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Political tensions are ruining football’s identity as the beautiful game

Football and politics are two topics which never fail to cause distaste when combined but in recent times the two have become increasingly interlinked. Whilst there have been long-term political rivalries such as The Glasgow Old Firm, in which Protestant club Rangers face Catholic Celtic, a number of modern clashes have formed in the last few years. Largely, this is due to augmented tensions caused by territorial disputes or even religion. Consequently, football’s governing body FIFA has opted to ban “political statements” in an attempt to soften international disagreements entering the sport. However, in my eyes this has only made things worse.

Israel in particular has had a problem with politics interfering with its football. They were kicked out of Asia’s qualifying section in 1974 due to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and admitted to Europe’s governing body UEFA in 1994 after 20 years in exile. Logistically, playing European Qualifiers is not pragmatic for the Israelis. Yet, as the sole Jewish nation in a mainly Muslim continent, do they really have a choice? It seems not, with tensions once again heightened with Islamic Palestine. Although their exile from Asia is more of a long-term issue, league football in Israel is becoming equally political. One club, Beitar Jerusalem, whose supporters openly label themselves the “most racist club in the land“, have a strong Israeli-only transfer policy. When this was broken in 2013 scenes quickly turned sour. This was not due to the players’ Russian nationality, but because of their Islamic beliefs. Dzhabrail Kadiyev and Zaur Sadayev were transferred in on-loan from Terek Grozny, and are both practising Muslims. When their signings were announced, hundreds of so-called “supporters” turned up to the club’s training ground in order to verbally abuse their team’s new players. Two fans were so outraged that they even committed an arson attack on the side’s administrative offices, and hundreds departed from the stadium in protest at Sadayev scoring for Beitar, of course due to his religion.

Additionally, the rise of ISIS has coincided with mounting political tensions in football. Just days after the November 2015 Paris attacks, a minute’s silence was disobeyed by a vocal minority of Turkish fans against rivals Greece. More recently, Israel were again allegedly targeted. Prior to their World Cup qualifier against Kosovo, a planned ISIS attack on both the Israeli team and fans inside the stadium was foiled. This shows just how important football is to modern religious extremists looking to make a statement.

Gibraltar’s national football team

Territorial disputes have also recently interfered with football, most notably those between Spain and Gibraltar. The Rock is officially a British Overseas Territory, despite bordering only one country: Spain. The Spanish campaigned against Gibraltar’s bid to enter both FIFA and UEFA, however were eventually undone ahead of EURO 2016 qualifying. Nonetheless, FIFA ensured that the two nations were kept apart in the group stage draw, due to fear of sparking political tensions. Many have said that if Spain couldn’t drop their belief that Gibraltar isn’t an independent state for 90 minutes of football they don’t deserve to be a member of UEFA themselves, though I think banning them would be an overreaction.

Clearly, events such as those aforementioned have not gone unnoticed by FIFA, leading to them even classifying the poppy as “a political statement”. Subsequently, the home nations were advised to not wear the icon in recent World Cup Qualifiers, or risk facing a fine. Their reason for the prohibition was that it “reminded them about law four”, which states players are not allowed to wear “political, religious or personal slogans, statements or images”. Frankly, the poppy is not a political, personal or religious message; it is simply a way of showing respect to those who died fighting for the wellbeing of Great Britain. England’s interim manager Gareth Southgate summed up the symbol’s meaning particularly well, saying that it is “a part of our identity” and simply “a way of enabling us to remember sacrifices”. It is therefore outrageous that FIFA have concluded a message of respect to be anything even remotely political, and banning it is even more of a travesty. Unsurprisingly, both England and Scotland rebuffed FIFA’s complaint and still wore the poppy on black armbands in their recent fixture. As a result FIFA stated that both nations are now likely to face a penalty. The ban reinforces the increasing significance of politics in football, and the negative connotations that come with it. That both England and Scotland may be rebuked for an act of veneration should make us question the extent to which political correctness is now considered a must.

Thus, I strongly believe that football is becoming too politicised. Disagreements are complicating logistical arrangements in the case of Israel, and disrupting group draws due to tension between Gibraltar and Spain. The fact that ISIS now view certain fixtures as a hotspot for attacks, and not even the poppy is allowed to be worn on team shirts, shows how politics is becoming too interlinked with the sport. In order to restore its identity as “The Beautiful Game”, football simply has to revert to being a working class game, free of all political matters. Yet, given the current state of world affairs, this unfortunately seems unlikely. We should be braced for football becoming even more political in coming years.