The fraught drama of politics landing in the arena of sports has popped up recently in several different places around the world. It also happens to date back (at least) as far as Ancient Rome, as historian Sarah Bond recently explained in Forbes.
In the U.S., the NFL is currently roiling in controversy over its football players protesting against racism by kneeling during the National Anthem. But the stakes may be even higher as the worlds of sports and politics collide in the (for now, at least) Spanish region of Catalonia. Gerard Piqué, a Catalan-born standout defender for both the FC Barcelona league club and the Spanish national team, has wound up in the middle of the battles raging over Catalonia's bid for independence from Spain. After Piqué expressed his support for independence, he was the target of boos and insults from national team supporters who once worshiped him for helping Spain win back-to-back World and European Cups, in 2010 and 2012. Amid the uproar, Piqué has offered to stop playing for Spain.
Piqué has become a kind of visceral expression of the pro-independence movement, as his treatment fits into the Catalan narrative that it's being oppressed by "Madrid." This feeling is reinforced by the fact that his club, FC Barcelona — whose arch-rival is non other than Real Madrid — has identified itself with Catalonia over the years, giving the team "an explicitly socio-political dimension," as soccer writer Sid Lowe explained in The Guardian.
"Untenable Situation" — Spanish sports daily Marca"s Oct. 3 front page
There is no shortage of examples of athletes becoming the embodiment of political struggles, as La Stampacorrespondent Francesca Paci notes. In 1990, Zvonimir Boban became a hero to fellow Croatians after kicking a policeman during an infamous riot between supporters of his team, Dinamo Zagreb, and of the Serbian club Red Star Belgrade. At the time, both cities were part of one country, the now-defunct Yugoslavia. But coming just days after pro-independence parties had won an election in Croatia, the riot and Boban's kick were subsequently seen as an omen of things to come, as ethnic wars would consume the Balkans for most of the decade to come.
Though Boban was barred from the upcoming World Cup, his club career was destined to flourish. The following year, he left Zagreb for the top Italian league, where he would play a key role in multiple Italian and Champion League titles for AC Milan. As fate would have it, one of Boban's teammates in Milan is aiming to take soccer and politics to a new level right now: George Weah, the only African to have been named FIFA World Player of the Year, is running in Liberia's presidential election today. Already a senator who has run for the top office twice in the past, Weah is considered a favorite to succeed Nobel Peace laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in what could be the first smooth transfer of power in 73 years. With a total of 20 candidates in the race, the election is as uncertain as that of any good soccer match. For politics and sports are each well-served by fierce and open competition, and handshakes once the final whistle blows.