El Globero/El Político Globero

The role of sport in international politics


Sports as a tool of foreign affairs.

Sports, mainly mass broadcasted sports, are a unique battlefield in international arena, both literally and figuratively. These sports, which football is the most relevant, join spectacle, big budgets and economic revenues, nationalistic confrontation and publicity.

That explains why they became so relevant and important for many governments. Sports are an example or normality, a proof of wealth and a sample of strength. In that way had been used by high superpowers to compete each others, as well as by small States to proudly show themselves to the World. That is why some athletes became national idols. As war heros, they do not compete for their own glory, also for their country mates one. That explain why sports and outstanding athletes are so important for dictatorial regimes. Sport success gives reputation, recognition and normality. Sportsmen and sportswomen are suposed to grow up were there are the proper conditions to train their bodies and learn their technics. This comes with development and stability. Nobody would be surprised that most wealthy countries earned the biggest success. Then, a sport hero would become the perfect propaganda for a dictator.

What I mentioned before is just a generic approach about the meaning of sport in international relations. I would like to focus in how the sports can be used as political tool to achieve non sport national goals. As part of this I will mention some historical and present cases deepening more in the three last cases.


1.South American dictatorships and football.
To organize and win the 1978 football World Cup was a enormous triumph for the military dictatorship of Argentina. Football gave them the international recognition and the local popularity they lacked, at the same time they were purging many of its citizens. Many of whom disappeared and never more was known anything about them, while everybody eyes were on football games. As four-goal striker Leopoldo Luque said many years later: «With what I know now, I can’t say I’m proud of my victory. But I didn’t realise; most of us didn’t. We just played football.» It is perhaps the only World Cup win that causes unease among the victors. «There is no doubt that we were used politically,» added Ricky Villa.(1)

Not far away in space and time, Pinochet overturned democratic government of Chile through a Coup d’état, starting another regime of fear. There, again, football was used for national pride. And, in front of official indolence, Chile’s national team achieved success, sometimes just because rival teams refused to play against them. As it was the case of the Soviet Union, who refused to play in Santiago’s National Stadium, at that moment used as prison for multiple political prisoners. After the team success, dictator Pinochet received the team to award them. One of the players, Carlos Caszely, refused to shake dictator hand as protest. Later, as revenge, his mother was going to be abduced and imprisoned, to be brutally tortured and raped for long time. Footballers were the pride of the dictatorship and used for that purpose. But, like their fellow countrymen, they were not allowed to protest. Carlos Caszely avoided imprisonment because was too public person, his mother was not so lucky, used as revenge against him.

2.Cold War.
Western countries and East bloc fought each other for years in multiple sport events. Probably that was the most direct confrontation between them, beyond their proxy wars. Defeat each other was an affair of State. That supposed the development of sport success oriented athletic preparation as it had never seen before. Unfortunately, often, through doping and programs that forgot the health and wellness of athletes. In 1980 and 1984 this confrontation ended with the mutual boycott of respective Olympic Games, imposing political dispute over sport one.

3.Hiss the anthem.
Before every game in Turkey, national anthem is played. It is not like that in Spain. It would be too problematic. In Spain it is only played in National Team matches and Copa del Rey (King’s Cup) final. And there is an issue when Athletic de Bilbao and FC Barcelona (Basque and Catalonian teams respectively) qualified for Copa del Rey 2011 final. Their fans hissed Spanish national anthem until the point it was impossible to hear it at all. That in presence of the king and government representatives. Catalonian and Basque separatists never had better chance to express their hate for Spanish symbols in front of such personalities. In this case football gave them the chance to make a statement. When the very same teams qualified again for the final in 2015, the whistle subject was in the media days before the match. Government representatives threatened with sanctions before and after the match. Media coverage was so high that almost forced the hiss demonstration, which this second time was well organized. And again no anthem was heard under the noise. Similar statement was made by Turkish fans in Konya hissing the minute of silence after Paris terror attacks.


