Is football apolitical? Here is how FIFA and the UEFA are used to further political agendas

By Abby Amoakuh

Updated Mar 25, 2024 at 06:25 PM

Reading time: 4 minutes

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Both the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) promote an ethos of community, solidarity and political neutrality. At least this seemed to be the prevailing response when a group of 12 soccer associations in the Middle East called on FIFA to ban Israel from global participation in football.

Whether football can even be apolitical has been quite contested for a while. Organisations like FIFA indeed tend to refrain from making political statements and involving themselves in conflicts. Nazi Germany was still allowed to partake in the 1938 World Cup. Likewise, France was able to participate in the 1950s World Cups despite the country’s gruesome wars in Algeria and Indochina in response to their growing independence movements. “Politically avoiding the political,” is thus what political scientists like Dr César Jiménez-Martínez have dubbed the organisation’s stance on global conflicts.

Yet, its political neutrality also crumbled when the organisation decided to exclude South Africa during its apartheid era. Similarly, FIFA and UEFA both decided to suspend Russian teams from international football competitions in February 2022 to penalise the country for its invasion of Ukraine. This also involved ending sponsorship deals with Russian companies, such as gas distribution company Gazprom, thus indirectly also contributing to economic sanctions on Russia.

Moves like these are a rarity. Although multiple cultural, political and economic sanctions were unleashed upon Russia by nations across the West, following the country’s attack on Ukraine, another fraction of the globe that participates in football had refrained from interfering, or even taking a proper stance, including China, South Africa and Saudi Arabia.

This led many to believe that FIFA and the UEFA would behave similarly. Yet, their extraordinary decision to cast away their neutrality raised questions about how apolitical international sports are, and whose politics, if any, they are based on.

What is FIFA?

First things first, let’s clear up some terms that even the football savants among you might not be completely familiar with. FIFA is a worldwide sports federation for football, beach soccer, and futsal (basically indoor football). Still headquartered in Switzerland, it was founded in 1904 to oversee international competition among the national associations of Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. Thus, the organisation has its roots in Western Europe. Nevertheless, it has expanded across these borders over time and now supervises sports for roughly 211 national associations.

The UEFA, another organisation that governs sports, oversees the activity on a European level, with only 55 members. As one of the regional confederations into which the world of football is divided, its decisions can be seen as indicative of FIFA’s and vice versa. So, now that we have laid down the groundwork, let’s explore how these governing structures for sports affect politics and international relations.

Is football used for politics?

Football has always been political because the game is quite easy to politicise. International football is based on the concept of a nation-state and mixed up in our enjoyment of the game is nation-pride and the sense of belonging to a community. For this reason, governments have been quick to celebrate any triumph of their nation’s sporting teams as evidence of their own greatness. Think about when David Beckham met Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama. Meet-ups like these signify the convergence of politics and sports.

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Likewise, failure in sports has been known to lower the morale and even adherence to the law within a country. Think about the grief and uproar that ensued when England lost the European championship to Italy in 2020.

Next to the sentimental side of the game, there are also functional elements of note to governments. Football clubs play a vital role in local economies. The UK government published the Fan Led Review of Football Governance in 2021, which set out different roadmaps and ideas for preventing football clubs in the UK from going into administration or being liquidated, which could both have negative social and economic effects on multiple regions. The maintenance of a financially viable football pyramid is often considered essential to the fabric of a country, according to research by the Global Council.

Football’s ability to unite communities and create additional revenue streams for them has led to increased involvement and control by lawmakers and legislators. In fact, it is now a powerful tool for domestic and foreign policy purposes.

Whose politics is FIFA based on?

Reports like the EU Sports Policy: assessment and possible ways forward report have made it clear that the EU sees football as an opportunity to push through a foreign policy agenda centred on human rights and democracy and promote values of equality, inclusivity, democracy and human rights.

This is being done on a somewhat inconsistent basis, as altercations with Hungary during the Euro 2020 games showed: the UEFA famously denied a request by Germany’s Football Federation and the Mayor of Munich to light up a stadium in rainbow colours in protest against a new law in Hungary that banned the dissemination of content deemed to promote homosexuality and gender change in schools. The move widely conveyed the struggle between different nations of the bloc for a Europe built on progressive and liberal values.

Similarly, FIFA’s support and promotion of Pride month also stands in conflict with the policies of nations like Qatar, which acted hostile towards queer fans and players during the 2022 World Cup. Since homosexuality and campaigning for it are both criminalised in Qatar, fans and players were not allowed to wear ‘One Love’ armbands, or rainbow shirts while in the country.

The Palestinian cause and Western allyship with Israel pose another difficulty for the supposed neutrality of the federation, revealing cultural biases pertinent to FIFA’s causes and ethics.

It is valid and necessary to question why Palestinians, Uyghurs, Hongkongers, Tibetans, Afghans, and Iraqis do not receive the same level of support as Ukrainians, as this inquiry sheds light on the organization’s values and cultural alliances.

When BRICS countries—Brazil, India, China, South Africa, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates—remain neutral in response to Russian imperialist aggression, posing this question holds them accountable to the same double standard faced by Western countries on the opposing side of this issue. By showing which double standards it chooses to adhere to, FIFA also discards the facade of its neutrality.

Persistent calls on the federation to suspend Israel over its treatment of Palestinians have fallen on deaf ears for years. Similarly, protests over China’s treatment of multiple minorities and surrounding populations have failed to result in sanctions from the organisation. These are the specific cases that hold the global sports federation in an uncomfortable bind and expose the fragility of its carefully conducted neutrality. It poses the question of whether its apolitical stance is real or just a cover constructed out of the reality that an international football association can not and perhaps should not make politics for everyone.

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