With recent outbursts of war in the 2020s and infrastructure like the arches at Wembley lighting up the colours of Ukrainian flag but not of Palestine after Israel retaliates to Hamas’s recent attacks, should sports make political statements?
The ongoing humanitarian crisis in Israel and Palestine has broadly divided the world into two halves. People have not shied away from expressing their strong opinions on whatever medium they’ve got their hands on. The footballing world has not been any stranger to giving out its opinion on the entire ordeal like it has been on plenty of socio-political issues before. Very unsurprisingly, it has caused a lot of furore with people questioning. The debate over whether sports have a place to make statements over socio-political issues like the Israel-Palestine crisis has been age-old but has been blown over exponentially since social media has taken over.
Before going any further in the debate, it is important to note that the Israel-Palestine issue itself is extremely sensitive and complicated. The death of innocent civilians anywhere in the world is extremely distressing and is bound to trigger emotions. Therefore the topic should be dealt with extreme empathy. That being said, I am not a political commentator and would prefer to stick to analysing the presence of politics in sports instead of making ignorant comments on something I know limited about and dehumanising the deaths of the innocent.
Recently, several fans of Scottish side Celtic FC announced their support for Palestine and its citizens and displayed banners and Palestinian flags at their league game against Kilmarnock. The Green Brigade, an ultras group of hardcore Celtic fans, were at the forefront of this protest. However, the protest was met with mixed response, with former Celtic and Israel player Nir Bitton calling its supporters as “brainwashed”. The club also released a statement distancing itself from the protest, fearing a backlash.
Meanwhile, several footballers playing in top leagues have issued statements in solidarity with Palestine. Moroccan stars Hakim Ziyech and Noussair Mazraoui have been vocal in their support for Palestinians on social media, while other players like Frenchmen Nabil Fekir and Karim Benzema and German player Mesut Ozil have also shown their support.
However, they have also been facing backlash over their stance on the issue on social media, with a volatile user base turning to vile abuse and inhuman comments over the deaths in the region. Mazraoui posted another statement in response to the backlash, saying, “My position is that I will work for peace and justice in this world. That means that I will always be against all kinds of terrorism, hatred and violence. And that is something I will always support.”
There have also been examples of players who have been criticised by the general public for not raising their voices over the issue. Egyptian superstar Mohamed Salah has been on the receiving end of criticism for not raising his voice and “letting his fellow Arabs down.”
Sports have been used to make political statements for years. One of the most prominent examples from the last century was the 1936 Olympics being hosted by Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler made it a point to use the quadrennial sporting event to build popular support. At the time, Hitler’s use of propaganda and gaining political capital wasn’t very obvious to everyone. Of course, it is easy to see in hindsight where Hitler’s steps were taking Germany, but politics in sports can range from subtle political messaging to explicit protests and rallies.
Even in football, players and clubs have not been shy in displaying their political affiliations in the past. Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, and Brian Clough, some of the great managers to ply their trade in England, were very vocal socialists. They came from working-class backgrounds and applied socialist ideals and their humble upbringing in their managerial style.
The 1960s saw a major shift in the rise of political statements made in the field of sports. The world was going through rapid changes and there were new protests and revolutions taking place all across the globe. The civil rights movement saw genuine sporting superstars like Muhammad Ali raise their voices in support of the cause. The image of African American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos holding their gloved fists out as a sign of protest against racism and poverty in the US at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics is still iconic.
Recently, the Black Lives Matter movement proved contentious amongst some players and fans regarding the presence of a political movement in sports. While the majority of players and people supported taking a knee in support of the movement, there were few like former Crystal Palace player Wilfried Zaha and Brentford striker Ivan Toney. They argued that the gesture had “lost meaning” and could be seen as “degrading”.
But the fact of the matter is that politics are an irrefutable part of sporting culture. It always has been. Now the definition of politics may change per person. But if we consider it something that affects the lives of citizens through the means of policy change, it definitely becomes an irreplaceable part of everyone’s lives, including that of athletes. Should athletes be forced to have an opinion on every political matter? In my opinion, no. They are people at the end of the day (which a lot of us sometimes forget) and cannot be realistically expected to be aware of every single thing that is going around them.
At the same time, should players be held accountable for what they say in public? In an ideal world maybe not, but in our real world, definitely yes. Today, sportspersons have a certain standing in society where people of all ages across borders and genders look up to them. In such a scenario, they have a certain moral responsibility to be morally right or simply not make ignorant statements if they feel inadequate in their knowledge of the subject.