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FIFA 2018: Politics، football glance up against each other in the World Cup

Friday 29/June/2018 - 03:29 PM
Sada El Balad
"Business-Standard" news website- By "Kanika Datta ":

As the major footballing powers begin to assert their prowess on the playing fields of Russia، their rainbow teams offer a reassuring distraction from the world of politics in Europe and the US where outright xenophobia dominates the public discourse. But that hasn’t prevented football and politics glancing up against each other in myriad ways.

Earlier this week، Switzerland’s midfielders Granit Xhaka and Xerdan Shaquiri narrowly missed bans after controversial celebrations against Serbia. Their celebratory gestures invoked the double-headed eagle، insignia on the Albanian flag. Xhaka and Shaquiri are ethnic Albanians from Kosovo، the tiny autonomous enclave (population: 1،82،000) between Serbia and Albania that has been seeking independence from Serbia for yonks (for Xhaka، the issue has an added poignancy because his father spent six years in jail as a political prisoner in the former Yugoslavia). The United Nations، for a host of dishonourable reasons، does not recognise Kosovar independence، as a result of which FIFA cannot accept it as a UEFA member under its policy that restricts national membership to UN-recognised countries.

The gain has been Switzerland’s، host to a sizeable Kosovar immigrant population. Today the Swiss count three Kosovars in its multi-national team (including the veteran Valon Behrami، whose family was saved from deportation after the Swiss town in which they lived signed a petition in support). In 2012، when Switzerland played Albania، the Red Crosses sported nine Kosovo-origin players، prompting the local joke that Kosovo A was playing Kosovo B. The irony of Xhaka and Shaquiri’s very political celebrationprotest، which earned them FIFA fines، is that it took place in Russia، the country that leveraged its clout in the UN Security Council to uphold its client-state Serbia’s demands to retain Kosovo.

Elsewhere، a former semi-professional footballer، President Recep Tayyip Erdogan، tightened his stranglehold on Turkey by winning 53 per cent of the vote in an election he had advanced by a year. It is widely recognised that his victory has been courtesy tactics -- intimidation and imprisonment of all opponents -- that would have won approval from Vladimir Putin، his frenemy and leader of the country that is playing host to this edition of the World Cup، a privilege won in dubious circumstances. Unlike Russia's team، whose uncharacteristically amped-up performance in the opening two matches has raised eyebrows، Turkey’s finest footballers ply their trade outside the country – and for other countries. The biggest gainer has been Turkey’s bete noir in Europe، Germany، which did not allow Erdogan to campaign among that country’s sizeable Turkish community، the “guest workers” who، like Mexicans and Latin American immigrants to the US، will do the work Germans don’t want to do.

No matter، neither Germans nor Turks have any problems adoring Mesut Ozil، Ilkay Gundogan and Emre Can، stalwarts of the German football team. The former two، in turn، saw no problem in helping Erdogan’s campaign، meeting him in a well-publicised event and bestowing him with signed T-shirts with respectful messages to “my president”. That earned them a rap on the knuckles from a paranoid German FA; the footballers had failed to display suitable patriotism، even though their professional dedication for their adopted country has contributed in no small measure to its number one ranking.

Putin’s malign if indirect influence was also visible in one of the most unsavoury incidents of the World Cup so far. It involved Liverpool star and Egyptian captain Mo Salah، whose underwhelming performance in Russia was overwhelmed by a political scandal not of his making. It is hard to understand why the Egyptian FA would choose as its training base the turbulent republic of Chechnya، which is headed by Ramzan Kadyrov، a Putin-supported puppet who is known to outstrip his mentor in ruthlessness. The Egyptian team clearly didn’t benefit much from its Grozny interlude but a delighted Kadyrov، spectacularly unpopular with his own people، milked the connection for all it was worth. Being Muslim، he could not wine the team but he certainly dined them in style، conferring honorary citizenship on Salah، currently European football’s brightest star. Caught between a rock and hard place (including from adoring Liverpool supporters)، Salah protested Kadyrov's unwanted felicitation in the only way he could، by signalling he may retire from international football and celebrating the only goal Egypt scored with conspicuous restraint.

Meanwhile، geopolitics has had its impact on the tournament's pluckiest national team، which earned many fans ahead of its honourable exit. Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran and the re-imposition of sanctions caught the football team and Nike on the wrong foot، literally. The Oregon-headquartered sportswear company was forced to withdraw its deal to supply the players with boots just days before the World Cup began. The lack of upscale footwear didn’t seem to have bothered the team، which gave Spain a run for its money and held Portugal to a draw in the group stages. Had it not been for the sanctions، European clubs would have been happy to consider players like Alireza Beiranvand، Ehsahn Hajsafi، Vahid Amiri or Alireza Jahanbaksh. Will these players change their nationalities for the benefit of testing their talent in top-flight football?

And with the US Supreme Court upholding the travel ban for eight mainly Muslim countries، including Iran، what happens in 2026، if Iran qualifies for the tournament to be played in the US، Mexico and Canada? Thanks to the 22nd amendment، Donald Trump won’t be in the White House، but America’s enduring Iranophobia may take its toll on one of Asia’s most exciting footballing nations.

Edited by Rasha Mohamed

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