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When Politics Invades The Soccer Pitch, And Vice Versa

Piqué in 2015
Piqué in 2015


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.

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Turkey: The Blind Spot Between Racial And Religious Discrimination

Before the outbreak of the Hamas-Israel war, a social media campaign in Turkey aimed to take on anti-Arab and anti-refugee sentiment. But the campaign ultimately just swapped one type of discrimination for another.

photo of inside Istanbul's Eminonu New Mosque

Muslims and tourists visiting Istanbul's Eminonu New Mosque.

Levent Gültekin


ISTANBUL — In late September, several pro-government journalists in Turkey promoted a social media campaign centered around a video against those in the country who are considered anti-Arab. The campaign was built around the idea of being “siblings in religion,” and the “union of the ummah,” or global Muslim community.

(In a very different context, such sentiments were repeated by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after the Israel-Hamas war erupted.)

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While the goal is understandable, these themes are highly disconnected from reality.

First, let's look at the goal of the campaign. Our country has a serious problem of irregular migrants and refugees, and the administration isn’t paying adequate attention to this. On the contrary, they encourage the flow of refugees with policies such as selling citizenship.

Worries about irregular migrants and refugees naturally create tension in the society. The anger that targets not the government but the refugees has come to a point which both threatens the social peace and brought the issue to hostility towards the Arabs, even the tourists. The actual goal of this campaign by the pro-government journalists is obvious if you consider how an anti-tourist movement would hurt Turkey’s economy.

However, as mentioned above, while the goal is understandable, the themes of the “union of the ummah” and “siblings in religion” are problematic. The campaign offers the idea of being siblings in religion as an argument against the rising racism towards irregular migrants and refugees; a different form of racism or discrimination.

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