Almanac Soccer – World Cup 2018: Power and dissent

The relationship between sport and politics is often a tricky one. The treatment of athletes who demonstrate political views is straightforward, complex, uniting, polarising, fair and unfair. Some believe believe politics has no place in sport, others believe sport is inherently political.

In 1993, the AFL faced a day of reckoning when, after a victory over Collingwood at Victoria Park, Nicky Winmar famously raised his St Kilda jersey and pointed to his skin, declaring “I’m black – and I’m proud to be black!” Twenty years later the treatment of Adam Goodes by crowds and pundits suggests that not enough has been done to change the treatment of Indigenous players.

In 1994, Cathy Freeman was reprimanded by Commonwealth Games head Arthur Tunstall for displaying the Aboriginal flag, rather than the Australian flag, after winning the 400m gold medal.

Muhammad Ali refused to be inducted into the military during the Vietnam War, was stripped of his world heavyweight title and didn’t fight professionally for four years. 

On Sunday, Sid Lowe of the Guardian wrote an article headlined: Switzerland’s Xhaka and Shaqiri charged by Fifa over Serbia goal celebrations. Switzerland were playing Serbia in a World Cup game, where the two players celebrated goals using “Albanian Nationalist gestures”. The Republic of Kosovo declared their independence from Serbia in 2008, a move which Serbia rejects. Both players are of Albanian-Kosovan descent. The full article can be read HERE.

For context, it’s also worth reading another Guardian article by Dave Hytner that was published late last year titled: Granit Xhaka: ‘My dad’s first few months in jail were OK, then the beatings started’. The full article can be read HERE

The World Cup, like other international sporting fixtures, provides a very specific opportunity for geopolitical grievances to ignite.

On one level, FIFA’s attempts to sanitise international football by banning political gestures makes sense. It aligns with their strategy of pushing the focus onto the game being played on the pitch, rather than focussing on issues outside of its control.

What’s grating about FIFA’s approach is that this strategy is necessary because of decisions made by FIFA off the pitch. Awarding World Cups to Russia and Qatar despite concerns associated with human rights issues in each country presents an array of problems. Subsquently gagging players who wish to address similar human rights concerns in other parts of the world now seems almost de rigueur for the organisation.

In response to Muhammad Ali’s decision to give up his title to uphold his beliefs, The New York Times columnist William Rhoden wrote,

“Ali’s actions changed my standard of what constituted an athlete’s greatness. Possessing a killer jump shot or the ability to stop on a dime was no longer enough. What were you doing for the liberation of your people? What were you doing to help your country live up to the covenant of its founding principles?”

It’s a big question.


As an aside – if you have Netflix, Sports on Fire, a series that looks at several high profile moments when sport and politics collided is also worth a watch.


  1. This is very interesting how sometimes sport forgets about human rights.

    Good read!

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