To say that these men paid their shillings to watch twenty-two hirelings kick a ball is merely to say that a violin is wood and catgut, that Hamlet is so much paper and ink. – J.B. Priestley
Any supporter of any club or national team in soccer will understand what the quote above means – that for them, going to a soccer match is about so much more than just the game itself. The sense of family, of belonging one feels when you step through the gates of your club’s stadium sends chills and a heartwarming sensation throughout your body all at the same time. People use sport, and especially soccer, as a mechanism to escape the toils of the real world. It is one of the few places fans can go where they aren’t worried about what bills they have to pay, or what the upcoming election has in store for taxes, healthcare, or unemployment. They are solely worried about their club, and they let it consume them for ninety blissful minutes, knowing that they are not alone, but united in this feeling that, for a moment, soccer transcends the realities of the world and becomes its own sovereign utopia. Or does it?
Too often we look at soccer matches and analyze the performances of the players on the pitch, or the manager’s tactics – whether he, or she, made the correct substitutions at the proper moment in the match. Go onto Google and search for “Soccer” – see what results are returned. Depending on your geographical location you may get a few sporting goods stores in your area, links to a few leagues such as MLS, the Premier League, or Liga MX, maybe a link for an association like the FA or USSF. Very few, if any, of the top results will be articles or news relating to some of the outside forces that have an impact on the game – again, depending on where you’re located when conducting the search.
Soccer is very much so subject to the same geopolitical forces that affect us as citizens of this world, even though at times it may not seem as such to the common fan. In fact, there are literally hundreds of examples that show the symbiotic relationship between soccer and the events of the world, far beyond just recessions impacting attendance at matches because fans can’t afford to go.
The latest example is related to the Ebola epidemic, and not because professional soccer players are getting sick. The African Cup of Nations (ACON) is the biennial regional soccer championship for the Confederation of African Football (CAF), similar to the Gold Cup for CONCACAF, or the Copa América for CONMEBOL. The tournament was to be hosted by the North African nation of Morocco from mid-January to early February of 2015, only about 9 weeks away. However, the hosting rights for the tournament were stripped from Morocco because country officials wanted to postpone the tournament over fears of the spread of the Ebola virus. CAF went back and forth with Morocco for a time, until it was clear that neither were budging, so CAF revoked the country’s hosting rights and gave them to Equatorial Guinea, who volunteered to host the tournament when news broke that it would not be held in Morocco. The small West African nation of approximately 1 million co-hosted the 2012 ACON with neighbors Gabon, but has run into a few issues with disqualifications from both World Cup and ACON qualifiers recently as a result of fielding teams with ineligible players.
This late switch in tournament location will have some fairly significant impacts on those involved, both on and off the pitch. Travel arrangements will have already been made for teams in the tournament, sponsors who were planning for an event in Morocco will now have to work tirelessly to setup in Equatorial Guinea in just 9 weeks, a country that ranks 163rd out of 177 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index – a study that illustrates how difficult it is to conduct business in a country due to the level of corruption (Morocco ranks 91st). The entire tournament’s infrastructure will have to be moved, adjusted, and most likely scaled back to adapt to the new host environment, in only 9 weeks. While the scale of the ACON is much smaller than a tournament like the European Championship or Copa América, the impact to those involved is still very real, and very significant.
Another recent example is the situation in Ukraine in the Crimea region. After Russia’s annexation of the peninsula the soccer clubs located in Crimea have joined the Russian Football Union (RFS) and no longer play their matches in the Ukrainian Premier League (UPL), without their consent. Ukrainian soccer officials pleaded with UEFA and FIFA to step in and punish the RFS for illegally taking three of its clubs, and in late August UEFA released a statement saying that it would not recognize any matches that any RFS team played against any of the Crimean clubs that Russia took from the UPL. Other clubs in the league have been affected as well, as the country has been in a state of unrest and turmoil. UPL Champions and UEFA Champions League constants Shakhtar Donetsk were forced to play its home matches in Lviv near the Polish border, where they spoke Ukrainian, not Russian like the club’s hometown of Donetsk. The situation is still on-going, and has even had adverse effects on Russian clubs, as the Ukrainian situation has cost them a lot of money, and the declining position of the ruble has left clubs in a financial squeeze with a very high wage bill.
There is also the example of the Serbia vs. Albania European Championship 2016 qualifying match only a few weeks ago being abandoned due to fans and players brawling on the pitch. A drone flew over the field carrying a flag with the isignia of ‘Greater Albania’, which is a notion to an extended area in which all ethnic Albanians reside, including the Serbian capital of Kosovo. The flag was caught by Serbian defender Stefan Mitrovic and was immediately accosted by several Albanian players, which set off the chain of events that eventually led to the match abandonment.
As controversial as his actions may be, one of the world’s greatest strikers, Luis Suarez has even said
In Latin America the border between soccer and politics is vague. There is a long list of governments that have fallen or been overthrown after the defeat of the national team.
How can anyone forget the Colombian defender, Andrés Escobar, who was murdered upon his return to his country following the national team’s exit from the 1994 World Cup in the United States for scoring an own goal? Or during the same time Pablo Escobar, regarded as one of the wealthiest criminals in history, a drug lord who funded a very large portion of Colombian club soccer in the 1980’s.
There are literally hundreds more examples where soccer has been impacted by, or has had an impact on, the surrounding environment and external forces that we as fans often times do not even consider as we flood the clubs gates for a match. It is important to remember that in some respects, the challenges we face as ordinary people also affect our favorite clubs and players – a thought that should only serve to unite us as a soccer community even more.