Politics has entered the football field. Was it inevitable?
The EURO 2020 tournament, the first major international event since the start of the pandemic, is finally coming to an end: after a shocking round of 16, and grueling quarter and semi-finals, the two teams prepare to fight for the very coveted UEFA European Championship. will be Roberto Mancini’s Italy and Gareth Southgate’s England.
When the Italian and English players enter the historic grounds of Wembley Stadium on Sunday night, both teams will likely kneel down. One will do it out of solidarity with racial minorities, the other out of solidarity with their opposition on the ground.
The England squad, which consists of nine black players, have consistently kneeled down throughout the competition, in a display of unity with the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests that have taken place in the last summer in the United States and Western Europe.
The Italian formation, which are an all-white team, have been more erratic, only taking the knee when their opponent has asked them to. The unwavering captain of the country, Giorgio Chiellini, explained that “when the other team requests it, we will kneel in solidarity and sensitivity towards the other team”. Chiellini promised that the Azzurri would fight racism “in other ways”.
But by choosing this seemingly neutral stance, the Italians inadvertently brought more attention to the issue, drawing both the anger and admiration of onlookers. Their do no harm attitude resulted in an awkward image when they fought against Wales: only five Italian players took the knee while the other six colleagues stood up and watched in silence.
Italy’s choice to keep sport and politics strictly separate responds to an almost sacrosanct dogma that the world of sport has long maintained and advocated. Football is meant to be a form of escape: 90 minutes of fervor and suspense where our most ordinary problems, from unpaid bills to global warming, are swept aside and forgotten.
But the long-standing tradition of detaching politics from sport – and sport from politics – seems to have been made impractical by an internet-fueled society where politics is inescapable.
A new kind of European championship
EURO 2020 left us with moments destined to go down in sporting annals, such as the astonishing defeat of France against Switzerland, the double goal against its side of Portugal against Germany, the incredible halfway goal. of Patrik Schick against Scotland and the eight record dribbles of Jeremy Doku against Italy.
The competition has also seen dramatic episodes, including the collapse of Dane Christian Eriksen in his team’s first game of the tournament or the sudden Achilles tendon injury of Italian Leonardo Spinazzola.
But from the start, what characterizes the competition is its political dimension, manifested with a surprisingly explicit and impactful intensity. Politics permeated the entire tournament, from the pitch itself to the behind-the-scenes drama.
Russia sparked controversy when it complained about Ukraine’s football team’s new kit, which included a map of the country including Crimea, illegally annexed by Russia in 2014, and two slogans stating “Glory to Ukraine “and” Glory to the Heroes “.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova sharply criticized the kit, writing on Facebook that “the Ukrainian football team has tied the territory of Ukraine to Russian Crimea on its uniform.” She added that the slogans were “nationalist” and had been used by Nazi collaborators.
The song âGlory to the Heroesâ was widely used during the popular uprising of 2014 that toppled a president who was friendly to Russia.
Andriy Pavelko, president of the Ukrainian Football Association, said that the outline of the border “will give strength to the players because they will fight for Ukraine”.
The conflict immediately placed UEFA in an obvious position of political arbiter between two countries still technically at war in the Donbass region.
Upon review, the organization allowed the map to remain upright because the borders complied with a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly. UEFA, however, called on Ukraine to remove the phrase “Glory to the Heroes” because, placed next to “Glory to Ukraine”, the message became “clearly political in nature” and had meaning. historical and militaristic.
A similar altercation arose when Greece complained that the official North Macedonian team jersey displayed the term “Macedonian Football Federation”, omitting the “North” part of the country’s name. Greece considered the label to be a violation of the Prespa Agreement, under which North Macedonia agreed to change its official name to normalize relations with its neighbor.
In this case, UEFA rejected the petition, claiming that the organization “uses the name Football Federation of North Macedonia in all its official communications and has adapted the relevant terminology”.
Shortly after these initial conflicts, a bigger and stronger crisis erupted, coming from a corner that rarely converges with football: LGBTQ + rights.
In the middle of the tournament, the government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor OrbÃ¡n passed a law including an amendment banning the portrayal of homosexuality and gender reassignment in school materials and television programs aimed at children under the age of 18.
The legislation, known as the Child Protection Act, immediately sparked outrage across the continent, with most EU countries calling it “a blatant form of discrimination based on sexual orientation, l ‘gender identity and expression’. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the law was “shameful” and promised to open infringement proceedings if it came into force.
