The media rarely misses an opportunity to denounce football’s governing bodies – for corruption, for incompetence, for awarding prestigious international tournaments to corrupt and incompetent governments. Indeed, over the last few years – amid stories about problematic elections, dodgy sponsorship deals, and nefarious plots to help Cristiano Ronaldo win the Ballon d’Or – anti-FIFA/UEFA harangues have become a staple of football coverage, an easy way for grizzled sports journalists and renegade bloggers alike to stick it to the man.
So it’s more than a little surprising that in the aftermath of West Brom striker Nicolas Anelka’s celebratory “quenelle” – a sort of inverted Nazi salute popularized by a controversial French comedian – football writers have spent far more time complaining about the stupid, immoral, insensitive behavior of pampered players than examining the UEFA rules governing political expression.
Earlier this week, after the Football Association charged him with improper conduct, Anelka continued to insist that the quenelle is “anti-establishment,” rather than anti-Semitic. But, as Gabrielle Marcotti pointed out in ESPN, that distinction won’t protect Anelka from punishment, since UEFA doesn’t allow any form of “ideological, political and religious” expression on the pitch or in the stands.
This oppressive rule has resulted in some amazingly wrongheaded punishments. In 1995, Norwegian national team players were fined for unfurling a banner protesting nuclear tests. A couple of years later, Liverpool forward Robbie Fowler was fined for wearing a T-shirt that endorsed a local dockworkers’ strike.
Politics and football have always been closely linked: Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s tactical philosophy arguably reflected Soviet-era communism, and for much of its history Barcelona existed as an anti-authoritarian alternative to Francisco Franco’s Real Madrid. FIFA and UEFA should certainly continue to crack down on racism, hooliganism and government interference. But they should not attempt to maintain the illusion that sports exist in an alternative universe unsullied by politics. Football offers an important venue for political dissent, for the kind of sustained protest that leads to change, and players should not be stripped of fundamental rights when they walk onto the pitch.
Moreover, FIFA and UEFA seem to believe that some forms of political speech are better than others. If clubs “should focus on the development of football and leave politics to the politicians,” as UEFA president Michel Platini has claimed, why did leagues observe a minute of silence to honor Nelson Mandela? If players aren’t allowed to display “non-sporting” symbols on their equipment, why does the FA permit Premier League players to wear Remembrance Day poppies on their jerseys? And if religious expression is prohibited, why hasn’t UEFA banned Chicharito’s pre-match ritual or Kaka’s undershirt or Demba Ba’s goal celebrations?
Many of the writers who have attacked FIFA and UEFA in the past don’t seem particularly bothered about this anti-democratic double standard. In the Irish Independent, John Giles criticized Anelka for behavior that “lifted him out of a football environment into a political arena,” and although Marcotti calls himself “pretty much a free speech absolutist,” his ESPN article praised the UEFA rule restricting free speech.
Sometime next month, Anelka will probably receive a long suspension or a heavy fine, whether or not the FA proves his gesture was anti-Semitic. He’s a professional footballer, and he expressed an opinion the football authorities didn’t like. Apparently, that’s against the rules.