4.Broadcasting rights.
Another important topic of conflict related with sports is the fight over broadcasting rights. Although mainly an economic issue, has anyway political implications. For example, cycling ‘Tour de France’ owner ASO(Amaury Sport Organization) sells worldwide its rights to broadcast its race. As it is a very popular race it has a lot of demand from networks all around the Globe. ASO owns also other cycling races and use to sell them in the same packet with ‘Tour de France’. That way every channel that wants to broadcast Tour of France has to do it also with the other races. Probably in some cases that makes those channels not to buy other races would have bought instead. For example Italian RCS races. Cycling races are a unique way to advertise a country. Having a lot of sport hours broadcasted all around the World of French landscapes, instead of Italian ones, supposes a lot more revenues in tourism following months.

Football leagues broadcasting rights are also commonly seen in the middle of a dispute between clubs, federations, tv networks and, everyday more often, international corporations. Giving place to corruption scandals, within international private bodies, like FIFA. And buy and sell of votes of national federations. As broadcasting rights of worldwide followed events suposes huge revenues for those organizations involved.


5.Cycling and the construction of Italian identity.
“Once upon a time a nation, an old Europe’s nation, found its identity in cycling(…) Italy entered in the biggest war ever, was shook by an apocalyptic conflict, killed itself, revived and born again (..)A young nation, barely half century old, whishing a common imaginary to dream about, because, indeed, that is the actual world where nations are and exist(…) A country, all the country, thought itself from a bicycle in the most delicate moment of its history(…) Is the Italy of the thirties, forties and fifties of the XX century. Is fascism, World War, Nazis, bombardments, Final Solution, corpses in the side of the roads and devastation, yes, but also the story of rivals hugging each other, acts of immense bravery, fight over the shadow, of sin and redemption(…) Of a country that imagine its champions to not remember its miseries”(2)

Italy, unlike other European States was not unified until XIX century. And, in its first decades, went through some of most shaken years of European History. The country, then, the citizens, the workers, the peasants, found their heroes in their cyclists. The profiles of the 3 best cyclists of the countries matched the different identities of the country. Competing with each other but gathering everyone, together, to watch the same spectacle, to vibrate with their national heroes. To create their common story, to write the Italian History. Cycling , in the first half of the XX century was the sport which unified Italy and which made Italians proud of their riders while racing in French roads. Italians found their identity in cycling.

6.Qhubeka and Team Rwanda.
Many years after Italy found itself with cycling, Africa is trying to make its first steps in this sport. In different ways and with different luck. The most powerful country in Africa, talking about cycling, can be Eritrea, no matter is one of smallest ans less populated. There cycling is the most popular sport, thanks to Italian colonial legacy. But, if Eritrea has the potential and a large number of young cyclists, lacks the organization, the resources and the direction to make something from it. Eritrea is one of the countries with highest corruption index in the World and the third last in the Human Development Index.

A more interesting project came from South Africa: Qhubeka. Qhubeka born and still its main purpose is to give bicycles to children in South Africa in particular and Africa in general, “advancing education, health and economic opportunities by providing simple, sustainable transportation”.(3) Qhubeka formed a team that became professional, signing riders from different countries of Africa, giving them the opportunity to ride in professional races. Meanwhile, atracting more diffusion to their main goal, giving bicycles away. Qhubeka’s team evolved and got better, not only bringing African riders to global cycling, but bringing global cycling to Africa. At the last step, Qhubeka in 2016 entered in the highest rank of professional cycling, bringing its riders to the best races in the World. Already last year Daniel Teklehaymanot, an Eritrean cyclist of Qhubeka, was the first black African to appear in the ‘Tour de France’ podium, to wear the best climber jersey. With them, their stories arrive to the World. With Daniel, Eritrea step into the World. Africa can now invent itself over two wheels, like Italy did.

