Sport & Culture

When Football Meets Politics

Recent Features

Sport & Culture

When Football Meets Politics

It would be nice if football was separate from politics. In Asia as in elsewhere, though, that’s not the case.

The world has seen in recent days how football and politics are closely linked in many parts in the world. More than 70 football fans lost their lives in Egypt last week in a football stadium, although most in the country seem to believe that this was no simple football riot.

Many fingers have been pointed at the ruling military council. Critics say the military was taking revenge on the hardcore fans of Al-Ahly who played a part in the unrest that deposed long-serving dictator Hosni Mubarak as well as the protests that have, more sporadically, sprung up against the present regime.

As I’ve noted previously, Bahraini football is still coming to terms with the events of the Arab Spring, and authorities’ actions in arresting some of the team’s best players is a big factor in its struggles to qualify for the 2014 World Cup.

Politics is never completely absent from the beautiful game, even in those countries where people maintain it is. Just look at the fuss created after the British government asked FIFA that the English national team be allowed to wear the symbol of the poppy, the flower that represents the country’s war dead. FIFA, rightly, said no.

But things have become more extreme elsewhere. FIFA has suspended national associations in Asia such as Iran, Brunei, Kuwait, Iraq and Yemen due to governmental interference in football.

Rulers in the region have long been aware of the popularity and power of the beautiful game, and have been quick to identify themselves with it. But sometimes it goes further than that. The son of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, Uday, imposed a reign of terror over the country’s best footballers.

The Iranian government owns most of the football clubs in the country, and is deeply involved in the national association of the country. In 2008, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad got involved in the selection of star player Ali Karimi, who for a time was banned from the national team.

Karimi was maybe not so grateful. In June of the following year, with protests going on in Tehran after a presidential election seen by many as rigged by the ruling regime, he was one of a half dozen players who made a stand. In a vital World Cup qualifier in Seoul, the players donned green armbands, the color of the opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, for the world to see. 

In 2011, Nurdin Halid, a member of a political party in Indonesia, tried to run for a third term as president of the country’s national association. Apart from the fact that he was convicted twice of corruption charges during his time as football chief, being a member of a political party and a member of the association isn’t allowed by FIFA.

North Korean football, meanwhile, is run partly by the party and partly by the military. 

The list goes on. In an ideal world, politics wouldn’t be intertwined with football. Sadly, in Asia as in elsewhere, that’s not the case.