Image: Unsplash/Thomas Serer

Does sport have a political responsibility?

Indonesia was scheduled to host the Under-20s World Cup in May, but FIFA is now searching for a new host after Indonesia banned the Israeli team from partaking in the competition due to the country’s treatment of Palestinians. The international federation has not given specifics, and claims removing Indonesia as the host is simply “due to the current circumstances”. They have revealed that there are “potential sanctions” against the Football Association of Indonesia (PSSI), but that this will be decided at a later date. This is incredibly disheartening for Indonesians, as they were banned in 2015 for alleged third-party interference. Due to this, they were not able to compete in the 2018 World Cup and 2019 Asian Cup qualifiers, so the Under-20s World Cup was a long-awaited event.

Although the country may lose medals and trophies, the athletes lose their life ambition

This decision stimulates questions about the relationship between sports and politics. Regardless of whether it is governments that are making a statement, or the fans and players, FIFA is very clear about its stance on this topic. They published a letter saying: “We know football does not live in a vacuum, and we are equally aware that there are many challenges and difficulties of a political nature all around the world.” However, it added that we should “not allow football to be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists”. FIFA wants to keep politics off of the pitch.

FIFA’s stance on a politics-free federation is incredibly respectable in theory. When countries are banned from sports events, we must remember it is the athletes that are taking the punishment, not their government. Although the country may lose medals and trophies, the athletes lose their life’s ambition. Many of those who live in such countries see sport as an escape and taking it away from them for actions they have no control over is in no way fair, or helping the cause. Mr Marhali, the head of the watchdog Save our Soccer, said that “the Israelis who would come are not the army, not the government, but the athletes and soccer players who have no interest in politics”. We cannot allow sport to become a political tool.

People are left wondering whether some lives are worth more than others

On the other hand, who decides what political acts are worthy of being banned from global competitions? In February, FIFA and UEFA suspended all Russian clubs and national teams from competitions for waging war on Ukraine. FIFA said that “football is fully united here and in full solidarity with all the people affected in Ukraine” and that it hopes for peace within the country. The issue is the lack of consistency and clear double standards, as Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers are ignored despite immense pressure to hold them accountable.

What we see here is that FIFA’s perception of these conflicts is influencing their involvement. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seems more local and threatening compared to human rights violations in the Middle East. When Poland and Sweden refused to play against Russia in the World Cup, FIFA acknowledged the message they were putting forward and took action. But when Indonesia attempts to do the same, they are stripped of hosting altogether. Retired Egyptian footballer Aboutrika said: “The decision to suspend Russian clubs and teams from all competitions must be accompanied by a ban on those affiliated with Israel [because Israel] has been killing children and women in Palestine for years.” If one occurs without the other, people are left wondering whether some lives are worth more than others.

If we banned every country for their political atrocities, we would have no competition

The solution to this is not to ban Israel as Indonesia insists, as this has its own moral concerns. There are a great many human rights violations across the globe, and although they must be fought against, football is not the platform through which to do this. If we banned every country for their political atrocities, we would have no competition. We would also struggle to maintain consistency, as subjectivity creeps in when judging where we draw the line, as shown with Russia and Israel. Alternatively, the only way to truly remove political bias is to treat every conflict the same way. The only reason a team should be banned is if an action influences the integrity of the sport itself. As Arya Sinulingga (PSSI committee member) says, we cannot make “political requirements in sports” and must remember that the sport itself is the ultimate priority.


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