Political Football: On the Politicisation of Football and Footballisation of Politics

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Mads Skauge
Nord University, Norway


Christos Kassimeris
The Politics of Football
205 pages, hardcover
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2024 (Critical Research in Football)
ISBN 978-1-032-14778-9

What happens when football touches politics, and what does it say about our time? This is how we could sum up the questions that Christos Kassimeris’ book can be said to contribute to shed light on. When I open a book titled The Politics of Football, it is with anticipation. I hoped to read about sportswashing, contested ownership structures, anti-democratic governing bodies, discrimination, commercialisation and commodification, etc. I was not disappointed. All these topics are covered, analysing political manifestations in football, within the relatively narrow format of the Critical Research in Football series (about 200 pages), not surprisingly from a political science viewpoint rather than sociological. Politics interfere in all sections of life. Aristotle theorised that humans are by nature political: Politics is not confined to interaction between states, but between the state and its people, including collective behaviour (at the terraces and via the football democracy). It is in this respect the politics of football is approached.

The book particularly deals with cultural identity (perceptions, attitudes and beliefs of the citizenry that help construct a certain, political, reality) and violence (hooliganism, the ‘English disease’). The latter, I believe, is an over-researched topic, but I support that it should be included in a book on football politics, not least because the topic is approached in new ways such as crowd management and surveillance technology (however, the most debated tool in this regard, the Passolig ID card, hated for instance in Türkiye, is missing). The distinction between hooligan and ultra is not always evident, but it is a necessity that these categories are compared, especially because of their distinctive relationship with club, politicians and state in the context of the increasingly politicised football sphere – which is also a place for youth subcultures. In any case, the transnational supporter perspective (played out differently in different contexts) is impressive.

Football is important. Claiming otherwise is like saying that all the world’s religions are unimportant because you are not religious.

Otherwise, the book deals with nationalism and discrimination, i.e., homophobia and rainbow politics, hegemonic masculinity, trans and sexism, racism and world affairs (the impact of war and human rights violations on football). The starting point is that because football has never been more popular (hardly anything means more to more people), there has never been more at stake. And where something is at stake, for instance money (football has become a giga-industry: hyper-commercialised and super-globalised), politics is present. How football can be applied as glasses to discover, interpretate and understand politics, is unpacked, for instance how left- and right-wing supporters partly cause, partly effect political identities, and how fascist and communist regimes turn to sport to front political ideology. In this sense, Kassimeris draws inspiration from, and partially follows in the footsteps of, pioneers such as Simon Kuper’s Football Against the Enemy, in which Kassimeris succeeds quite well, especially where he demonstrates how football takes on national imprints in different states.

Kassimeris states the obvious, but in an illuminating way, namely that football is highly politicised. Today, football and politics are so intertwined (sides of the same coin) that clubs are owned by (Gulf) states, subjugating clubs to sportswashing instruments. Football has been instrumental in forming national identity, facilitating international relations and serving political propaganda. Football is important. Claiming otherwise is like saying that all the world’s religions are unimportant because you are not religious. You live in a world of believers! But, ‘The Beautiful Game’ is tarnished, partly for politicised reasons. “I fell in love with football as I was later to fall in love with women: Suddenly, inexplicably, uncritically, giving no thought to the pain or disruption it would bring”, Nick Hornby notes. Anyone claiming that football and politics must not be mixed is ignorant. Football has started and ended wars, and elected and dismissed heads of state. To paraphrase Clausewitz: Football is the continuation of politics by other means. Football is politics. What most supporters want is that football marks distance to certain political regimes.

Football became political the moment it was institutionalised. The point of departure is that if a fan is defined as someone supporting one team over another – e.g., Benito Mussolini’s Lazio, or Livorno from the city that gave birth to Italy’s communist party – one is per se political, as the choice of club often comes with a political stamp. Many supporter groups and clubs are linked to the political left (e.g., St. Pauli, Union Berlin, Celtic, Sunderland, Marseille, etc.) or right (e.g., Rangers, Real Madrid, Chelsea, Dinamo Zagreb, Wisła Kraków, Legia Warsaw, etc.). Football belonging expresses religious identity (e.g., Northern Ireland and Scotland), and serving independence movements (e.g., Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao), government criticism (e.g., when supporters of various Istanbul clubs were leading figures in the Gezi protests in 2013), and quest for national recognition (the Norwegian clubs above the Artic Circle was discriminated until the 80’s). Football promotes ethno-centrism (e.g., Israel, Belgium and Yugoslavia), and ‘wars’ (El Salvador vs. Honduras, Russia and Israel’s ban from international competitions, Holland vs. Germany: The Dutch referred to the second world war when defeating Germany in the 1988 European semi-final), reflecting power relations (Iran defeating the US at the 1998 World Cup, Senegal beating its former slave trader France in 2002, and the 2004 Asian Cup final between China and Japan, etc.), clearly indicating political tension channelled through football.