Taking the lead of it, after the Qhubeka more global project, is Team Rwanda. Born from the ashes of the genocide, now, the sons of the darkest era of this African country, want to become cyclists. Just because a man had the idea to open a cycling school to help the community. Now this school became a high performance centre attended by cyclist from many countries of Africa. Cycling gave Rwandans a way to move, a way of life, something to dream about and a national hero, Adrien Niyonshuti (rider for Qhubeka). Now children want to be cyclists, Team Rwanda is winning races all around Africa and is starting to ride in other continents. The Tour of Rwanda is able to show as much spectators in the roads as the ‘Tour de France’. Even they godfathered teams in Eritrea and Ethiopia. Cycling is now the identity Rwandans are dreaming to show themselves to the World, to make a Nation proud of itself. Adrien Niyonshuti carried Rwanda flag in the opening ceremony of 2012 London Olympic Games. The sons of genocide wants to make their country reborn from ashes.(4)(5)

One of the leading athletes of this new generation of Rwandan cyclists is  Jeanne d’Arc Girubuntu. The first black African woman to ride in the World Championships, an example and opening new oportunities for women, not only in Rwanda, but in whole Africa. Women in Africa are often relegated to marry, have childs and work in the fields. Girubuntu knows herself can become a model for many other women, change the expected role of women in societies while becoming a national heroine.


7.Bidding for big events organization.
Biding for an important sport event has become a fight between countries and a very expensive business. Been awarded to host the event is a big triumph for a country. Sometimes a historic milestone, as it is the case of South Africa 2010 football World Cup or Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games. When biding for an event it can be more important than a sport issue. Derivative revenues from the event can be potentially huge, economical and social. It is an opportunity to show the country to the World. Then, the biding process is a struggle to get the votes. Which comes from influence and economic resources. Not always free of bribes, illegal contacts and obscure machinations. For 2016 football Euro Cup UEFA president Michel Platini had no doubts to favour his homeland country over Turkish interests.(6)


8. Qatar and Russia football World Cups.
There have been many voices rising criticism over Russia and furthermore Qatar election to host football World Cup. This criticism evolved into several corruption investigation in FIFA’s bodies. Even if those critics may be completely right about specific issues and processes that make Qatar a bad bet to organize a World Cup, it is worthy to ask why now Qatar is a concern, while have been organizing several sport events during the last years. And why FIFA is paying a high price to have awarded them the organization, again probably in completely fair justice. But the timing is just enough to rise questions.

Sports are a very visible and relevant market to act in international arena. A clear example was the Cold War, the blocs hard competition and final Olympic boycotts. This time FIFA’s misplaced move could be more related to 2018 Russia’s choice to host World Cup, rather than Qatar’s 2022 one.

After Putin’s Russia comeback to big powers game we are facing a rebirth of Cold War scenario, more in the ‘modus operandi’ than in real politics. The growing tension between Russia and the west is manifest, and Putin had scored two wins in Georgia and Ukraine by non-appearance. No few eyes saw with bitterness Russia being elected to host World Cup, having Putin another chance to internationally advertise himself, after 2014 winter Olympics. Back then, there was many critics, but we should consider that football World Cup is far larger event, with far more spectators all around the Globe.

FIFA’s crime was not to let itself being bribed, but let itself being bribed by the wrong people. The FIFA-linked arrests on the eve of the re-election of the organization’s chief are an obvious attempt to thwart Sepp Blatter’s re-appointment, Vladimir Putin said.(7)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the US could be selfishly motivated for its own gain, as was the case with Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. “This is yet one more attempt to try and impose their law against other states. I am absolutely sure that this is an attempt to try and stop Blatter from being re-elected as FIFA president, which is a grave breach of the principles of a functioning international organization.”He also said pressure had been applied on Blatter «to force him to take the 2018 World Cup from Russia.»

Not only is relevant what Putin said, but also just the fact that the very same President of Russia himself pronounced his opinion about this matter. This is not about believing Putin’s view, but to understand that there is a quarrel that is being played using sports.


