Fortunately, the Macedonian supporters are back in the picture, because I didn’t see anything striking. My neighbor in the cafe, here in Albanian Tirana, points me to the flag in their hands again. On it is the so-called ‘sun of Vergina’ to see, a yellow or golden sphere with sixteen rays.
That sun, in exactly that form, was used by the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia from its independence in 1991 to 1995. Greeks were outraged. The sun was known from an antique box that archaeologists unearthed in 1977. In Vergina. That is located in the Greek province of Macedonia, not in the brand new country that wanted to call itself that. Under great international pressure, the former Yugoslav republic subsequently opted for a different image – which, incidentally, still resembles it from a distance. I think. My neighbor doesn’t think so.
He hopes that North Macedonia wins the match. His preference makes sense, he says. Some of the players from the Macedonian team speak Albanian with their parents and friends. And those fans with that flag? “They make a political gesture of resistance!”
From the Balkans you can see the political dimensions of a football tournament for national teams even more clearly than behind the TV screen in Holland. Of course, in the Netherlands we also have discussions about rainbow captain armbands. The fuss about Ukraine’s jersey is not lost on us either. (For those who missed it, in two sentences: after a complaint from Russia, an investigation by the European football association UEFA followed. Conclusion: the players of Ukraine are allowed to play with the map on the shirt, including the Crimea annexed by Russia, but without the slogan ‘glory to the heroes’.)
Yet we also miss a few things. To name a small thing that filled headlines in Albania, Austrian footballer (with Serbian roots) Marko Arnautovic was given a one-match suspension in the first week of the tournament for berating a Macedonian footballer (with Albanian roots) for his ancestry. That also made Dutch newspapers. But here in the Balkans it was mainly about the fact that his surname, Arnautovic, is derived from the Ottoman word for ‘the Albanian’.
Or take the pictures that appeared on the internet of the fan decked out with Russian national team paraphernalia, intimately embraced with a Ukrainian fan. Accompanying text: friends. Distributed by a Russian source. A few hours later, a photo of the same man surfaced. His shirt torn. He seems to caress a painful jaw with his left hand.
Football is political
Football is political. Always, and especially at the big tournaments in which countries compete against each other. Much more so than in cosmopolitan club football, where spectators are forced to project their nationalistic desires onto millionaires from afar who communicate on the pitch in broken English.
The choice of the location of such a tournament alone is politically motivated. Now in several European cities. Soon the World Cup in Qatar. For the screens, that country sold itself by boasting about its ability to build a bridge between the Arab and Western world. Behind the scenes there were arguments of a financial nature. It is now clear that the country’s laws (for ‘sodomy’ you go to prison for about three years, to name just one) guarantee endless protest.
Last week, the House of Representatives took a motion to show us something of what awaits us. The Chamber called on the government not to send a delegation to the Azerbaijani capital Baku, should the Orange play the quarterfinals. The motion did not talk about a bridge but about “a push in the back” from a regime that does not deserve this. For example, Azerbaijan is violating the law of war by detaining prisoners of war, still being, from the recent war with Armenia.
Moreover, Baku has a ‘trophy park’, with helmets of killed Armenian soldiers. Ruth hesitated. The Czechs prevented a cabinet position.
The motion made me wonder how Azerbaijan ever became a European football country. Just like Israel, by the way. There is something to be said for both decisions, but you cannot call them apolitical. Just like the election of the internationally only partially recognized Kosovo as UEFA member. It happened five years ago, by 28 votes to 24, despite an emotional speech by the Serbian federation president.
Also read: Why human rights have always been lost in top football
Stadium in rainbow colors
UEFA and FIFA know how political football is, but they deny it, gladly and often. Invoking neutrality, UEFA banned Munich’s city council from lighting up the Allianz Arena in rainbow colors in protest of a recently passed, LGBTI-unfriendly law in Hungary. UEFA called itself in an official statement even “a politically and religiously neutral organization.” Such an organization can keep sport out of politics, it claims, by banning “all political expressions”. See that stadium in Munich.