The city of Munich, which was one of the designated hosts of Euro 2020, brought the controversy onto the pitch by asking UEFA for permission to light up the stadium in the colors of the rainbow. sky during the match between Germany and Hungary.
“Given the political context of this specific request – a message aimed at a decision taken by the Hungarian national parliament – UEFA must decline this request,” replied the organization.
The UEFA decision was celebrated by the Hungarian government but criticized by many European governments, including Germany and France, who then joined forces in the European Council to defend LGBTQ + rights in front of a growing Viktor OrbÃ¡n. more isolated.
The decision was seen as inconsistent with UEFA’s decision own philosophy, which is supposed to represent “a more just and egalitarian society, tolerant of everyone, regardless of their origin, beliefs or gender”. A previous UEFA decision allowed German goalkeeper Manuel Nuer to wear a rainbow armband after seeing it as a symbol of diversity and a “good cause”.
Days later, a Danish fan complained that a security guard confiscated his rainbow flag during the quarter-final match in Baku, Russia. UEFA has opened an investigation into this matter.
“Sport has always been political”
Since the turn of the century, democratic societies have been politically polarized and fragmented. Partisan scuffles, culture wars and hot topics dominate the news cycle, creating an overwhelming and often toxic environment for citizens, who resort to various means of entertainment, such as television series, video games and others. sports, to take a break.
To fans who saw football as a simple diversion, such heated discussions about racism and LGBTQ + rights seemed shocking and uncomfortable. Many react with anger and complain that football has nothing to do with politics – and vice versa.
Simon Darnell, associate professor at the University of Toronto who studies the societal impact of sport, challenges this view.
“It is not true that sport is apolitical, sport has always been political and sport has always been a place where political actors can express their political views,” Darnell told Euronews.
“Sport is inextricably linked with all kinds of political issues. And so it is not reasonable to expect that this will not end up in the sporting event or in the game of the match once it is In progress.”
As the intersection of politics and sport becomes more visible and tangible, athletes feel emboldened to speak out and take a stand, which in turn strengthens and deepens the fusion of the two worlds.
A clear sign of the athletes’ desire to voice their unease and revolt against the establishment came when Cristiano Ronaldo, the most followed person on social media, disdainfully withdrew two bottles of Coca-Cola that had been put to him during of a press conference and instead chose water as a healthier alternative. Frenchman Paul Pogba and Italian Manuel Locatelli have also chosen to abandon sponsored drinks.
The simple gesture grabbed international headlines and went viral online.
The modest but eye-catching uprising against advertisers, who fund a very large part of the football industry, surprised fans and commentators, accustomed to seeing stars dutifully bowing to the demands of big business. The incident has been described as a âchange of powerâ.
âI wonder if we’re going to get to the point where sports organizations just can’t ignore these political issues anymore. And I think that’s athlete-driven,â says Darnell, who thinks the communication power of social media encourages players to assert themselves more.
“Athletes are constantly bringing attention to the issues. And I think that forces the hand of large organizations. So it will be interesting to see how long they can keep going.”
Football is far from the only sport in conflict with politics.
This week again, the European Parliament voted in favor of a non-binding resolution that included a paragraph calling on EU countries to refuse to participate in the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games “unless the Chinese government demonstrates a verifiable improvement in the human rights situation man “in Hong Kong and the Uyghur region of Xinjiang. The United States, Canada and Australia are considering similar measures; and the British Labor Party urged the British government and the royal family to boycott the event.
Beijing has already warned that it will retaliate in the event of a boycott.
“China strongly opposes the politicization of sports and interference in the internal affairs of other countries using human rights issues as a pretext,” said Wang Wenbin, spokesperson for the Chinese ministry. Foreign Affairs.
More uncomfortable talks are expected next year, when Qatar hosts the FIFA World Cup, the first ever to be held in the Arab world. The opportunity is certain to renew attention to the record of the oil-producing country in terms of human rights and persistent allegations of labor exploitation.
Some European teams have already expressed their dissatisfaction with the host: Germany, Norway and the Netherlands wore t-shirts display human rights messages during World Cup qualifying matches. Tellingly, the matches, which are under UEFA’s supervision, took place in Europe.
In a nation where homosexuality is illegal and punishable by death, will politics dare to enter the field?