporarily lifted for the Euro 2016 tournament when Gibraltar and Spain agreed to play each other once again.
The 2004 AFC Asian Cup held in China made headlines for events during the final match between China and Japan. These events were apparently fueled by historical tensions dating back to World War II, including the Nanjing Massacre. As the Japanese national anthem played, Chinese fans expressed anti-Japanese sentiments by drowning out the anthem with chants. The Chinese crowd also directed boos at the players, visiting fans, and officials. Despite Japan’s 3–1 victory, rioting occurred after the match outside the Beijing Workers’ Stadium.
Footballers turned Politicians
Several footballers have transitioned into the world of politics, using their fame and influence to contribute to their respective countries’ governance. Here is a list of some footballers who have made this transition:
- Pelé (Brazil): Extraordinary Minister of Sport (1995–1998).
- George Weah (Liberia): Presidential candidate in the 2005 Liberian general election, Senator, President of Liberia (January 2018–present).
- Albert Guðmundsson (Iceland): Candidate in the 1980 Icelandic presidential election, Member of the Althing, Minister of Finance, Minister of Industry, Ambassador to France.
- Randy Horton (Bermuda): Member of the Parliament of Bermuda (1998–present).
- Éric Di Meco (France): Member of the Parliament of France.
- William Clegg (England): Lord Mayor of Sheffield (1898)
- Roberto Dinamite (Brazil): Member of the State Assembly of Rio de Janeiro (1994–present).
- Romário (Brazil): Member of the Senate of Brazil (2010–present).
- Bebeto (Brazil): Member of the Brazilian Parliament.