Politics, Football & Skin

A week on Monday, George Weah will assume office as the President of Liberia. Having retired from the game in 2003, the former Ballon D’or winner set to work on his dream to become an elected politician and change the fortunes of future generations in his home country. Having grown up in poverty before hitting the jackpot in professional football, Weah has consistently stated his desire to introduce ‘economic empowerment’ to the Liberian people. Arguably the most famous man to have emerged from the West African country, Weah’s campaign was built on his popularity among the youth vote as his on-pitch exploits fuelled his political aspirations. His is the latest story to support the idea that football and politics are regular bedfellows.  

“Stick to football, crisp shagger”. It’s the kind of mature, sensible, thoughtful and charming response that Gary Lineker will be used to. The Leicester born anchorman has become the father of English football, ubiquitous with the Premier League, omnipresent for the FA Cup and, since adding BT Sport to his list of employers, synonymous with the Champions League. On screen he’s every bit the charmer that his predecessor – the inimitable Des Lynam – was, and across the nation he’s regarded as the oracle of the sport. In the depraved world of Social Media however, Lineker’s popularity is slightly less universal. Amidst his comments on football, his terrible Dad jokes, and his weary banter with Piers Morgan, Lineker uses the platform to broadcast his compassion towards the victims of Grenfell, his sympathy to the Syrian Refugee Crisis, and his disbelief at the actions of Donald Trump. All worthy causes to highlight, all things that most right-on people would agree with, and all entirely his prerogative to talk about. Lineker’s Twitter account is his responsibility. He’s not paid by the BBC to maintain it, and he is under no duress to adhere to his followers wonts. He’s free to say what he likes. For many of his followers, this just won’t do. With every single “political” tweet comes a slew of replies reminding Gary that he’s been put in a box and he mustn’t stray (ironic given how rare it was to see Lineker outside the box during his playing career). The underlying notion is that football, and by extension footballers, have no place in politics and, as such, shouldn’t be using a public platform to comment on world events. The reason they have no place in politics, presumably, is because footballers aren’t considered intelligent enough to understand it – a crass stereotype that harks back to the 80s and has seen the likes of successful businessman David Beckham torn to shreds in the media. Whether than lack of intelligence is attributed to a working class upbringing is something to be explored at a later date, but either way the idea that people that kick a ball around for a living lack the capacity for independent thought is nothing but elitism.

Even taking these baseless stereotypes into account, Lineker has never been your average footballer. For starters he almost wasn’t a footballer at all – coming close to pursuing a career in cricket before signing for his hometown club Leicester City and rising to stardom. Seven years and 95 goals at Filbert Street convinced Everton to spend £800,000 on the fox in the box in the hope of overhauling their Merseyside neighbours dominance. After only one season at Goodison Park, Lineker went to the 1986 World Cup, won the Golden Boot and convinced Barcelona to splash out £2.8m on him. At a time when English players moving abroad rarely ended successfully, Lineker took to life at the Nou Camp like a duckie on the Soar. Scoring 36 goals in his first two seasons , the striker’s swift adjustment to life in Spain played a massive part in his success with the Catalan club. He learnt the language, ingratiated himself with the locals, and soaked in the culture – something a few thousand of his fellow ex-pats could learn a thing or two about. When Terry Venables was replaced by Johan Cruyff he was farmed out on the wing and, despite winning the Cup Winners Cup in his final season, decided to return to England with Tottenham Hotspur. He would later spend two years in Japan with Nagoya Grampus Eight as his career wound down, and his willingness to experience other cultures has formed his political consciousness. Well-spoken, erudite and charming, it was no surprise he was quickly snapped up by Match of the Day for punditry duties after his retirement. Famously never cautioned on the pitch – Lineker isn’t what the media would refer to as your average footballer. His considered thoughts on the gathering darkness of the world around us is refreshing.