A mural depicting Roberto Mancini (left), Mohammed bin Salman (right), and Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Neymar (not included) each holding a ball covered in blood at San Siro. All of these footballing figures have made moves to Saudi Arabia in 2023. (Shutterstock/DELBO ANDREA)

Some prime examples of football’s political context, that is, politics meddling with football, are FIFA’s decision to grant Saudi Arabia sponsorship of the 2023 Women’s World Cup, the Premier League’s lack of scrutiny over Roman Abramovich’s takeover of Chelsea, Athletic Bilbao’s persistence in their Basque-only policy, etc. The very epitome of playing politics with football is what a member of the British cabinet describes as ‘gesture politics’ (footballers taking the knee to denounce racism). Or, that the Football Association of Moldova stressed that a match posed danger to the statehood of the Republic: The Conference Leage match between Sheriff Tiraspol and Partizan Belgrade was played behind closed doors for national security reasons, since the government of Moldova feared that Russia was planning to use agents under the guise of football fans to stage a coup. Or, when Fenerbahçe fans chanting ‘Vladimir Putin’ after a Dynamo Kiev goal.

As a football sociologist interested in spectatorship, supporter culture, fandom and broadly speaking football culture, the culture-part of the book caught my attention. Football symbols make football the central cultural and symbolic expression of modernity, it is claimed. Symbols communicate information through images, slogans and behaviours, with multiple possible meanings. Crests, mythologised players (legends), stadiums (religious territory in football religion), anthems, flags, banners, etc., are important symbols and an integrated part of clubs’ cultural heritage. Football’s symbolic military terminology is also underlined: attack, defence, battle, war, defeat, victory, captain, reserves, scout, guard of honour (welcoming the champion) – and even offside (referring to one having strayed into no man’s land in battle).

Émile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons would agree that the construction and communication of shared meaning are symbolic manifestations. Those knowing, mastering and accepting the symbols (sharing a sense of community), are included, others excluded. To define yourself, you make boundaries to outsiders (who you are not). The club crest is assessed as club identity: From the ‘Three Lions’ (referring to greatness of Richard the Lionheart) to the clubs behind the Iron Curtain’s renowned ‘red star’ emblem (symbolising the Communist Party in Russia since the Bolshevik Revolution). Football’s social potential when it comes to identity formation and meaning-making makes it a place for patriotism. Fans mobilising (such as the creation of F.C. United of Manchester) and opposing hostile takeovers, distinct themselves from supporters of other clubs, protesting elitism, reveal that culture and identity is useful political concepts for the study of football.

If you are interested in football, read it. If you are not into football, read it anyway. It addresses an important phenomenon in our time.

Describing a phenomenon is easier than doing something about them. Football mirrors society, so to tackle (figuratively speaking) governing bodies’ anti-democratic behaviour, football fans must play together (continuing the football terminology). The call for democracy is linked to the Super League. The English model is compared with the more (at least on paper) democratic model of German (and Scandinavian, I must add) football. The Super League was about maximizing profit, among other things, by protecting clubs against relegation. But the stock exchange (market) came into conflict with the cathedral (football as religion and an integral part of the local community). The clubs involved wanted to customise their followers. However, for many, football is not entertainment, but identity. If nothing is at stake (no relegation possible) the point is lost. The proposed league was taken as a provocation. And the mobilisation of supporters, their collective power, is unique: That spontaneous street protests reverse a decision made among the world’s most powerful in 48 hours, could not happen in any other sport. Kassimeris points to fruitful ways for further readings, for those wanting to dig into such studies through the lens of political culture.

I agree with the publisher’s claim on the book’s webpage that this is fascinating reading for anyone with an interest in football, in the politics or sociology of sport, in international relations, government, or political ideology, or at the intersection of politics and culture.” However, communicating with all these fields, thematic diversity comes at the expense of analytical depth. Perhaps the book would have benefited from dealing with less topics, thus digging deeper into them. That said, I read the book as an introduction to football politics, and for that purpose, it fulfils its ambition, mostly as an invitation to further reading. The book represents an informative, inviting approach by baking the political science framework (with classics such as Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant) into football. This makes the text accessible to a wide audience. The book inspires studies of the political dimension in identity work and symbolic interactionism in a political context. As an introduction to an increasingly relevant topic, the book is excellent. If you are interested in football, read it. If you are not into football, read it anyway. It addresses an important phenomenon in our time.

Copyright © Mads Skauge 2024


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