How Football Has Impacted International Politics
The world’s most popular sport has proven itself to be a useful tool for political actors all over the world. This article examines just how football has influenced the world — from money to populism.
As the world’s most popular sport, it is perhaps of little surprise that football has become embroiled in international politics. However, as the money in football has grown exponentially over the last decade or so, so has political involvement. This article will explore just some of the areas that have seen increased levels of involvement and endeavors to answer the question: just why have international governments have been so keen to engage more in a world that at first, seems so disconnected from anything to do with politics?
Investing in Clubs Abroad
In 2016, Chinese companies purchased three popular football teams from the UK Midlands; Wolverhampton Wanderers, West Bromwich Albion, and Birmingham City FC, all based around the UK’s second-largest city, Birmingham. The Midlands is the UK’s second-largest population center and a strategically important region, linking the country’s North and South. It is also in the process of a major infrastructure upgrade in the form of the HS2 high-speed rail line, estimated to cost up to £100 billion (1). Chinese companies, including companies with close strategic ties to the new owners of the aforementioned Midlands clubs, have displayed an open willingness to take over what would be an incredibly lucrative contract (2). With their financial involvement in the region already secure, they are in a far more favorable position to win any potential contracts than their competitors. The other top-flight English club owned by Chinese companies in Southampton. Perhaps not so coincidentally, this city possesses a major deep-water port utilized for overseas trade.
There have also been questions raised over the extent to which the Chinese government is able to influence these companies. China in the last decade has proven its voracious appetite for resources and political power, and if the ownership of large and influential football clubs can aid it in its ultimate political goals, there will be little hesitation over the decision to do so.
This practice is not just confined to the UK however, with major European clubs such as Slavia Prague, Granada, and both Inter and AC Milan having been bought by Chinese companies in the last 5 years. To give you an idea of the scale of these investments, Chinese company Rossoneri Sport Investment Lux paid a staggering €740M to acquire AC Milan in 2016 (3).
Whilst on the surface these are all financial investments, they have had the knock-on-effect of aiding the reputation of countries like China at a time where international criticism has been at its highest. Since their takeover, all aforementioned clubs have developed to be far more competitive sides than in the years before, something that has been very well received by the supporters of the clubs, most of whom recognize where the success has come from. This aspect may also have proven to be a driving force behind Arab investment in clubs such as Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, in addition to Russian investment into clubs such as Chelsea, Shalke 04, and Red Star Belgrade. These investments have helped to develop closer business, cultural and social links between the world’s developed countries and some of the world’s revisionist powers.
The Football War
As well as being a major industry, football brings with it great passion and intense rivalry, both at the club and international level.
In 1969 these passions flared up between the Central American nations of El Salvador and Honduras. Clashes between fans during a 1970 FIFA World Cup qualifier exacerbated existing political tensions and resulted in the breakout of war on the 14th of July, 1969. The conflict claimed the lives of approximately 3000 people before it was brought to a close on the 18th of July when The Organization of American States (OAS) was able to negotiate a cease-fire, giving it its infamous name, the 100 Hour War.
Clashes between rival fans are common in football, but when this is extended to the national stage and paired with international rivalry and political tension, this is one example of how dangerous it can be.
Footballers Using Their Voice — Mesut Ozil v.s. the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)
As the world’s most popular sport, footballers, especially star players, are something of celebrities, with massive international exposure and reach. And so, when Mesut Ozil, the former star player of English footballing giants Arsenal — and a German Muslim with a Turkish heritage — criticized China’s persecution of Uighurs, the Chinese government ordered the removal of Arsenal’s Premier League match against Manchester City from the schedule of China’s state broadcaster, CCTV. In addition to this, in an effort to avoid further upsetting the Chinese state and alienating the 3.5 million Chinese followers the club has (4), Arsenal released a statement distancing themselves from the player and left him out of the squad for the following match. Ozil’s Weibo page with +4 million followers and a fan club of 30,000 people were both subsequently closed by the Chinese state (5).
Footballers can be powerful political actors when they desire to be, due to their large following their messages receive massive exposure. Mesut Ozil’s use of his platform to highlight the persecution of the Uighur people was an important and powerful message, but one that ultimately had far-reaching international political ramifications that would go on to spell the end of his career at Arsenal.
The prominence of football all over the world means that it is inevitable that now and then it will become embroiled in politics — be it national or international. The mixture of money and influence also means that the sport had proven to be a powerful political tool in the right hands.
(1) Rojas, John-Paul Ford (2020) HS2 explained: What is it and how much will it cost? Sky News
(2)Tifo Football (2019) The Real Reason China Bought Wolves, West Brom & Southampton?
(3) Overtime (2016) Chinese Investment in European Football Giants.