The Argument: In 2016, Football is as Political as Ever
“Write a piece about something that is bugging you” about the game. Blimey, where do you start? Footballs on plinths, rampant corruption, automatic bookings for taking your shirt off, the pointlessness of football phone-ins, York City in the mire of sub-mediocrity? The choice is endless and picking just one thing out is a thankless task. And yet…
The notion that football and politics do not mix is absurd. Not just football, to be fair, but sport generally. And it’s a trope that comes around with alarming regularity. It needs to be stopped.
There’s little in life that isn’t political, and football cannot escape. From its inception as an organised, professional sport, the political game has been every bit as important as that which occurs on the field. Its initial spread was an example of soft power in action and the way emerging nations are keen to buy into the sport is exactly the same. The fact that some clubs are in the league position they are in now is the result of politicking as is the expansion of tournaments the world over.
The codification of the game was intensely political. Various sets of rules had to be separated out and a coherent, cohesive set of rules developed. To think that didn’t happen without trading and compromise is ridiculous. Then there’s the organisation of leagues — who gets in, on what criteria, where are they placed, what format does the league take. That Corinthians chose not to participate in organised, professional matches was an intensely political act.
Arsenal’s election to the top flight, the status they proudly retain to this day, was an act of political lobbying and the system of re-election for the bottom-placed club in division four (as was) similarly so. It was a stitch-up, based on the notion of ‘if we don’t vote for them now, they won’t vote for us in the same situation’. The opening up to automatic promotion and relegation to/from non-league football was similarly lobbied for and voted through. Politics all.
The decision to allow professionalism was a contentious one, as was the maximum wage imposed on players. The abolition of that maximum wage, for which Jimmy Hill was so lauded just weeks ago, was also a political process as was the unionisation of the players with the formation of the PFA. That Gordon Taylor is still the general secretary of that union marks him down as one of the keenest players of the political game in history.
The Premier League, the Champions League. Both were formed with the big clubs seizing more power and more cash. The latter has seen modest reform due to election campaigns. The expansion of the European Championships to 24 was an item in an election manifesto. The proposed expansion of the World Cup to 40 is the same.
The presence of the home nations on the International Association Football Board is a sop to the origins of the game. Their controversial, continued presence there is continually challenged through accepted political routes. That they were ever there is a result of the soft power represented by the spread of the game across the globe. As the game grows in international significance, the investment by sovereign wealth funds such as Abu Dhabi and Qatar is not a matter of sheer philanthropy, but an attempt to promote those nations through the same soft power idea. That a World Cup is off to Qatar and European Championship matches are off to Azerbaijan are not accidental either. That those countries are even bidding is, in part at least, an attempt to make those places look like perfectly normal places to do business in and with, to mollify the worst excesses and get people talking about something else.
The seemingly mandatory poppy on Premier League shirts is intensely political. The dissenting voice is likewise, as is the opprobrium heaped on that individual. The punishments given out to, for example, Legia Warsaw for an anti-UEFA banner is as political as the decisions to dole out paltry punishments for racist incidents. Playing the Marseillaise before Premier League games in the aftermath of the Paris attacks was every bit as political as not doing likewise for similar incidents in other countries that occur every day. When we choose what we mourn, we are making a political decision.
When anyone says “politics and football don’t mix”, what they are saying is that anyone else’s politics other than their own are not welcome in their world view. Life is political. Football is not exempt from that.