More than just a game? Social meaning of the World Cup for Bosnia and Herzegovina

“Despite its inescapable past, Bosnia-Herzegovina writes new chapter” (Wilson, J., 2014); “The country has been through a lot of tough times, there’s no secret about that, but this is the first major tournament for myself, and for Bosnia, it’s all new and it’s going to be great” (interview with Asmir Begović, Bosnian goalkeeper: Wilson, P., 2014). These were just some of the comments expressing excitement about the debut qualification of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) to the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. However, their meaning extends beyond a normal pre-World Cup craziness; the World Cup bears a much bigger potential for the young country, torn by the 1992‒1995 conflict and struggling with inter-ethnic divisions, terrible economic and social situation and stagnated accession process towards the EU membership. Although to be able to answer the question “What is the social meaning of the 2014 FIFA World Cup for BiH?” the World Cup needs to start first, I will try to make some conclusions before the games actually begin. And no doubt, there will be some more posts about Bosnia since this is my dissertation topic, yay 🙂


Role of football in Bosnian society

Sport, particularly football as a favourite sport of the constituent nations, plays an ambiguous role in Bosnian society. In Yugoslavia, sport was an important tool for reinforcing the state and strengthening the multi-ethnic Yugoslav identity. Towards the end of 1980s, football underwent a strong politicisation and was used by nationalists for personal enrichment, construction of power at local level and political self-legitimisation. When the war started, each ethno-national group organised its own separate football federation and football league. The Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats identified with Serbian and Croatian national teams respectively, and not with BiH representative team, which was controlled politically by the nationalist Bosniak party SDA (Sterchele, 2007; Gasser and Levinsen, 2010). Under strong pressure and conditionality of FIFA and UEFA, Croatian and Bosniak federations merged in 2000, and the Football Federation of Republika Srpska joined them in 2002, when one united Football Federation of BiH (Nogometni/Fudbalski savez Bosne I Hercegovine – NFSBiH)[1] was established. One common Premier league was established, although the lower divisions remain ethnically separated at the entity and cantonal levels. The structure of the federation was based on a tripartite presidency and a seats-rotation system between the representatives of each ethno-national sub-federation, following the Dayton political structure. Such governance model was considered non-democratic and inefficient by UEFA and FIFA, which suspended NFSBiH from their membership and all Bosnian teams from international competition in April 2011. NFSBiH was replaced by a normalisation committee that dismissed the past officials and amended the statue by replacing the tripartite-rotational structure with a single-member presidency, based on competence instead of ethnicity (Sterchele, 2013; NFSBiH 2014). “While political institutions have remained wedded firmly to the post-war principles of division, rendering much of the state apparatus unworkable, the Bosnian Football Association has demonstrated that even the most entrenched of bureaucracies can make progress” (Kinder 2013, 161).

The world of football has lead towards partial integration of all Bosnians in a single sports community (Sterchele, 2007).  The unified Bosnian Premier league has increased travelling of football fans to away matches in ethnically different towns and there have been a lot of renewed encounters of people, who had known each other before, but were separated by the conflict (Sterchele, 2010). Furthermore, “Telecom Premier League of BiH has long ago, but particularly this year, showed that football in Bosnia and Herzegovina has overcome national and entity divisions” showed a survey by the Bosnian press agency Patria ( 2014). Namely, in the majority of the Bosnian clubs, the players come from all ethnic backgrounds and are selected on the basis of their performance rather than ethnicity, which was not always the case. As well, the Bosnian national team has become more multi-ethnic over the last decade and an increasing number of Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats support it (Kinder, 2013). On the other hand, a lot of football matches in the Premier League, but mainly in the lower divisions, are still characterised by riots, violence and slogans and offences based on the use of war symbolisms. Serbs fans are called ‘četnik’ by the Croat and Bosniak opponents, while Croats are called ‘ustaš’ and Bosniak are insulted with the word ‘balija’.[2] Although national and war symbolisms are used also by Bosniaks against Bosniaks, Serbs against Serbs or Croats against Croats and are therefore used not only to express somebody’s ethnic belonging, but rather to provoke football opponents as much as possible, it seems that the memory of the war is far from gone (Sterchele, 2010). According to Azinović et al (2012), football hooliganism is one of the main factors for fuelling nationalism and inter-ethnic violence, especially because football clubs are used instrumentally by political elites and young people are easily mobilised for violence and riots as a form of their collective expression of dissatisfaction (juvenile delinquency is very high as a result of lack of opportunities, failing education system and ineffective political and economic reforms).

