Monday, June 25, 2018

Protest, Propaganda, and Politics: Welcome to the World Cup

Since June 14th, when Russia beat Saudi Arabia 5-0, more than 3 billion people have tuned in to the FIFA World Cup. Germany was upset by the feisty Mexicans. England has demonstrated uncommon good form. And the once mighty Argentines are floundering.  The globe is ball and everyone is watching it.
                But it’s not all about football. Nor has it ever been.
                As it stands, two players and a coach could possibly be suspended over gestures made during the Swiss victory over Serbia.  At issue is the “double eagle” displayed by both Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri following their respective goals. Players celebrate in many creative ways—some suck their thumbs, some remove their shirts, some make heart symbols with their hands, and others use the universal “simmer down” motion. Ronaldo recently rubbed his chin to tell the world that he is “the goat.”
                But the double eagle has ignited a controversy.
                At the heart of this hullabaloo, is FIFA rule number 54:  Provoking the general public.  The rule is simple, leaving a gaping hole into which pundits and fans can throw any number of infractions, both real and imagined.  It reads, “Anyone who provokes the general public during a match will be suspended for two matches and sanctioned with a minimum fine of CHF 5,000.”
                So, what’s wrong with the double eagle? Well, Xhaka and Shaqiri, while Swiss, are also Kosovars with ethnic Albanian roots. As such, their gesture—which refers to the Albanian flag—has been interpreted by some as the goading of their Serbian opponents and the fans in the stadium.
                Kosovo, unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008, and though its independence is recognized by more than 113 member states of the UN, Serbia is not one of them.  This has unearthed the decades-old Kosovo War where Serbian troops were responsible for the ethnic cleansing (terrible euphemism) of more than 10 000 Kosovars. Reciprocal atrocities were also committed, displacing 200 000 Serbs and Romani.
                But enough of history. At issue is the politics of the gesture and its intent. 
                I can’t help but draw comparisons the the recent storm around the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick and “knee-taking” during the American anthem.  Many say that politics has no place sport. Others argue freedom of expression.

                So, should Xhaka and Shaqiri be suspended, potentially affecting the outcome of the group stage of the World Cup?
                Ultimately, I say no. Just think about the nature of the World Cup for a moment. It pits nation against nation. The spectators drape themselves in flags, paint their faces and bodies in national colours.  Iceland fans wear the Viking helmets of old.  Brazilian fans wear…well, almost nothing.
                In this kind of atmosphere, how can you keep the World Cup free of politics?
                Serb captain, Aleksandar Kolarov, lifted three fingers in the “Serb salute” after he scored a goal against Costa Rica. Should he be suspended for what some consider to be a “nationalist” gesture?
                Forcing players to “behave” in this way is simply reinforcing a wilful ignorance of the issues facing the world—a kind of self-induced coma. FIFA wishes and hopes for this sort momentary amnesia, not for the sake of the “beautiful game,” but because it is part and parcel of ignoring the issues raised by the very selection of such countries as Russia and Qatar to host the games. Countries whose records of human rights abuses should arguably not be rewarded with the World Cup prize to begin with.
                If the gestures of Xhaka and Shaqiri—or even those of Kolarov—spark debate and discussion, this can only be a good thing. In fact, most of the 3 billion viewers probably had no idea what the “double eagle” meant before the Swiss players used it. And maybe that was the intent. Or, maybe the intent was simply one of solidarity following years of hardship.
                In the end, as long as the intent and impact did not purposefully engender hatred or prejudice (such as paramilitary insignia and flags in the crowd!), then play on.
                Serbia, and impartial aficionados of the game, have a much more legitimate complaint with the officiating of that match than they do with any gestures used. The Serbs deserved a penalty shot, and VAR review should and would have proven what the referee inexplicably “missed.”
                Let’s not pretend that politics don’t exist.  Embrace them. Discuss them. And get on with the game.