9.Preventing separatism through sport law.
Domestic issues can become international through sport too. Spain, for long time claimed sovereignty over Gibraltar (captured by Anglo-Dutch forces in 1704 and over right control of British Crown since the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713). Getting Gibraltar back was on Spanish agenda since it was captured, but nowadays it is an issue that only more nationalistic worry about. As I will expose, Spain forced UEFA to set up jurisprudence over the right of territories to be officially represented by their national football teams in UEFA competitions. That was a big effort to deal a small issue, even in Spanish agenda. Thought in Spain many will see Gibraltar with anger in international competitions, the main plan is directed to avoid Catalonia and Basque national teams to ask for recognition in the future.

With this purpose Spain made pressure on UEFA threatening to retire its clubs from UEFA competitions (that is to say FC Barcelona and Real Madrid)(8). In this conditions first and second Gibraltar bids in 1999 and 2007 were rejected with the sole support of British federations (England, Scotland, Wales and North Ireland compete separately as a reminiscence from the time when international football was invented).

Nevertheless Gibraltar appealed to Court of Arbitration for Sport which stated Gibraltar could not be refused on the basis of that sovereignty rules were not established until after Gibraltar’s 1999 and 2007 applications.(9) Sovereignty rules, enabled after Spain demand, stated that only sovereign States members of the UN could be granted membership.(10) After that, in a new vote, only Spain and Belarus opposed Gibraltar admission. When joining its first competition (2014 Eurocup qualifiers) Gibraltar were disposed to not meet with Spain in the same group, as UEFA does with countries that have ongoing conflicts between them.(11) The other two cases were armed conflicts in a recent past (Russia-Georgia and Armenia-Azerbaijan), which shows the magnitude of Gibraltar issue.

Now Gibraltar has just been admitted in FIFA too, after appealing a rejection from the international body. This time, although sovereignty rules were enabled before Gibraltar apply, that was not enough neither to stop Gibraltar admission, even while FIFA and its continental bodies are extremely cautious about this low profile countries, as they can set up useful jurisprudence for other federations willing to apply, but have more conflictive background. That is the case of a large list of federations and national football teams not recognized by FIFA. As they can be Catalonia, Basque Country, Northern Cyprus, Nagorno Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Iraqi Kurdistan, Western Sahara, Somaliland, or Quebec. To start Kosovo was admitted recently also to both FIFA and UEFA, then opening ground to many other applications the following years.  Right one, no matter Kosovo in only partially recognized State, gained full sport recognition.

As in the past these concerns were not that much present, today we face a scenario were many not sovereign States (or not full recognized States) are part of FIFA and/or the continental federations, but new ones willing to apply are denied any chance. States without full UN recognition but members of FIFA and or Continental Federations are: Taiwan as “Chinese Taipei”, Hong Kong, Macau, Guam, Palestine, Zanzibar, Reunion, Bonaire, Curaçao, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Saint-Martin, Sint-Marteen, Montserrat, American Samoa, Cook Islands, New Caledonia, Niue, Tahiti, Gibraltar, England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales or Faeroe Islands.

Past conditions, until Kosovo admission in May 2016,  made it impossible to be accepted for some territories that does not have any opposition. As it can be the situation of Jersey or Greenland. Even the current situation allows some British or french territories to play as full members while others are denied their applications, being the applying year the sole difference between them. Kosovo and Gibraltar recent resolutions are expected to change  this scenario, we will see how sport law enforcement is used to prevent future disputes.

As UN State recognition is limited by the permanent members of the UN Security Council, a new State should be endorsed by its five members. Few countries out of post colonial independencies and former countries disintegrations acquired full recognition. This made football (and other sports) a visible alternative to attract attention, otherwise impossible by limited international recognition. That works both for nations seeking independence as for territories with some kind of autonomy. As explained before, that produced a reaction to regulate sport international federations admissions.


10. Palestine vs Israel
In this battlefield we found Palestine, as full FIFA member, having more chances to get Israel sanctioned than in any other international body. Although, at the end, they lacked support and had to withdraw their ban bid.(12)

Palestine lacks support to rise protest against Israel violent repression and occupation. Without enter to judge the situation, it is obvious that Palestine would want, for example an UN sanction over Israel. Nevertheless this is impossible as far USA blocks any proposal of this kind in the Security Council. But football brings Palestine an opportunity to pursue action against Israel, until now immune to Palestine diplomatic manoeuvres.

