There’s something to be said for not mixing politics and sport. From racism to homophobia ai??i?? an exploration of the conflict between football and identity politics.

Politics in Football - Homophobia, Racism, Sexism - Hitzlsperger, Ai??zil, Gradin, Marta

Do politics belong in football?

A popular sports manga called The Prince of Tennis culminated in this famous revelation (or punch line), when the protagonist declares: “Tennis is really fun.”

Shamefully simplistic at first glance, it’s actually a strangely profound moment. Because what does sport give us, if not enjoyment? In athletic ability, we enjoy technical achievement and artistry. In physical fitness, the perfect human form. In the act of playing, there is adrenaline and satisfaction.

To declare “tennis is fun” is to name sport’s irreducible fate: it matters to the person who enjoys it, irrespective of and not beholden to any other consideration in this world.

For example: Mesut Ai??zil. When talking about him, what comes to mind first: his ethnicity, or his prodigious skills? A third-generation Turkish-German and recipient of the 2010 Bambi award for integration, Ai??zil is better known as the playmaker who dumbfounded fans at the 2010 World Cup, and sent Madridstas and Gooners into paroxysms of delight with his inimitable passes and uncanny knack for finding space where there should have been none. In short, he’s brilliant. To watch Mesut Ai??zil play football is to experience joy.

In the face of that joy, how much does it matter that Ai??zil is Turkish-German or prays before every match? Typing “Mesut Ai??zil integration” into Google returns about 310,000 results, but “Mesut Ai??zil goals” gets you well over 2.6 million pages. You could read this as “football fans don’t care about social issues”. Or you could read this as football fans being engaged in something truly beautiful.

There’s something to be said for not mixing politics and sport. That “something” should only be said, however, when “politics” is being used to mean sycophantic bureaucracy masquerading as government. Sport is political insofar as it is played by humans, and all humans are political beings. But it is not something to be co-opted into the point-scoring, ladder-climbing careerist world of modern politicians. Sport, we feel, is sullied by the arena of debates and perspectives and moralizing.

That kind of politics is all about representation and identity: who we are (as reduced to neat little tick-boxes in census forms and opinion polls) and what, accordingly, we must want (e.g. Rednecks want guns, liberal elites want marijuana and abortions, sports fans just want beer and TV ai??i?? and the politician/coalition/government that best embodies these things would, therefore, command our loyalty).

The fallacy of reducing people to such stereotypes is so obvious, it’s almost insulting. But sport viscerally defies this kind of (mis)representation. Sport is physical. It is not an ideology, though ideologies may be imposed upon it; it is not a political statement, though with it political statements may be made. Winning a game may bring accolades, admiration, acceptance ai??i??Ai??from other people. But sport itself will not admire the sportsman. In and of itself, sport is an act.

And an act is the simplest, greatest expression of human will manifested upon objects in space. It answers to neither prejudice nor perception. It is tactile experience.

For example: Thomas Hitzlsperger. Nicknamed Der Hammer, Hitzlsperger is remembered by Bundesliga and Premier League fans for his hard game and powerful left foot. His long-range screamers used to terrorize many a wary goalkeeper. The former Germany international came out to the public earlier this month, and is being hailed as an icon and role model for young footballers. Hitzlsperger said in interview:

The perceived contradiction between playing football, the man’s game, and being homosexual is nonsense. I don’t think anyone has ever come away from watching a game with me thinking there’s something wrong or ‘too soft’ with my game.

Hitzlsperger, here, is counting on the act of sport to break with a politics of identity. We hold fixed ideas of what a certain identity entails. Such as: “gays are soft” or “blacks are violent” or “Jews are good with money”. Like words in a language, identities are neatly encoded units that parcel and parse our world into meaning. There is nothing wrong with attempting to affix a phenomenon into words, or pin it down into something compact and understandable. But the moment you readily accept an identity for what it is, and stop entertaining the possibilities of what it could be ai??i?? that is the moment prejudice begins.

And that is where football breaks with identity. Though star-personalities are not lacking in the professional era of media and advertisement (see: David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo), football as a game deals very little in personal currency. Football, rather, is about the deed. What is a player, if not one who plays football?

A 2010 EBS report found that Bundesliga youth academies showed a higher integration rate than the national average. It seemed to suggest that playing football helps to break down ethnic barriers. On the pitch, with a ball at their feet, players are equalized by the wordless language of bodies in motion. Ethnicity has no meaning in play. Perceived difference ai??i?? gender, sexuality, nationality, etc. ai??i?? are irrelevant to the act of kicking a ball.

For example: Marta. Brazil national team forward, five-time FIFA World Player of the Year, and joint all-time Women’s World Cup goalscorer. Marta’s on-the-ball talents beggar the English language of superlatives. Her football is a dancing force, a playful miracle, a joy.

And another example: Isabelino Gradin. The Uruguayan and PeAi??arol legend was widely admired, wildly popular, and immortalized in poetry in an era when South American football traded in racial background rather than athletic merit.

But the elitism of football’s history is and should be just that ai??i?? history. We love footballers for their footballing ability. We watch football to see human bodies reaching for perfection, the serendipity of objects in space, the apolitical euphoria of a goal. Football is skill and style and athleticism, the work of our bodies and the desire of our hearts ai??i?? it has nothing to do with political pandering or identity censorship.

It should feel sacrilegious when the hateful face of identity politics violates the beautiful game, in the forms of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. The fact that it doesn’t speaks to the politicization of fans, who are seeing not the game but the man. When fans make monkey noises at black footballers, exchange homophobic or sexist slurs, or engage in other forms of hateful aggression ai??i?? then we are inviting extraneous, political variables into sport.

Identity in football is caught up in club loyalty, fanship and belonging. But even fans are engaged in the work of support. Rivalry need not be about hating a rival club, so much as being actively opposed. This is the difference between decrying a rival club’s existence, and actively cheering your club to triumph over said rival. To work against the work of someone, something else is a dynamic engagement. To antagonize someone, something for the fact of their being is pure hatred.

Football is the most popular sport in the world, in terms of viewership and actual players, with an estimated 3.5 billion fans across the globe. It could be said that football is one of the most powerful expressions of common humanity. It is a shared experience, a ubiquitous language that belongs to anyone who loves the beautiful game. And whether that language speaks joy or hate, politics or sport ai??i?? is entirely up to the 3.5 billion of us.

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