Football and the Political – What Role Should the ‘Beautiful Game’ have in Politics?

(Photo: The Anfield Wrap)

By Sam Lewis – Regular Contributor

As I write this article, we are in a summer of football fever. The European Championships has gripped the nation with ‘football’s coming home’ being heard on most night outs. Therefore, as someone who is very excited by the summer’s action, I thought I would try to be topical and write something football related for a change. To my luck the Copa America is going on at the moment. This year’s tournament was meant to be hosted in Columbia and Argentina but, due to political instability and an increase in Covid cases, it is now being hosted in Brazil. This is interesting as Brazil is a nation which has recently surpassed 500,000 Covid deaths, placing it only behind India and USA. Due to this there was talk of Brazilian players boycotting the tournament, an idea which Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro criticised and even attempted to get the manager, Tite, to resign. I mention these events is because it is reflective of the blurred line between football and politics and the question of what whether footballers should have a say in political matters. What we have seen (and particularly in the age of social media) is the influence that footballers can have in shaping national mindsets on issues beyond the game, something which has interesting implications for the way we look at the role of players being not only sportspeople but also remodels. This new role has interesting implications on how we look at the role of football in society, something I will explore in this article.

The most interesting cases are those when footballers not only express an opinion but have the ability to shape a nation. Football cultures in some countries are so extreme that its stars can almost take the form of royalty. A clear example of this was seen in the Ivory Coast in 2005 when, having secured World Cup qualification, Didier Drogba used the opportunity to beg for a halting of the civil war which had lasted in the country since 2002, an event seen as a pivotal to the end of the conflict. In this moment we can see the power footballers can have. Due to their status as national heroes they can act as uniters, using this power to bring positive changes to nations stuck in periods of turmoil. The potential power of ‘national uniters’ is seen today in Egypt. During their tumultuous 2018 presidential election over a million ballots were spoilt by writing in Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah, a total which would have been enough for second place (although it must be noted that the opposition in that election were still extremely pro-Sisi). When you combine these two events it shows not only the power of footballers’ influence but also how people can be seen to be willing to be led by them. Free of direct policy scrutiny they are able to take more a symbolic status, especially in a time of crisis, seen as the people to unite nations that may be divided.

Outside of such extreme cases the fame and influence of footballers is more regularly used to bring light to certain issues and particularly pressure governments. This was seen most obviously this year when Marcus Rashford forced two government U-turns over the providing of children’s’ lunches during the pandemic. Such an action should not be seen as a singular occurrence but reflective of the role that influential people can have in such a media driven world. Raheem Sterling is an example of another footballer who was able to use his platform to raise a key political issue (in this case race), even using it to criticise the media itself showing how his race has lead to him being negatively portrayed both in the tabloids and social media. In this way footballers have the same political influence of any form of celebrity, with their wide following allowing them to spread political messages to a captive audience. Just as there was a spike in voter registration following Taylor Swift’s endorsing of the Democratic party in the 2018 mid-terms, footballers have the ability to canvass political opinions and even hold governments accountable.

However, this does raise the question of whether this is something footballers should really do? Due to the size of the sport football attracts a wide range of people, all with conflicting interests and it could be argued that bringing politics into this does even more to divide than already exists. This is especially seen with fans and clubs who have less mainstream opinions. Former footballer Paolo Di Canio is a self-described Fascist who was pictured celebrating a goal by giving the Nazi salute to the infamous Lazio ultras. Therefore, whilst footballers can bring public attention to key issues this is not always a good thing. The popularity of footballers means that they have the ability to give unappealing ideas (such as fascism) legitimacy, an idea also seen in the role that the Brazilian footballers such as Kaka and Ronaldinho endorsing Bolsonaro had on his credibility. What this means is that footballers, like everyone who expresses an opinion are fallible. This is obviously not problematic but can be when they are held on such high pedestals and therefore mistaken as examples when they should not always be.

Furthermore, it can be questioned whether it is really necessary for footballers to express a political opinion? Footballers are judged on their playing ability, an ability which does not come with an informed political opinion. Hence, just because a footballer has a wide social media following, does this mean they should be informing the public? Many people watch football as a form of escapism and therefore do not necessarily want to be reminded of the political crises which affect our society. People do have a right to raise question such as ‘what does being a Manchester United fan have to do with my views on the Israel question?’ or ‘why should I care about what political party my favourite player supports?’ People do not support teams and follow player due to their politics but out of their geography, family or just a love of the game, a fact that can make the decision of players to take a stance come off as misjudged and awkward.

However, like most things, it is not as binary as this. Football does not exist within a bubble and therefore has the ability to shape and be shaped by the outside world. Due to this, if politics has the ability to shape football than football has just as much right to respond. This is seen most clearly with the issue of race. Unfortunately many footballers and fans still receive racist abuse both at games and online, this is why important that when they take the knee and make a symbolic stand against racism and social injustice. Furthermore, even footballers performances on the pitch can make a symbolic statement. Muslim players in the Premier League, and especially Mohammed Salah, have been claimed to have a role in increasing acceptance of Islam with people forced to think of Salah as a human and not ‘the other’. Therefore, if even players doing well is a political act then how can we state footballers should be apolitical?

Simply put, it would be impossible to separate politics and football. Footballers are figures of influence meaning people will look up to them as role models and part of this is listening to them when they express an opinion. From the examples I have given it could be easy to state that footballers are allowed political expression when they state the ‘right’ opinion but of course that is impossible. Footballers come from a range of backgrounds and therefore will have a variety of opinions. All that I intent to do with this article is show the blurred lines between the football world and the political world. Football has a unique position in the world which has provided it with unique political opportunities, changing peoples’ attitudes to society and even shaping national politics. Of course this is not always idea. Such power can both be unnecessary and even dangerous, giving legitimacy to controversial. However, all this means is that footballers, like any person with influence should be questioned with people considering it an opinion rather than the answer. In this way footballers and football in general should be considered as a much more of a part of the political system then originally considered and an important form of political expression.

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