Israel policies violated FIFA’s regulations and those infractions were elevated by Palestinian football federation to bid for a ban of Israel Federation, which would suppose that Israel national team, Israel clubs or players would not be able to play outside Israel.(13)

Football is an effective vehicle for Israel to rehabilitate its image with the international community,» said Tamir Sorek, an Israeli-Palestinian sociologist at the University of Florida. And as it is to rehabilitate can be used to undermine its image.(14) Under ‘internationalisation’ called strategy, Palestine is looking forward to bring grievances against Israel into every international arena they can. The campaign in FIFA has been publicised as ‘Red card Israel Apartheid’.(15) The name, descriptive or not, finds its logic as South Africa’s apartheid regime was suspended from international football. “Attacking soccer is about attacking these very national aspirations. It’s the inhumane act targeting a collective expression of humanity”, writes Dave Zirin.(16)

Palestine complains that its footballers (and referees) find a lot of problems from Israel to move to the games.(17)(18) Actually there is two leagues now in Palestine (West bank league and Gaza Strip league) due that players can not move from one to the other. Many players were stopped, even detained(19) and imprisoned when trying to go abroad to play international games with Palestine national football team.(20) The most extreme case was the beach national football team, which could not travel to Qatar to play the World Cup qualification. Gaza players are far more restricted to travel than West Bank ones.(21) It is not uncommon that selected players from Gaza can not join their fellow mates in the national team, not allowed to travel by Israel authorities. As Gaza owns the only beaches of Palestinian territories, all the players of beach football were from Gaza and none of them could travel to the championship.(22)

Also, as Red Card Israeli Racism, Mondoweiss, Electronic Intifada, Middle East Monitor, FIFA or Inside World Football state: 5 Israel teams playing in illegally occupied territories are subject of grievance to Palestine, as it breaks FIFA’s rules. Israel destroyed 30 sports and football facilities during its bombardment of Gaza and obstruct them to be rebuilt. Israel banned football teams in East Jerusalem where they want to reduce Palestinian population. Interfere with rivals to avoid them to play against Palestine. Israel federation failed to sanction Beitar Jerusalem about its racist policy of not signing arab footballers. Segregation occurs in children football. Even, while Gaza bombardment campaign was undergoing, Israel was awarded with the organization of men’s European under 21 championship.

Although some of these things clearly break FIFA rules, travel restrictions and teams on occupied territories are the most obvious, and others, at least, contravene FIFA fair play spirit. But a resolution against Israel was to be taken by the other national federations. Then, the strategy was to collect votes. There Israel started a campaign to be sure Palestine did not reach the 75% needed votes. It looks that Palestine, realizing was going to lose the vote backed down from motion and, instead, the Congress voted in favour to create a committee of observers to monitor the freedom of players and officials to move in and out of Palestinian territories.(23)

Again concerns in FIFA about settling a precedent undermined Palestine chances.

It is not a new story to find Israel national teams in the middle of turmoil. It was a headache for FIFA for many years, but for different reason. Nowadays Israel is UEFA member and plays European competitions, as it plays European qualifiers for World Cup. Geographically that is an anomaly. And was not like that from the beginning. Israel was moved from different continental groups during the years, rising political protest and forcing withdrawals. FIFA could not find a definitive solution until 1994, locating Israel in Europe. For 1958 WC(World Cup), as part of African-Asian region, Israel defeated Turkey, Egypt, Indonesia and Sudan without playing a match, as all of them withdrew to not play against Israel. Later they played, being defeated by Wales, after Belgium refused to play for unknown reasons. For WC 1970, Israel only played Oceania teams, as North Korea withdrew to not play against Israel. North Korea would withdrew again for same reasons for 1978 WC. For 1974 WC Israel was in Asia confederation, but played against Far East teams instead in Middle East group. For 1978 Olympic Games Japan refused to issue visas to Israel players. Match was played in neutral venue.(24) For 1986 and 1990 WC’s Israel travelled again to Oceania group. Political issues of Middle East ended undermining sport chances of Oceanic sport teams to qualify to World Cup.

