When we talk about our society and culture, we cannot ignore the impact it has on the world of sports. Throughout history, sports has gone hand in hand with society and the sporting world often reflected the changes that were happening around them in society, be it the increasing number of African-Americans participating in sports in the USA which coincided with the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, or the sharp rise in the number of women athletes which was a result of the second-wave of the feminist movement in the 1960s and the 1970s. We cannot undermine the importance of the remarkable impact they have on each other. And this, of course, leads to the question of the influence and the relationship that politics has on world of sports.
There have been a number of instances where football was either influenced or was used as a tool for political reasons throughout its rich history. We need not look any further than the classic example that everyone is familiar with: the 1978 World Cup that was hosted by Argentina, which is now commonly known as “the World Cup that should have never happened”. General Videla, not interested in football himself, used the chance to host a World Cup to his advantage to overshadow the political tension brewing within the country, with his political opponents either missing or brutally murdered. Qatar, by getting the rights to host the 2022 World Cup, wanted to show the European powers an indication of the shift in power and to make a statement.
With this in mind, let’s talk about a particular issue that has been making news over the last few days. On 31st May, Jadon Sancho was flashed a yellow card for revealing an undershirt with the phrase “Justice for George Floyd”, in reference to the murder of the American in Minneapolis the week before. And this is what we are going to look at here, racism in football and the reconsideration of FIFA’s policies against political stance.
We live in the 21st century, and yet football’s most significant problem still remains tackling racism. Racism has been a problem for FIFA and other footballing organisations for quite some time now. Its origins can be traced back to when Paul Canoville, Chelsea’s first black player, was subjected to abuse from his fans to when Zinedine Zidane, a darling of the French, being abused as an ill-tempered African player by a section of the French fans after his infamous headbutt at the 2006 World Cup final. The 2019-20 season saw football being overshadowed by racist abuse and anti-semintic chants hurled at players across Europe at both club and international level. If we take England and Wales alone, more than 150 isolated cases of racism were reported to the police last year, a rise of more 50% on the year before according to the figures released by the UK Home Office. Household names like Paul Pogba, Raheem Sterling, Antonio Rüdiger, Mario Balotelli, Moussa Marega and Danny Rose were amongst those who were targeted in the last year alone. To the players’ credit, they have not held back in voicing their opinions off the field. Sterling has been very vocal about his stance against racism in football and has asked for stricter sanction against the offenders. The England national team threatened to walk out after some players were abused by the home fans in their Euro qualifiers against Bulgaria earlier this year. The players have been doing their part in creating awareness against discrimination through social media and other outlets, but what we must look at here, is how much of that is effective in getting the message out there in public? Is it enough for players to do this on their own without the support of the clubs, the League committees and FIFA?
FIFA’s attitude towards world’s most followed game and politics has always been interesting. While officially, FIFA always tried to ensure that football and politics stay separated, it has been largely unsuccessful as it is near impossible to separate them, especially when it involves global events like World Cups. Politics and World Cups are a whole different topic on their own, with FIFA turning a blind eye towards the obvious agendas behind most of the World Cups in football history, especially when it comes to hosting.
Football clubs and league organisations generally tend to stay away from addressing political issues directly or indirectly, the most famous example being Arsenal choosing to separate themselves from Mesut Ozil’s comments about China’s supposed oppression of the Uighur community leaving Ozil to fend for himself against the backlash from the Chinese media. However, all governing bodies from FIFA to the lowest tier leagues have openly condemned racism in football and the past few years saw FIFA modifying rules that were aimed at removing the racial abuse from the game that include stadium bans and arrests of the offenders. But even then, players and clubs are allowed to make a statement only outside of the pitch and via different social media outlets. It’s even stated in the Laws Of The Game (LOTG) that “The team of a player whose basic compulsory equipment has political, religious or personal slogans or, statements or images will be sanctioned by the competition organiser or by FIFA.”
FIFA has always found it important to sanction players for their political stand so as to maintain a considerable distance between the game and off the field worldly matters. Yet despite all this, the numbers have only been increasing. Is it time for FIFA to revisit these policies? Should players be given more power and be allowed to make a statement even during games, judging by the sheer number of people that follow the sport, at least for humanitarian causes?
The DFB control committee had earlier confirmed that they were looking into the actions of Jadon Sancho, along with Achraf Hakimi, Weston McKennie and Marcus Thuram who also made their feelings known about the tragic events of last week. This garnered criticism from all sides, especially from Piara Powar, executive director of football’s anti-discrimination Fare Network. “The booking of Jadon Sancho, or any other player, for making a statement in support of a man who has been unjustly killed is the wrong decision. This is not a party-political cause or an issue that poses a threat to football but an expression of concern and solidarity from minority players,” he said. The German referee who was in charge of Dortmund’s match against Paderborn had come out and expressed his regrets at booking the player in question but maintained that he was just following the rules. The DFB then released a statement saying that Sancho was booked for the illegal conduct of Law 12 (players will be cautioned for “removing the shirt or covering the head with the shirt”) and since his teammate Hakimi had not removed his shirt to display the message, he was not cautioned. However, DFB had also said that it was still reviewing the concerned players’ case as they maintain that no religious, political and personal slogans or images should be involved in the game. Finally, the DFB decided to take no further action against the concerned players. However, the damage had already been done. Now what we have here is the age-old dilemma, morality versus ethics. Was the referee right in upholding the laws to book Sancho? Or should the referee have been more considerate and understanding of the context surrounding the incident? The same question can be extended to the DFB control committee as well.
But what’s interesting to note here is FIFA’s response to this particular stand. In a statement to the Associated Press, FIFA said “FIFA fully understands the depth of sentiment and concerns expressed by many footballers from different parts of the world in light of the tragic circumstances of the George Floyd case. The application of the Laws Of The Game… is left for the competitions’ organisers, which should use common sense and have in consideration the context surrounding the events.” This is something FIFA has never done before. They are now ‘choosing’ not to enforce the retrospective punishment, despite their extensive anti-racism campaign. Now the question arises, is this a sign of things to come? Will FIFA now allow more players across the world to make humanitarian statements on the field? How will they decide which cause, political or humanitarian, can be allowed for such statements? Will they remain silent or choose to speak up, directly or indirectly, against other political situations happening around the world, some of which they are directly responsible for (Low wage workers who died and are still dying while building infrastructures for the Qatar World Cup)? Are they being selective in what matters to speak up, depending on the business as well as political situations and relationships? While this is a good start, footballers from different parts of the world will have to wait and see how the FIFA authorities will respond to the future, when the need arises.
Written by Neeraj Nair | Feature image by Ian Walton/Getty Images
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