In December 1993, Silvio Berlusconi, then just a media baron and owner of AC Milan, one of Italy’s top football clubs, launched ‘Forza Italia’, a centre right political party. The party was positioned to capitalise on the corruption charges (Tangentopoli) faced by other mainstream parties. Interestingly, ‘Forza Italia’ was named after a traditional football chant (translates to ‘Forward Italy’). Moreover, Berlusconi referred to the local party groups as ‘clubs’ and the candidates as ‘azzurri’, a name used to address the Italian national football team players. As mentioned in Calcio: A History of Italian Football, by John Foot, since half the electorate were self-confessed fans, ‘Forza Italia’ decided that football was the only language that could unite the country. Seven months later, Berlusconi became Prime Minister of Italy.
It is, therefore, ironic that Italy has not managed to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. As the goals keep flowing, football continues to add verses to its confluences with geopolitics, identity, nationalism and globalisation. Over the years, the sport has consistently managed to hold a mirror to contemporary society. It has played a role in shaping conflicts, casualties, conciliation and culture in myriad ways. The ‘beautiful game’ has evolved in tandem with the changing world order while safeguarding remnants of the past. In the process, the sport has gradually become an instrument that can be channelised for mobilisation, unity, devotion and even fanaticism. Already, one of the most enduring images of the current World Cup is that of two Albanian-born Swiss players making the sign of the ‘double eagle’ (which represents the Albanian flag), while celebrating their respective goals against Serbia. Both these players have their roots in Kosovo, an erstwhile Serbian region with Albanian majority. After Kosovo declared its independence in 2008, Albania was one of the first nations to recognise its sovereignty, while Serbia still refuses to do the same. Naturally, the celebrations represented more than just the joy of scoring a goal.
In the words of the late Eduardo Galeano, an eminent Uruguayan football writer, the sport often transcends geographic boundaries and becomes “the clearest symbol of collective identity, not only in poor or small countries whose place on the map depends on soccer”. While the world continues to reel from and debate the impact of protectionist narratives, the World Cup provides one of the most potent representations of a global village. A veneer of French colonialism in Africa as well as the imprints of immigration are quite evident in the tournament with 35 France-born players having played for other countries including Morocco, Tunisia and Senegal. In all, a total of 97 foreign-born players made it to the finals. Unfortunately, it is commonplace for Iranian women to be expelled from stadiums when security forces see through their masculine disguises. On 20 June, Iran’s defeat to Spain was juxtaposed with victory for its women who for the first time since 1979, were allowed to enter Tehran’s Azadi stadium and watch the game on a big screen. As football takes center-stage during the World Cup, several such corollaries dominate the global consciousness from time to time and often continue to flicker even after the end of the tournament.
Like in society, football is replete with characters who are canonised or vilified on the world stage. Their influence often eclipses their moves on the pitch. Since all these players are de-facto ambassadors of their nations, their views, support, defiance or nowadays even a social media post assumes significance. In 1969, both sides in the Biafran war in Nigeria declared ceasefire for 48 hours because they wanted to watch Edson Arantes do Nascimento — better known as Pelé — to showcase his skills. The instability in Ethiopia became a global talking point in 1992, when six of their players requested the United Nations for asylum after their 6-1 loss to Egypt in the World Cup. Similarly, in October 2015, after playing a qualifying match in Botswana, 10 players from the State of Eritrea refused to return to their country amidst alleged fears of being forced to join the army. More recently, Egyptian football star Mohammad Salah received votes in the country’s presidential election despite not being a candidate, thus bringing the dubiousness of the country’s democratic process to greater prominence. It isn’t as if footballers can single-handedly be harbingers of change, but they are certainly capable of starting a conversation or catalysing or disrupting a discourse. Atrocities towards Palestinians became a (mass) talking point when Argentina refused to play Israel in a friendly. When Didier Drogba went down on his knees and begged warring factions of the Ivory Coast to stop fighting, his wish was granted within a week. A united Ivory Coast vociferously stood behind the team at the 2006 World Cup. The cult of the persona in football has an impact that continues to manifest long after the final whistle.
‘Football diplomacy’ has been used not just for socio-cultural or political reasons, but also commercially. Since 2016, China has used football as a global branding tool with huge financial as well as infrastructural investments (the football industry is expected to worth $850 billion by 2025). Before the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, China provided soft loans to build four stadiums in Gabon, following which, the crude oil-rich country became a major import destination. However, such endeavours can often backfire. Brazil, arguably the most football crazy country, faced nationwide protests before hosting the 2014 World Cup against a crippling public service system and dilapidated economy. Qatar’s successful bid to host the next one has been mired in corruption charges and fears of human rights violation of workers in the country. At the global stage, football remains a soft power that a nation can utilise to weave and propagate a message as long as it controls the narrative. However, it is the narrative that often circumvents everything else.
India’s football discourse has less to do with exerting any form of soft power and more about Sunil Chhetri, the national team captain begging its citizens to attend their matches. Despite the recent branding blitz of the Indian Super League, football has always found itself relegated to the shadows. Although the country is home to a huge fan base of European and South American football, except a few geographical pockets, Indian football still remains the proverbial ‘sleeping giant’. A sustained grassroots-level intervention in the sport will be useful in more ways than one, since it’s an easy way to connect with the often neglected people of Kashmir as well as North East India. India playing the World Cup is a distant dream for now, but if India’s cricket diplomacy is any yardstick, football represents a massive untapped potential that is waiting to be unlocked.
Sanchayan Bhattacharjee is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. Views expressed are personal.
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Updated Date: Jun 30, 2018 19:02:00 IST