UEFA under- 21 finals hosted by Israel because ‘Sport is never just about sport.’[1]

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Sport, like its cultural counterpart music, has always been linked to politics. They both similarly form a large part of popular culture and consequently hold a firm place in collective public consciousness. In the contemporary age, where political awareness has all but disappeared in music[2], sport on the other hand, only continues to become increasingly involved with politics. This involvement that sport has seems to be going from strength to strength, moving ever forward in its interdependence with politics.

The ultimate sports event, the modern and ancient Olympic games, were initially a competition between the city-states of Ancient Greece. The foundations of this event were built on the existence of competition between states. In Ancient Rome the games then evolved into a competition that aimed to impose political and religious orders.  In its current form the games are recognised as a competition between nations. The games in their status as the pinnacle of all sporting goals, simply cannot avoid being connected to politics. The fervent nationalism involved in the Olympic games, despite the IOC’s public statements to the contrary, can only be aligned with the political.  Similarly, other international tournaments, particularly in games as prevalent in the public consciousness as football, cannot avoid being tarred with the same nationalistic brush. The nationalism that arises out of sport however is always viewed as being of the friendly variety rather than the threatening. The only other realm in which nationalism is as openly encouraged, is in the military. Therefore, if these events encourage some kind of nationalism, albeit congenial, then international sporting collectives such as UEFA and the IOC are the driving mechanisms behind this nationalism.

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The image of the athlete drawing parallels with soldiers is nothing new in the analysis of the sports historian. The image of an athlete attaining a physical pinnacle or being an exemplary human is similar to the perception of soldiers. George Orwell accorded this vision of the sportsman as a soldier. He stated that, “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. In other words, it is war minus the shooting.” His is a much-contested view, but the images described in his article ‘The Sporting Spirit’[3]can be reflected to some extent in the world of sport. International sporting organisations such as UEFA or the IOC however, would strongly oppose any suggestion that their mission has anything to do with violence. Article 3.1.4 of the UEFA’s ‘Vision Europe: the direction and development of European football over the next decade” states that a part of this vision includes, “A supporter culture which, whilst passionate, rejects violence, hatred and discrimination of all kinds, and incorporates fair play and respect for opponents and others.”[4] If this is the case then their inclusion of Israel goes directly against this policy.

There are always lessons to be learnt from the past and the present. South Africa is the notable example of how sports boycott has been an effective instrument of political pressure. If as suggested by player Luuk de Jong, a senior Dutch international footballer, “You can learn a lot by playing against your own age group.”[5] If a lot can be learned then players and fans must really be open to learning and not be blinkered to their game being used as a way to implement political ideology and strategy. 

All these things considered, allowing Israel to host the Under-21’s final cannot be without objection, and can categorically not be considered apolitical. UEFA itself describes football as ‘arguably the most popular sport in the world.’[6] With such a wide audience, surely football associations should be doing their utmost to ensure that a state that continues to do so many wrongs, should not be allowed the opportunity to showcase itself at its best. Primarily because hosting a final of any international tournament creates a showpiece of the host country. In an analysis of the 1936 Olympic games that were held in Nazi Germany, Historian Arnd Krunger stated, ‘Hitler’s reasoning was simple: if you have the whole world as your guests, you should present your country at its best.’[7] Hosting the UEFA under-21 finals in Israel allows for a reboot of the flagging Israeli international PR campaign. As concluded by Tamir Sorek, an Israeli-Palestinian sociologist at the University of Florida “A large sporting event is an ideal opportunity for Israel to present itself as a normal country.”[8] Furthermore, a large international sporting event creates an emotional zeal so powerful that it masks the momentousness of the dark realities on the ground.

Originally published as part of Friends of AL Aqsa’s ‘Red Card Israeli Racism’ campaign. June 2013. http://foa.org.uk/campaigns/red-card-israeli-racism

[1] Becky Roberts. ‘From the Ancient to the Modern: How have the Olympic games changed?’ http://blog.journals.cambridge.org/2012/08/from-the-ancient-to-the-modern-how-have-the-olympic-games-changed/

[2] Louise Pyne-Jones. ‘Voices of political music. Women: the delicate chords delivering a political message.’ https://labelledred.wordpress.com/2011/09/30/voices-of-political-music-women-the-delicate-chords-delivering-a-political-message/

[3] George Orwell ‘The Sporting Spirit’ http://orwell.ru/library/articles/spirit/english/e_spirit

[7] Matt Krantz. 2011. ‘Sports, Politics and Propaganda: the Nazi Olympics of 1936.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qix2oiw9px4

[8] Johnathan Cook. ‘Israeli Football, racism and politics: the ugly side of the beautiful game.’ http://occupiedpalestine.wordpress.com/2013/04/29/israeli-football-racism-and-politics-the-ugly-side-of-the-beautiful-game-by-jonathan-cook/

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