If you have followed any sport for a prolonged period of time, you have undoubtedly come across the famous phrase: “Keep politics out of [insert sport here]!” From Colin Kaepernick’s notorious protest of the American national anthem in the NFL to James McClean’s refusal to wear a poppy in the Premier League, reactions have often taken the tone of strong indignation that athletes would dare infuse politics with whichever sport is in question.
Unfortunately, such reactions fail to realize that sports are, like all facets of a community’s social fabric, inherently political. To then attempt to depoliticize the actions of athletes both robs athletes of agency, and itself contradicts the history of sporting institutions. This is no better seen than in football (soccer to you American/Canadian readers).
The history of football is littered with examples of the deep political nature of the sport and the athletic clubs. Look no further than North Africa, and the colonial occupation. Football was introduced to North Africa through the colonist administration, who then established exclusive athletic clubs to for the white European community. This exclusivity of sports is itself an act of violence, representative of the broader social oppression that is colonialism. As the indigenous African population watched and learned the mechanisms of football, they sought to join these clubs, only to be rebuked by the colonists, who insisted on insulating their community from the colonized populations they subjugated. In such an atmosphere, it is of little surprise that the establishment of Esperance, a club by and for indigenous Tunisians in 1919 was seen as an act of resistance to colonialism. Despite the significant opposition and the league’s requirement of a French board of directors, Esperance was founded and played in the league against colonial clubs, highlighting the emergence of Tunisian nationalism, such that the club even won a championship in the 1930’s.
Meanwhile in colonial Morocco, the exclusivity of the swimming and athletic clubs to European colonists fostered widespread resentment among the Moroccan populace. As a result, King Hassan founded Wydad Casablanca, an athletics club catering to the wealthy Moroccan elite. Thus, Wydad came to represent a particular brand of conservative royalist nationalism associated with the colonized bourgeoisie.
On the other end of the ideological spectrum, Raja Casablanca was established in 1949 with the help of Abderrahman Youssoufi, a prominent socialist republican and anti-colonial leader. To overcome the French colonial administration’s law that athletic clubs should be organized by a French citizen, Raja turned to Hadji Benabadji, a French-Algerian dual citizen sympathetic to the cause of anticolonialism, who became the first club president. Unlike Wydad, Raja Casablanca was consciously founded by and for working class Moroccans. As a result, there is a strong rivalry between the two clubs that extends to this day in the form of the fierce Casablanca derby. While both clubs were founded amidst anti-colonial sentiment, their histories highlight a powerful class divide that persists to this day.
In French Algeria, football took on a particularly powerful form of anticolonial resistance. While the Front de Liberation Nationale waged a ferocious struggle against occupation in Algeria itself, French-Algerian footballers were being assembled in France to form in secret an Algerian national football team. The onze de l’independence as it was otherwise known then travelled through Italy to Tunisia, where the FLN was based, to embark on a regional tour representing Algeria in the football community. Under such auspices, the very foundation of the onze de l’independence is a political act of resistance, an act that even Frantz Fanon acknowledges in The Wretched of the Earth. With green shirts and white shorts, onze de l’independence offered legitimacy and vibrant expression of Algerian nationalism, connecting sports with decolonization on a fundamental level.
Thus, to now claim that football should be apolitical is a betrayal of the very history of the sport. Football clubs and national teams are by their very nature are expressions of a community’s political and economic realities. As seen in French North Africa, football was also utilized as a vehicle for anti-imperialist/anti-colonial resistance, and to foster a nationalist sentiment among colonized peoples. Moreover, even within colonized communities, clubs reflected in their history and ideology class and racial divisions among the people. Even today, the globalization and commodification of football clubs are themselves evidence of the transformation of the realities of football. Football is, and always will be, a political phenomenon as much as it is an athletic one.