Unfortunately, the association had recently ruled that German keeper Manuel Neuer had not violated the rules of neutrality with a captain’s armband in rainbow colors. He wears it to draw attention to the rights of the LGBTI community. Not a political message, the union concluded, but “the promotion of a good cause”.
Ah, clear: UEFA is political in determining which expression is political and which is not. So no rainbow stadium in Munich, but a rainbow band around the arm of the captains. But no overt support for laid-off dockers, such as a Liverpool footballer experienced years ago. He received a hefty fine when he showed a text on the shirt under the official jersey during the celebration of a goal. For support. Not a good goal, UEFA ruled. Black Lives Matter is again and if players want to kneel before the game, that’s ok.
Tweeting about Uyghurs
Recently, the hardest hit against this measurement with different sizes is Mesut Özil, a German footballer with Turkish roots. Until recently he played for Arsenal in England. The club actively participates in the fight against racism. Black Lives Matter came on the shirt and several players tweet frequently about police brutality and racism. But Ozil apparently chose the wrong thing when he tweeted about the ill-treatment of Uyghurs in China, as he fell into disgrace. Not only in China, where internet users could no longer search by his name and where he was removed from the computer game ‘Pro Evolution Soccer 2020’, also at his own club. Arsenal has major interests in China, with its own restaurant chain and because China pays millions for the TV rights of the British football league.
Ozil would no longer play for Arsenal. Don’t come to him with the denial of the political nature of things, according to interviews.
You come across this denial everywhere, not just at football associations. In NRC columnist Floor Rusman argued after UEFA’s ban on covering the Munich football stadium in rainbow colors that equality for sexual minorities is not part of an ideology. It should be a ‘neutral starting point’ for any political ideology.
Unfortunately, that is only the case if everyone really believes that sexual minorities deserve equal rights and that is not the case, especially worldwide. Of course, orientation is not a choice, let alone a political one. Neither is skin color. Standing up for equal treatment, of course. The American women’s team recently showed this clearly in a game against the Orange Lionesses. About three quarters of the players knelt during the national anthem. A quarter remained standing. A ‘neutral starting point’ can cause quite a bit of discord.
Kneeling seems harmless. Just like a captain’s armband in rainbow colors. Or a stadium in rainbow colors. But the consistent use of all those well-intentioned signals and symbols calls for more. The world is full of injustice. The newspaper has already received a letter from a reader who uses the discussion to argue plainly for ‘football in the service of politics’.
Also read: Politics likes off the field
Billions from China
It’s FIFA and UEFA’s nightmare. They will miss out on billions. To start with, from China, something that would make any liberal Democrat chuckle. Justly. But the football fan also sees the boycotts on the horizon. Because the enthusiast knows that he gets his hands dirty, sitting in his armchair or a café in the Balkans. He understands that matches of Kosovo against Serbia and Armenia against Azerbaijan will only be possible (and then only with difficulty) if we continue to believe in the myth that football is, or should be, politically neutral. Without that myth, at least four or five competing football associations will arise. Then we will have a world championship without Hungary or Russia. Worse: without Bolsenaro’s Brazil.
A World Cup without Brazil, now I have your attention. This offers the opportunity to cautiously, almost five years later, still ask for understanding for the fines that FIFA handed out after a game between Scotland and England. The match took place on Armistice Day and the players wore black belts on their arms with an image of a ‘poppy‘, the red poppy that commemorates British victims since the end of the First World War. Political expression, according to UEFA. “Britain is not the only country to have suffered from war,” said Fatma Samoura, a Senegalese FIFA executive. „Utterly outrageoussaid the British Prime Minister. The outcry about the fines was enormous and FIFA changed its mind.
Not smart. Because what if players from Bosnia and Herzegovina start to commemorate the massacre at Srebrenica on their shirts? Or Serbia the victims of Operation Storm? Then FIFA has no argument at all to fine them, except perhaps the idea that hypocrisy is the lubricant of every successful coexistence.
My neighbor shows it to me one more time: the sun of Vergina is shining brightly in the football stadium. “Fine,” I say. My neighbor looks at me curiously.