Football and politics are known to mix because it takes a lot to mess up football. That’s not a dig at soccer, but any sport that enlists politicians and political figures onto its fan base in the hope that they can infuse some political passion in it is going to need to manage the delicate question of who defines the political. They can try to co-opt, they can get their side of the argument across, they can cave in under the pressure of protests and punditry but that only gets you so far. The players are the issue here and the juxtaposition of protest and performance is proving divisive.
Last Sunday, England scored an astonishing 5-3 victory over Costa Rica in a World Cup qualifier. The player who had the biggest hand in that scoreline was Harry Kane, who netted four times. England had stepped off the field following the final whistle when Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi stuck his hand into the air during the national anthem, taking a knee in protest to Donald Trump’s immigration policy. That snap reaction was picked up by ITV (allegedly because the phrase “taking a knee” is an almost expected part of the pre-match vernacular).
That reaction, however, only brought ugly responses from both sides of the political divide. Former England star Gary Lineker condemned the player’s action and accused Iwobi of being “disrespectful” for a once-comradeship he had had with Arsenal teammate Jack Wilshere. Iwobi, for his part, tweeted a picture of a 2015 Washington Post article which apparently talked about Wilshere’s decision to kneel during the anthem before England’s match in Spain. Wilshere gave similar comments on the matter in a post on Instagram, linking to a story by fellow Arsenal player Mesut Ozil and also referring to the fact that the midfielder had previously been photographed with his hand raised. Ozil, meanwhile, wrote that “Footballers should be out on the pitch performing.” Though most of the criticism is coming from the political side, Lionel Messi decided to try to steer the conversation in a better direction. “The ‘political’ behaviour of individual players during the playing of the national anthem is to me unacceptable and, as much as I respect everyone’s freedom of political opinion, it feels a bit too much,” the Argentinean legend wrote on Twitter, shortly after the game.
Maybe he’s right. Maybe society has moved too far from where football was in the past in terms of freedom of speech and political protest. But maybe, just maybe, this is just a case of football getting off-track and heading towards a more genteel affair. Maybe the collision between football and politics has been too strong of a collision and only every team that can find a way out will be successful.