The sport, which began capturing global imagination just after World War I, has been used as a platform to make political and racial statements and broadcast ethnic identities
Arindam Roy |
Last Updated at July 13, 2021 20:07 IST
The Hungarian government recently passed a law banning all content related to homosexuality in school curricula and television shows for children. To express solidarity with the LGBTQ community, Munich authorities asked for the Union of European Football Association’s (UEFA’s) permission to light the Allianz Arena stadium, where Germany hosted Hungary in a group stage match of the recently concluded UEFA Euro Championship 2020, with rainbow colours.
More often than not, football has made assists for politics both on and off the pitch.
One of the most popular sports on earth, the game is played in over 200 countries. The men’s World Cup final in 2018 was watched by over 1.12 billion people worldwide, and some of the players command such immense influence that if they replace a Coca-Cola bottle for ‘Aqua’, the company can lose $4 billion dollars in the stock market.
The modern version of the sport has its roots in Europe right after the Industrial Revolution, particularly in England. The Revolution created new societies and working-class neighbourhoods. Although the game was codified in public schools and by the aristocracy of England, it was the working class that drove its popularity. Some of the biggest clubs in Europe were once started by mill workers.
International football began back in the 1920s and the 1930s. It was a time when the world had just witnessed World War I and was moving towards World War II. Some of the fascist regimes of the time made it a point to have strong sports teams that could win medals all over the world, proving the capability of the nation and its people. These included Hitler’s Nazi Germany, Benito Mussolini’s Italy, and Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union.
It wasn’t just the fascists who were using football to fan the sentiments of the people. Many clubs around the world were the result of local politics and were therefore associated with political ideologies, religious identities, and communities. Closer home, India’s first soccer club, Mohun Bagan, defeated the East Yorkshire Regiment in 1911, becoming the first Indian team to beat one from Europe. Bagan became a symbol of India’s fight for independence from the British. A few years down the line, in 1920, a player from the eastern side of the then Bengal province wasn’t allowed to play for the Bagan team. Several players and officials left Bagan and formed East Bengal, a club for people who immigrated from the eastern region during the partition. The Bangals started identifying themselves with the club. Recently, when East Bengal was finding it difficult to find a sponsor for joining the Indian Super League (ISL), West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee personally intervened to help the club find a backer—almost unimaginable for any other sport in India.
Back in Spain, the rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona has also developed because of the different ideologies that both clubs represent. While Real Madrid is associated with Spanish nationalism and seen as an ‘establishment club’, Barcelona is seen as a representative of Catalan nationalism, which asserts Catalan independence from Spain. Under the dictatorship of General Franco, whose relation with Real Madrid was undeniable, Barcelona was a target and it was during this time that the club earned the motto Mes que un club (more than a club).
The rivalry between Celtic and Rangers in Scotland is also based on identities. It is said that the Celtic fan base is largely from the Irish Roman Catholic background, while the Rangers have a Protestant fan base. Moreover, Rangers fans are known to be supporters of the British monarchy, while Celtic fans stand for a unified Ireland and are averse to British rule.
During Croatia’s struggle for independence, an incident that took place on a football pitch came to represent nationalists’ resistance against the domination by Serbia. Prior to a match between fierce rivals Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade, the captain of Dinamo kicked a policeman who was allegedly mistreating a Dinamo fan. Captain Zvonimir Boban was later hailed as a national hero by the Croats. The importance of the sport in Croatia could be gauged by the fact that the first elected president of independent Croatia, Franjo Tudjman, said: “Football victories shape a nation’s identity as much as wars do”.
Football club Liverpool has a history of support for left-wing politics. The city is known as a bastion of the Labour Party. In 1997, player Robbie Fowler, during a match, showed his support for the Liverpool Dockers’ strike. In 2017, manager Jurgen Klopp showed his support for the Left and said he would never vote for the Right. The values of the club are said to have been influenced by socialism largely because of club legend and erstwhile manager Bill Shankly. He was a socialist from Scotland and friends with former British PM Harold Wilson from the Labour party.
Throughout history, the game has derived its power from the people. Multiple rivalries between clubs have transcended just the game. Even during the pandemic, during the English Premier League of 2020-21, many clubs decided to show their support to the Black Lives Matter movement in the US. The players took to their knees before the match to denounce racism. Even this basic gesture evoked the strongest response from various fans, who booed the players once they returned to the stadium themselves. It demonstrated the fault lines that still exist in our societies.
Shankly once said, “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.” He was not wrong.
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