More chaos created Israel presence in Asia Cup competition: Israel qualified for 1956 inaugural competition without playing a game, after Pakistan and Afghanistan withdrawals. Israel host and won 1966 edition after 11 teams out of 16 withdrew. For 1968 Afghanistan and Kuwait withdrew to not play against Israel.(25)

Football was used politically against Israel. But the result was that sometimes Israel found itself without rivals to qualify and other football teams were damnified by their States policies.

The potential impact of sports is huge. We can find, for example, that in Google search trends in July 2015, Eritrean cyclist Daniel Teklehaymanot overcame in number of searches Nobel prize writer Orhan Pamuk. Would be very interesting to calibrate the size of effect of sport in international politics and show the role sport can play in international politics and try to measure the effects of it.

1.BBC, by Jonathan Stevenson. (18 May 2010)
2.Marcos Pereda. (2015). Arriva Italia. Gloria y miseria de la Nación que soñó ciclismo. (Arriva Italy. Glory and misery of the Nation who dreamed cycling). Editorial Popum Books. 21-23.
3.Qhubeka. http://qhubeka.org/2013/?page_id=30
4.Team Africa Rising. https://www.teamafricarising.org/our-vision/
5. T.C. Johnstone. Rising from Ashes. (Documentary) 2013
6. Gus Hiddink on Dailymail, by Rob Draper (29 May 2010)
7. Russia Today. (28 May 2015) https://www.rt.com/news/262669-putin-interview-fifa-arrests/
8.Dave Redshaw (28 May 2013) Football Espana. http://www.football-espana.net/31260/spain%E2%80%99s-opposition-gibraltar
9.The Guardian, by Marina Hyde. (18th December 2013). http://www.theguardian.com/football/2013/dec/18/euro-2016-uefa-spain-gibraltar
10.UEFA (24 May 2013) http://www.uefa.org/about-uefa/organisation/congress/news/newsid=1956133.html
11.EL País, by Javier Lafuente (24th May 2013)  http://deportes.elpais.com/deportes/2013/05/24/actualidad/1369397401_770521.html
12.Al Jazeera, by Faras Ghani (9th June 2015)
13.The Guardian (15th May 2015) http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/may/15/call-on-fifa-suspend-israel-football-association
14.The Jerusalem Post, by Maariv Online (29th May 2015) http://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Sports/FIFA-ban-would-be-a-tsunami-for-Israeli-soccer-former-top-official-says-404475
15.BBC, by Kevin Connolly. (28 May 2015) http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-32898999
16.The Nation, by Dave Zirin (1st August 2014) http://www.thenation.com/article/his-name-was-ahed-zaqout-former-palestinian-soccer-star-killed-gaza/
17.FIFA. (19 December 2014) http://www.fifa.com/governance/news/y=2014/m=12/news=ethics-executive-committee-unanimously-supports-recommendation-to-publ-2494723.html
18.FIFA, Circular no. 1385, (14 October 2013) http://resources.fifa.com/mm/document/affederation/administration/02/19/72/37/circularno.1385-movementofplayerscoachesrefereesandoffcialsintooutofandwithinpalestine_neutral.pdf
19.FIFA. (12 June 2012) http://www.fifa.com/governance/news/y=2012/m=6/news=alleged-illegal-detainment-palestine-football-players-1648346.html
20.Reuters, by Ori Lewis (19 April 2015) http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-soccer-israel-palestinians-idUKKBN0NA0YW20150419
21.Neewsweek, Mohammed Salem (5 August 2015)
22.Mondoweiss, by Raio Costa (21 May 2015) http://mondoweiss.net/2015/05/reason-palestine-israel/
23.Reuters, by Brian Homewood http://www.reuters.com/article/us-soccer-fifa-palestine-idUSKBN0OE1R320150529


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