The appointment of Paolo Di Canio as Sunderland manager two weeks ago led to controversy due to his previous admission to being a fascist. Di Canio being appointed as Sunderland manager led to the resignation of former Foreign Minister David Miliband from his position as vice-Chairman of the club, which I don’t think anybody cares about at all, but shows the effect that controversial appointments have. This is one of those moments where politics and football begin to mingle and the spectator just simply has no choice but to watch as the game is brought into disrepute. I mention the Di Canio incident because it is the most recent in a long line of conflicts between politics and football that is very tempestuous.
Politics and football merge from time to time but for the most part try to keep apart due to their incompatibility. There is the famous incident in England where the national team decided that it was politically sensible to use the Nazi salute to greet Hitler at the Olympiastadion in Berlin during a friendly in 1938. Then there was the incident last month where a Greek player by the name of Giorgos Katidis decided to give a Nazi salute at the end of a game between AEK and Veria. In Spain under Franco certain teams were linked to fascist groups and others to radical communist groups. It seems that fascism and football really do have a history together though not a peaceful one. And that is what makes this a difficult issue for FIFA to deal with, the game and politics should be divided but politics keeps on getting involved in the game.
I’m not saying that all political interventions are due to either fascist or communist radicals taking a stand. Katidis later said he had no idea what the salute meant at the time and upon learning of the significance of the salute from his German coach, Ewald Lienen, called his actions “totally unacceptable” and accepted his season long punishment after apologising. So either Katidis is an incredibly stupid young man or the education system in Greece (and the Western world) is not teaching about the rise of fascism and the horrors of WWII. The problem for FIFA is that sometimes they have to intervene when there is a political issue in one of the nations that compete in its tournaments. FIFA has a total of 209 countries in its organisation that play professional games against one another and that is 209 different organisations to police and to make sure that they play by the same rules. There was an incident after the 2010 World Cup where the President of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathon, told the Nigerian national team that they were banned from playing for two years due to their poor performance. FIFA had to intervene and make sure that the Nigerian FA would not be overrun by the wishes of the President. The Indonesian government and FA are being currently told how to behave by FIFA and in Brazil Sepp Blatter’s deputy has been told never to come back to the country after voicing concerns over the readiness of the country for the 2014 World Cup. Politics and football are unfortunately linked together.
But surely they shouldn’t be? Football is a sport and shouldn’t be beholden to government. But it is and that is the saddest thing about it. While FIFA is an international organisation run from Switzerland it still has to deal with petty feuds with local governments. And much like how the UN struggles because it has to negotiate between so many different opinions from so many different viewpoints, not unlike the Swarthmore campus, FIFA struggles to maintain its values in the face of opposition. What FIFA represents is an international organisation that elects a leader to make decisions on how the game should be played and the spirit that the game should embody. For the most part it does this successfully and it tries to stamp out racism, to halt international conflicts, and to give anybody the chance to play football whether they gay or straight, male or female etc. However, there is one problem: much like Ban Ki Moon, Sepp Blatter has no real power to make a difference. Blatter and his assistant can’t make the builders in Brazil work any faster; they have no power to enforce change. The game itself has to be powerful enough and influential enough that people will listen to their opinion on whatever issue there is and the threat of being removed from the game has to matter enough to people that it is an effective punishment. Football is only successful as long people think it’s important. And if people think highly of football then the message that it tries to embody, that a game can unite people rather than tear them apart, will have to be heard by governments and politicians. Politics should have no place in football but it does because both governments and FIFA try to preach to the fans and to define ‘societal values’.