Football, economics, and politics in Europe and the Middle East

Mats Greiff
Department of History, Malmö University

Ronny Blaschke
Power Players: Football in Propaganda, War and Revolution
288 pages, paperback, ill
Worthing, SX: Pitch Publishing 2022
ISBN 978-1-80150-358-7

The German journalist, as well as sports and political scientist, Ronny Blaschke makes in Power Players: Football in Propaganda, War and Revolution a examination of the current relationship between football, economy, and politics divided into 12 different chapters. The chapters are consistently based on geographical aspects with a strong emphasis on Europe and the Middle East. Nine of the twelve chapters deal with one of these areas. For Europe, these are chapters with a focus on the former Yugoslavia, Russia, Spain and Turkey. As for the Middle East and North-Africa, there are chapters on football, economics and politics in Israel-Palestine, Egypt-North Africa, Iran, Syria-Iraq and Qatar-Saudi Arabia. The rest of the world is covered by chapters about China, Rwanda and Argentina. Thus, perspectives from Central and North America and Australia-Oceania are missing.

In his purpose for the book, Blaschke emphasizes globalization processes, and he focuses on football as a political and economic instrument of power in the 21st century. The selection of geographical research areas is justified by the fact that these are “control centers of the future, especially China and the Persian Gulf States. These are the countries that are arguably the best at organizing political influence through football” (p. 9). Based on such a selection criterion, however, I wonder why certain countries are included in the book. This applies, for example, to the former Yugoslavia with the importance of football for nationalist movements, Spain with a focus on national movements in Catalonia and the Basque Country or Rwanda with the importance of football for the ethnic tensions that led to the genocide in the 1990s or reconciliation efforts after this. Perhaps, therefore, identity creation and nation or national movements should also be included in the purpose formulation as a contrast to overall globalization processes and economic power play. In this way, the macro and the micro levels could be tied together in a better way, while the selection criteria would become clearer and the book would have a more consistent structure. Thereby, the analytical level would be raised and the connection between the various chapters would become clearer.

Although there are occasional factual errors in descriptions of different countries, it is an impressive work that has been carried out.

Blaschke has put extensive work into collecting material from different corners of the world. In addition to familiarizing himself with literature about economic and political power games in widely different countries and regions, he has also conducted 180 interviews in 15 countries spread over four continents. In this way, the author can put together a puzzle in connecting interview stories with the context in which the events take place. Although there are occasional factual errors in descriptions of different countries, it is an impressive work that has been carried out. However, I think the book could have been made even more interesting if the interviews had been used more. They feel underutilized. Perhaps it is the author’s ambition to cover so many different countries that means that the interviewees in many cases are not visible enough. I miss their voices and how they express their experiences.

There is a tendency to highlight as many different aspects as possible of football’s political and economic importance in the various countries or regions. This creates a great breadth in the book, but it comes at the expense of both a more personal portrayal and a deeper analysis of exciting phenomena.

In certain passages, however, the reader gets close to the physical people the book is about. As a reader, I am captivated by the portrayal of the Rwandan soccer player Eric Murangwa. During the 1994 genocide, his home was stormed by a group of Hutu soldiers. As Murangwa feared for his life, one of the soldiers discovered a team photo at Rayon Sports, the team where Murangwa played, and realized that the person they attacked was one of the team’s most high-profile players. They then called off the attack and gave Murangwa good advice on how to avoid being attacked, before they continued their nefarious mission. Murangwa was later protected by his teammates to avoid him being assassinated. Furthermore, he talks about how, a few years later, football became an important part of the reconciliation process between Tutsi and Hutu. I miss such a human perspective – as is also found in, for example, Joakim Glaser’s thesis on football in eastern Germany – in many of the other chapters.

Eric Murangwa

All in all, Blaschke’s book is very instructive, even if some chapters, for example on Catalonia and the Basque Country, feel predictable and repeat what is commonly known. From a current Swedish perspective, the chapters on Russia, Turkey and Qatar are of course particularly interesting. In the case of Russia and Turkey, it is about how those in power like Putin and Erdogan in a very direct way use football clubs to strengthen their own power and position in their respective countries’ political systems, but also about how oppositional forces can use football. For example, Blaschke highlights the Kurdish club Amedspor, whose supporters in a Turkish context have often been equated with supporters of the PKK. The club has been harassed in various ways by the Turkish authorities. Sponsors have been troubled and the club’s assets frozen. The club has also been denied hotel rooms at away games and spectators as well as some players have been jailed. At the same time, other Turkish clubs have received new modern stadiums and training facilities via the state, all with the aim of strengthening loyalty to Turkey and Erdogan’s own position. In this way, Blaschke interestingly turns football into a prism through which one can study Turkish social life and politics.

What I can think of as an obvious shortcoming in the book is that the unifying perspectives are not clear. Each chapter feels isolated from the others. The book contains a short introduction, then the 12 national or regional chapters and then a short conclusion. My feeling is that the twelve empirical chapters have no common theme other than football, economy, politics, and nation. In the book’s conclusion this tends to disappear. Blaschke fails to tie up the loose ends with an overarching analysis of the relationship between football, economics, and politics. Nor does he make any attempts at comparisons. He does not identify predominant patterns and does not consistently discuss similarities and differences. Instead, based on the debate about the World Cup and Qatar, he discusses football’s potential to contribute to strengthening human rights. In addition, he sees football as part of a larger context with an increasingly globalized economy.

Even if the scientific analysis is not particularly prominent, Blascke’s book with its review of relations between football, economics, and politics in different parts of the world is extremely instructive, and it provides inspiration for further research on this theme.

Copyright © Mats Greiff 2023

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