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Political Hypocrisy – Football’s Battle to Remain Neutral

Since the football dramatically burst its way into the global psyche, with an obvious catalyst coming with the launch of The Premier League in 1992, the game has come a hell of a long way. With transfer fees increasing tenfold, and the ever diversification of leagues worldwide, the game has become painted by the shared culture of many nations. Culture has always formed a strong part of sport, and football is no different. The diversity of the game is one of its biggest strengths, rivalled only by the Olympic Games for diversity in its audience. One aspect of humanity which so many in the game have worked to remain untouched is it’s use as a political tool.

UEFA policy could not be any clearer when it says it aims to “promote football in Europe in a spirit of peace, understanding and fair play, without any discrimination on account of politics, gender, religion, race or any other reason”. While this regulation may, at first glance, look clear, it is in practice where the lines have blurred. UEFA has taken a hard stance on political symbols used by fans on both the left and right of the political spectrum, but with the game growing exponentially, one can forgive governing bodies for feeling slightly out of their depth. Increasingly, we see football used as a shell for political ideals to which it ought to hold no connection, we see political ideals represented through sponsorships, or by the owners of the clubs themselves.

In 2014, League of Ireland side Dundalk were fined €18,000 when a section of supporters flew a Palestinian flag at a Europa League Qualifier. A delegate from UEFA, who was in attendance at the match, ordered the flag to be removed from Oriel Park, pursuant to regulations on flags that have deemed to be “inappropriate by UEFA”. Similar fines have been handed out to Celtic (twice) and similar behaviour was seen in last year’s Eurovision from the Icelandic entrant. While it can be argued that this is a deeply political, many have argued that the use of a nation’s flag is such a regular occurrence that cherry picking which flags are appropriate represents naivety from UEFA. One could argue that when Celtic, a Scottish club with links to Ireland, waves a tricolour, that waving
flag is also holds its foundations in deep political statement. Were UEFA to start handing out bans on the use of a tricolour in Celtic Park, one can only imagine where the line could be drawn.

Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola, a Catalonian native, was fined £20,000 for wearing a yellow ribbon in support of jailed Catalan independence leaders. Guardiola claimed it was not a political statement but accepted the fine. While this fine came under the English Football Association’s regulations, it was not found to be in breach of UEFA codes when it was worn in a Champion’s League game. Martin Glenn of the FA was quizzed on the fine for Pep, and was quoted as saying “it’s a symbol of Catalan independence… We don’t want political symbols in football”. It would then be safe to assume that Mr Glenn would hold the same opinion of the use of the poppy as a part of English footballing tradition. Unfortunately, that could not be further from the case as Glenn adamantly dismissed any assertion that the poppy could be considered political saying “Poppies are not political symbols; that yellow ribbon is. Where do you draw the line, should we have someone with a Ukip badge? Someone with an Isis badge?”. FIFA did in fact fine the English and Scottish Football Associations for their part in a poppy display, but after an appeal, subsequently overruled it.

Despite his stance on the Catalonian independence movement, Guardiola should not be mistake as some hero of the common man, as he is one of very few in football to have taken money from both the Abu Dhabi royal family (owners of Manchester City) and Qatar, as an ambassador for their World Cup bid. As Pep Guardiola may have found himself at the front of this debate,  delivering impassioned speeches on his feelings towards Catalonia’s jailed politicians, when asked how these beliefs aligned with his boss Sheikh Mansour, Pep is often slightly more unsure of himself.

Mansour, the Deputy Prime Minister of the UAE has turned Manchester City into a powerhouse of English and World Football, spending a portion of his exorbitant wealth on playing staff and investing in facilities for the club. It is when you look behind the curtain however, at the political ideals of Mansour and the UAE, that we see the true colours of the man. An Emirati Royal, ruling a state
riddled with Human Rights violations, unfair trials and where homosexuality is illegal.

Human rights researcher Nick McGeehan has written extensively about the links between Manchester City and Abu Dhabi. “They’re not making money out of these clubs,” McGeehan says. “They latch themselves on to prestigious, high-value brands, whether it’s football clubs or universities or museums, and these associations enable them to present themselves as progressive and tolerant,
when the opposite is true.”. It is far from City alone who hold connections with questionable political regimes, both Barcelona and Real Madrid have actively sought relationships with Gulf interests and opened themselves up to similar questions. Beyond the Middle East, one can look to Chelsea’s Russian Ownership or the political persuasions of some of the American Owners in the Premier League.

Football has often encapsulated the cultural zeitgeist, giving us a slice of what life is like for a common man, but as more and more intolerant and politically backward nations plaster their name on the jerseys of clubs who play it. If football is used as a pawn in a game of geo-politics, one can only wonder where the breaking point will be. When will we reach checkmate?