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The link between football and politics, and why it is here to stay

by Daniel Roodt

Politics has always played a massive part in football and will continue to do so. Not wanting politics to exist within football, is quite frankly naive and a pipe-dream. 

The game has not just been “politicised” by players. Most of the time, the matters that players are supposedly politicising are more focused on dignity and human rights than political campaigning. 

Since its inception, football has been steeped in politics. The game began as a game for the British elite, and when it was formally opened up to the working-class, it was met with extreme backlash. Football has always struggled with inclusivity, with certain groups still facing discrimination. 

It was not until 1991 that the FIFA Women’s World Cup was created, and unfortunately, the discrimination against female players didn’t stop there.

The women’s game has faced countless challenges over equal pay and facilities as well as blatant sexism from supporters. Female players face lots of sexist comments on social media and get heavily criticised for engaging in political issues.

Even more shockingly, in 2018, when Norwegian star Ada Hegerberg won the first women’s Ballon D’or, the host of the awards ceremony, Martin Solveig asked her if she knew how to twerk.

It is crucial to bear in mind that while Hegerberg was quite literally creating history, the host of the awards thought it was relevant to ask (jokingly or not) whether the best female player in the world knew how to twerk.

When the women’s game faces blatant sexism like this, one cannot pretend that politics do not exist within football.

Hegerberg: Norwegian star and Olympique Lyonnais, Ada Hegerberg pictured with the first Ballon D’Or for women in 2018. Photo by Christophe Ena via Business Insider.

Justin Fashanu was the first and only openly gay footballer in Europe’s top leagues.

Fashanu would later take his own life after facing abuse and allegations of sexual assault. 

Since Fashanu, not one football player in Europe’s top five leagues has “come out” while still playing. 

One can’t help but notice that the culture amongst some football fans has failed to change. Whenever football clubs in England show their solidarity and support for the LGBTQ+ community by wearing rainbow laces and armbands as part of their partnership with Stonewall, the majority of comments on the clubs’ social media is plagued with homophobic remarks. 

South Africa has links to football being politicised. In 1987, Dutch and AC Milan midfielder Ruud Gullit dedicated his Ballon D’or to the then incarcerated, Nelson Mandela. This would cause a big stir in Italy, as the media were not happy that a footballer was talking about politics.

However, Gullit said that it wasn’t about politics, but rather that “it was a human decision.” The Dutchman would later record a reggae song dedicated to Nelson Mandela and ending Apartheid. 

Recently, several players in the German Bundesliga dedicated their goals they scored to George Floyd, who was recently murdered by the police in Minneapolis. However, they were not alone. Many other players, like England’s Raheem Sterling expressed their concern regarding racism globally, but more specifically in football.

Sterling’s comments in particular were not taken well by British football fans. On Sterling’s retweet of the interview in which he discussed these now ‘controversial’ topics, many fans were heavily criticising Sterling for his words. 

Unfortunately, football cannot remain apolitical, especially in times like these. Football has always been political, with many politicians and players attempting to use the game to spread a particular message. 

If football players protesting for human rights angers you, then maybe it’s not the fact they’re using their status to raise important points, but rather it’s the message they’re spreading that angers you. 

In some cases, football and actual politics are quite literally mixed. In 2011, the ultras group of Egyptian club Al Ahly, the Ahlway, became embroiled in the saga related to the overthrow of the then Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak. 

Matt Gault describes their role in an article for These Football Times. Gault states, “The Ahlawy provided fuel for the revolution which ultimately overthrew Mubarak. They manned barricades, participated in songs of protest, and produced banners denouncing the regime of Mubarak.” 

The Ahlawy even suspended their club allegiances and fought side by side with the ultras of their most bitter rivals, Zamalek. The two groups marched together to Tahrir Square to protest the leadership of Mubarak.

Ultimately, the Ahlawy and Zamalek’s White Knight’s were successful in providing the spark that overthrew Mubarak’s government in the Egyptian Revolution of 2011.

Football and politics will always be closely interlinked in numerous ways. It may be open political involvement like the role of the Ahlawy in the Egyptian Revolution. It may be a more subtle protest against discrimination in the game. 

But, whatever it is, politics is in football, and it is here to stay. 

Ultras: Al-Ahly ultras, the Alhawy announced in 2018 that they had disbanded indefinitely due to their numerous clashes with Egyptian law enforcement. Photo via Enterprise. 


Matt Gault via These Football Times


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