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And he’ll have experienced the meeting of football and politics first hand during his playing days. The 1980s was a depressing time for the beautiful game. Overt racism on the terraces was a weekly occurrence. Football hooliganism was on the rise. Heysel and Hillsborough changed the game indefinitely (ask any member of the Justice For The 96 campaign if politics has a place in football). Ahead of the 1990 World Cup, the two met head on. As football hooliganism in England became a national crisis, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher  was desperate to stamp her mark on the issue. The introduction of ID cards for football supporters was long floated, and in the years leading up to Italia ’90 the government toyed with the idea of forcing the England national team to withdraw from the tournament – a section of England’s support had been involved in massive crowd trouble during Euro ’88 in West Germany, and Thatcher was loathe to see her great country shown up in front of the watching world. After a confab between the government and FIFA, England were allowed to partake in the tournament – and their fan base was assigned to the Sardinian municipality of Cagliari, as far from the action as they could put them. Thatcher’s Minister for Sport, Colin Moynihan, was clearly not a football fan and leading up to the tournament he was keen to overstate to Italian police the threat that England fans presented to the peace. As a result several hundred supporters were quickly deported at the first sign of trouble. They returned protesting their innocence and complaining of police brutality, while stories of hooliganism from the tournament were few and far between. The politicians had stoked the dying embers of the fire.

Whilst, thankfully, instances of racist abuse in England are now rare, it doesn’t stop players receiving abuse for myriad other reasons. Wayne Rooney often finds himself on the end of ‘granny shagger’ chants. Frank Lampard was accused of ‘eating all the pies’ throughout his illustrious career. David Beckham had an effigy of himself torched after being sent off in the World Cup. One footballer that provokes regular ire in the Premier League is James McClean. If there’s one man that encompasses the idea that football and politics do mix, it’s the West Bromwich Albion midfielder. Born in Derry in Northern Ireland and raised Catholic, McClean decided to represent Republic of Ireland at international level – a decision that led to the player receiving death threats. Taking a staunchly anti-Unionist stance, McClean felt uncomfortable representing a nation under the banner of a United Kingdom. For those same reasons, he does not sport a poppy on his shirt for remembrance. His position is entirely understandable, having grown up on a street heavily affected by The Troubles, during with the British Army were stationed in Northern Ireland and over two-thousand people lost their lives – the majority Catholic. Unsurprisingly, McClean’s refusal to wear the poppy riles those with nationalist standpoints, and again he has received death threats for his position. He also suffers abuse from the stands everywhere he plays. It must be said that the opposition to McClean’s view is the minority, and when asked for comment The Royal British Legion were sympathetic to the midfielder’s decision, stating that the wearing of a poppy is entirely voluntary. The fact that the organisation behind the Poppy Appeal were compelled to reiterate this gives you an idea of the times we’re living in.

If the people that are convinced climate change is a myth also think politics in English football is incompatible, then perhaps they’d prefer to take a glance across Europe. In Spain, politics is the cornerstone of the game. The country has often been split on regional lines, and none more fierce than the Basque and Catalan. Until the 1980s Atletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad  enforced a strict ‘Basques Only’ rule on their playing staff, while the support of Catalan independence has led to Gerard Pique becoming increasingly unpopular with fans of the Spanish national team. The very make-up of the country’s club system in entrenched in politics. Unlike the ownership system in England, fans of Spanish clubs elect presidents who, around election time, promise the world to their supporters in the hopes of clinging on to another term – ringing any bells? Florentino Perez managed to secure the presidency at Real Madrid in 2000 by promising to pay Luis Figo’s $60.1m buy-out clause to prise him from arch-rivals Barcelona. The move only further deepened a vicious rivalry entrenched in politics. FC Barcelona are the antithesis of Real Madrid. As the pride of Catalonia, they represent a threat to Spanish nationalism, something that Real’s legacy has been fiercely built upon. Billed as ‘Franco’s Club’ in the 1940s and 50s, the team clad in purest white remain, to much of Spain, a reminder of the country’s lowest ebb, when fascist rule led to great political oppression. Barcelona and Madrid had already established a rivalry after forming in the late 1890s, but the assassination of Josep Sunyol  would be the turning point  in their enmity. Sunyol had been elected President of FC Barcelona in 1935, though was already well known in the city after founding the left-wing newspaper La Rambla (a direct competitor to Madrid’s right-leaning Marca). A year after his election he was killed by Francoist troops in the Sierra de Guadarrama. It took sixty years for his body to be exhumed. The story remains etched into Barcelona’s history.

