Sorry, Sepp Blatter: football and politics are forever intertwined
It is not, immediately, easy to identify quite what Sepp Blatter believes in, except power. The president of FIFA, the guardian of the global game, believes absolutely in power -- and in absolute power, too. He believes in the perpetuation of his own presence and the protection of the structure he has built to guarantee it, that labyrinth of patronage and cronyism by the lake.
Beyond that, the only thing we can be really certain he believes in is that football and politics do not mix. He repeats it like a mantra. FIFA treats the hijacking of the game to take a stand with substantially more gravity than it treats racism, sexism or homophobia. It comes down harder on that than it does on corruption, which it apparently goes to great lengths not to come down on at all.
In the great litany of FIFA crimes only doping and match-fixing, those twin threats to the integrity of the game (and therefore the structure of Blatter's power), are deemed more grievous.
It is politics, though, that gets Blatter upset more than anything else. It did once more after Tuesday night's mayhem in Belgrade, a surreal 150 seconds during which a drone bearing a flag emblazoned with a map of "Greater Albania" swooped over the pitch in the Serbian capital and all hell broke loose.
SERBIA VS. ALBANIA VIOLENCE
- Marcotti: Football no stand-in for political battles
- WATCH: Drone flying flag over match sparks row
- Ames: Serbia, Albania mess a sad reminder
- UEFA defends decision to play in Belgrade
- Serbia and Albania charged by UEFA after violence
- Background: Troubled history brought to the fore
This was the perfect example of why Blatter feels politics should be kept away from the game, why it should be a haven from the troubles and conflicts and enmities of the world. Politics means problems. "Football," Blatter said, "should never be used for political messages." It is a statement he has made before. Many, many times.
Blatter is right, of course, that you should not fly a drone carrying a provocative banner over a ground on a hostile territory. That is plainly an unnecessarily inflammatory thing to do, an inexcusable act; the Serbian FA's description of it as a "terrorist action" is probably an exaggeration, but it has a kernel of truth in it. It's not a great idea to go giving people ideas about using remote-controlled drones to disrupt high-profile sporting events. There are people out there who would use such a concept to do more than just fly flags and spark outrage.
In short, no one will argue that politics and the game can be a dangerous combo.
But to use the most extreme examples to suggest, as Blatter does, that football and politics do not mix, or that football should not be used to convey political message, is folly. Football is politics, and football is a political message. To believe, or even to attempt to pretend to believe otherwise is to ignore a vast swathe of football's history, the part of it that makes the game so important, so symbolic, the bit that means that it transcends sport in a way that golf and tennis and most of its peers do not.
There are myriad different ways that politics and football are entwined.
There are the clubs that function not just as teams but as political entities -- Real Madrid, Barcelona, Athletic Bilbao -- even if their role, their politics, is a little mythologised, a touch fictionalised.
Then there are clubs who may not be explicitly political in quite the same way but who have politics entwined in their very being, like Rangers and Celtic. There were the teams from behind the Iron Curtain that were manipulated and bolstered to showcase the superiority and strength of Communism, teams like Dynamo Dresden, Steaua Bucharest and Red Star Belgrade.
Or there is the converse: Silvio Berlusconi used his ownership of (and success with) AC Milan to launch his own political career, using the techniques of the terraces to turn Forza Italia -- even the name is redolent of football -- almost overnight into a parliamentary heavyweight.
It happens at a national level, too, that football is either used to send a message or that football becomes a message. In Argentina, where the very concept of la nuestra, their idiosyncratic style of the 1950s, was a cipher for isolationism; in Brazil, where a dictatorship was maintained on the back of the success of the Selecao; in Cold War Europe, where the game served as a literal metaphor for conflict.
There are myths about football's role in war: that the so-called Soccer War, between Honduras and El Salvador in 1970 (and so brilliantly depicted by Ryszard Kapuscinski) was about football, but not really; there is a legend that Zvonimir Boban's kick on a (Slovenian) policeman during a riot at the 1990 Yugoslav Cup final started the disintegration of the Balkans, but it is only a legend.
But it is futile to deny that football has been leveraged and corralled and mobilised in the name of politics, and war: the Serb warlord Arkan found fame as a leader of Red Star Belgrade's ultras, the Delije. He would use the same boys and men as the foot soldiers in his brutal paramilitary unit, the Tigers, which carried out some of the most vicious atrocities of the Balkan conflict. Then there was the Arab Spring, where front and centre in the Egyptian revolution were the Ahlawy, Al Ahly's ultras, battle-hardened from skirmishes with the police and ready for the fight on Tahrir Square.
Football is political. For Blatter to dismiss that is to lose touch with reality. What makes his consistent refusal to acknowledge it more damning, hypocritical, even, though, is that FIFA is a political entity, too. In other words, Blatter embraces politics when it benefits him, but acts like the organization should be non-political at all other times. The World Cup is used to showcase the strength and modernity of a host country, as was the case with Brazil, or as a metaphor for an entire continent, as was true of South Africa.
So why, then, take this stance, why insist football and politics should never meet, if history contradicts you just as much as your own organisation's actions do? Simple.
It is far easier to insist that football recognises no allegiance, creed or -ism and to insist that politics should be kept from the field, than not to acknowledge the truth, because recognising football's tremendous political power -- something that should be, could be harnessed as a force for good -- would mean taking a stand.
It would mean removing the right to compete on an international level to brutal, totalitarian regimes like North Korea. It would mean recognising that perhaps sport can send a message to a nation, as it did with apartheid South Africa. It would mean not dancing with despots or allowing countries where human rights are routinely ignored to swell your organisation's coffers. And all of that means making a choice, means rocking the boat, means descending from the gravy train. It means using your power, your vast, overweening power as head of the most popular sport in the world, to do something. And here is the rub: using power is different to gathering it. Using power invariably risks losing it. If you believe only in power, you will do nothing that threatens that power.
So instead, FIFA takes the easy way out and insists that football is not politics, when in fact it is infused in the game's very soul.