Organisations at the top of football are always keen to argue that politics has no place in the beautiful game. Like many sports, football likes to position itself as a unifying game that brings people together and can even change the world for good. But it is increasingly difficult to keep politics out of any arena, and there have been an increasing number of events over the years that have seen politics play a huge role in the footballing arena.
Is it time for the FA and Fifa to accept that players and teams have a right to political opinion, or is this something that needs to be kept entirely separate? Let’s take a look at some examples of politics creeping into football and how this has affected the game.
Some of football’s most bitter rivalries have their origins in politics. In Germany, the rare matchups between FC St Pauli and FC Hansa Rostock have often descended into violence purely on the apparently political inclinations of their supporters. Rostock has been associated with neo-Nazism as well as xenophobia and hostility to foreigners. St Pauli, on the other hand, holds strongly left-wing and anti-fascist views. Of course, no-one likes to see the kind of ugly scenes that have happened at these games.
And, of course, there is the Old Firm derby between Celtic and Rangers. This is traditionally believed to be split down sectarian lines, which it is, but there are also highly charged political elements. Celtic have often been associated with socialism while Rangers have been associated with conservatism.
Corbyn at the Kop
Interestingly, despite the FA’s insistence that football must remain politics-free, many fans have taken matters into their own hands. In a match between Liverpool and Southampton in May, Liverpool supporters unveiled a huge banner declaring their support for Corbyn’s general election campaign.
Liverpool has traditionally been a Labour-supporting city and recently elected Labour candidate Steve Rotheram as the Mayor. It seems, then, that Liverpool FC is completely behind the Labour leader. It’s unlikely that you’ll see Jeremy Corbyn sporting the latest Liverpool shirt in Parliament, however, given his apparent support for Arsenal.
The player who won’t wear the poppy
Another controversial issue surrounding politics is the wearing of the poppy. This is one area where governing bodies Fifa and the FA had a disagreement over what was acceptable. In November 2011 during a World Cup qualification match between England and Scotland, both teams chose to wear a black armband with a poppy on it. The English FA supported this decision, however, the controversial world-governing body Fifa stated that players were not allowed to promote ‘political, religious or commercial messages’, which the poppy was judged to be.
There was outrage across the UK when the FA was fined £35,308 for fielding players wearing poppies. But this is not where the controversy ends. West Bromwich Albion and Republic of Ireland midfielder, James McClean refuses to wear a poppy on Remembrance Day the way the majority of Premier League players do.
McClean’s decision has noting to do with showing solidarity with Fifa, however. McClean was born in Derry, Northern Ireland, and due to the British Army’s involvement in conflicts in the country he feels that he cannot wear the poppy.
Celtic and Palestine
Returning to Scotland, there was another interesting occurrence that happened in a European fixture between Celtic and Israeli side Hapoel Be’er Sheva. In August 2016, during the Champions League match shown on television around the world, Celtic fans raised a Palestinian flag. Uefa, the governing body of the Champions League, deemed the flag to go against their rules regarding political symbols and fined the side more than £8,000. This decision was controversial by Uefa as the fans had simply been waving flags.