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Fascism plays a large part in the history of Italian football too. The despotic reign of Benito Mussolini during the 1930s was particularly fruitful for the sport. Seeing ‘calcio’ as a distraction for the masses, Mussolini invested heavily in the sport, eventually bringing the World Cup to Italy in 1934. Naturally the hosts won, further proving the superiority of the Italian people. Four years later they retained the title in France, motivated only slightly by the dictator’s telegram sent ahead of the final against Hungary. ‘Win or Die’. Mussolini’s influence lives on in Serie A to this day – in no small part thanks to the two clubs from the capital. SS Lazio’s connection to fascism has long been apparent – a slew of players with right wing sympathies (Paolo Di Canio the most fervent), and a set of Ultras fuelled by anti-semitism (the unfurling of flags bearing slogans such as “Auschwitz is your town, the ovens are your houses.” at Rome derbies has done nothing to help shake off this reputation), however it’s their local rivals who’s history is rooted in fascism. In 1927 AS Roma were founded by the fascist regime in a bid to break up the footballing hegemony in Turin and Milan, and in 1972 it was Roma fans that formed the first far-right ultra group. These days the boys in burgundy are associated with the left-leaning cosmopolitan half of the city, but they’ve got a skeleton in their closet and he’s giving a Nazi salute.

While the worlds of politics and football are no strangers to each other, the sight of actual footballers being involved in politics is a little rarer. In the UK, Sol Campbell is the most notable footballer to have had political aspirations, claiming that he planned to run as a Conservative MP upon retirement. Whilst many Brexiteers might appreciate the added pace the former England international could add to the Department for Exiting the European Union, Campbell would be just as adept at opposing Brexit, having as he does plenty of experience of being called a traitor. Footballing politicians seems largely to be the reserve of Brazil and Eastern Europe, with notable faces cropping up in government. Both Pele and Zico have held the post of Sports Minister in Brazil, while Romario was elected to the Brazilian Senate in 2014 having stood under the Brazilian Socialist Party banner. In Russia, both Andrey Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko both ran for seats in Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party in 2007, though in a scene becoming familiar in the Premier League the former Arsenal winger capitulated to allow the erstwhile Tottenham striker to take his place.

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But though cameos from footballers in the world of politics may seem something of a novelty, George Weah’s election as the President of Liberia is the real deal. Following his retirement and the second Liberian Civil War, Weah announced his intention to run for president in the 2005 elections. His lack of a formal education, alongside a shortage of experience, put his bid at a disadvantage, and despite being voted through to the run-off election, his opponent Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won with over 59% of the vote. Unperturbed by this setback, Weah embarked on a mission to strengthen his political credentials. After earning a Business Adminstration degree at DeVry University in Miami he returned to Liberia to run as the Vice Presidential Candidate to Walter Tubman in 2011. Sirleaf was re-elected, but Weah did eventually find his way onto the Liberian Senate as a Congress for Democratic Change. Then, this year, he was finally elected as President, winning 61.5% of the vote against Joseph Boakai, representing the Coalition for Democratic Change Party. It remains to be seen what kind of legacy Weah will leave in Liberia, but having established himself as a European football great and paved the way for African players in Europe’s big leagues, he might just change the tide of opinion that football and politics shouldn’t mix.

 

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