BiH-slaviHowever, the recent qualification to the FIFA World Cup has witnessed people from different ethnic backgrounds coming and celebrating together. Bosnian national team, the country’s first truly multi-ethnic organisation, inspired by starts such as Edin Džeko and Asmir Begović (ethnic Bosniak), Zvjezdan Misimović (ethnic Serb) and Boris Pandža (ethnic Croat) sends a strong message of unity and cooperation and presents a source of national pride. While BiH “is at a standstill in the European integration process while other countries in the region are moving aheadˮ (European Commission 2013, 1), its emergence as a footballing nation and its participation at the 2014 World Cup have significantly increased its presence on international stage. What is therefore the social role of the World Cup for such a complex society that seems to be on the margin of international affairs?

The FIFA World Cup, national identity and international recognition

Although the membership in the United Nations (UN) is de facto recognition of state’s sovereignty and its independent existence in the international community, being admitted to FIFA (or comparably, to the IOC) is a clear signal that a country has been accepted as a nation state by the international community. Despite FIFA’s claim that granting the membership to a national football association is guided by decisions already taken by the UN, BiH and Palestine for example were given provisional membership of FIFA before their status as sovereign nation states had been recognised by the UN General Assembly (Sugden and Tomlinson, 1998), and The Faroe Islands (Denmark) and Bermuda (England) compete independently although they exist under the umbrella of their parent sovereign states (Wiztig, 2006). Becoming a member of FIFA, “the United Nations of Football”, which has more members than the UN itself (FIFA, 2014b), becomes a medium for newly independent states and/or small and resurgent nations to register their presence in the international arena both on and off the football pitch (Sugden and Tomlinson, 1998; Tomlinson and Young, 2006).

Furthermore, the FIFA membership is important because it gives the national teams the right to play international matches and to take part in international competitions. International football is a part of the process through which modern nation-states have been made and proclaimed. ‘Our team’ at an international match intrudes in our daily routine, reminding us of with whom we stand with regard to our fellow nationals (Sugden and Tomlinson, 1998). Sport is a carrier of identity (identities) because it draws on emotions of a person. It is an important platform for expressing collective identity, which is on one hand inclusive for the members of a certain imagined community (Anderson, 1983), yet exclusive because it creates a high degree of social stratification, national and ethnic divide and therefore cross-community conflict. Especially differing and contrasting views on what constitutes a nation and/or a state make the role of sport in inter-community relations and nation-building even more problematic (Nieman et al, 2011; Sugden, 2010). This is quite the case in BiH, where the Bosnian Serbs and the Bosnian Croats prefer to identify with their respective countries of ethnic origin more than with the Bosnian state. However, according to the FIFA Statute,[3] only one association is allowed to be recognised in each country, meaning there is only one association (NFSBiH) presenting BiH in global football.[4] Such a unified representation of BiH internationally widens the imagined community of all Bosnians, regardless of their ethnicity ‒ The FIFA World Cup namely generates a number of occasions “when nations are embodied in something manifestly real and visible” (Smith and Porter, 2004, p.1). National identification and unification are stronger when the imagined community (Anderson, 1983) participates at an important and internationally broadcasted international event. Such a unified representation of BiH at the World Cup will be enhanced due to the multi-ethnic composition of the national team, which has become one of the greatest promoters of BiH in the world (Šarčević, 2013).

Grèka - BiH

The role of global media in imaging the nation

FIFA World Cup is one of the most dramatic and high profile spectacles in global sports and therefore a platform for national pride and prestige. It is also one of the major global media events, producing discourses of identity and globalisation and transmitting information and representations about the participating states to billions of people (Tomlinson and Young, 2006; Horne and Manzenreiter, 2006). Huge media coverage of the World Cup therefore has the power to change foreign perceptions about a state, improve its image by emphasising its good sports performance and therefore help the country reposition itself in the international community (Lincoln and Monnington, 2002). In the case of BiH, international media seems to be keen in portraying BiH as a country that has risen from the ashes and is leaving its past behind; its players are represented as “the children of the war” who are now Bosnia’s golden generation, “uniting a once bitterly divided nation” (Beanland, 2013):

“/…/ for the first time in 20 years, this victory and this team brought together a nation torn apart by economic turmoil and political and national differences for so long. These young men showed that a united Bosnia can stand tall and proud and take its place as an equal among equals at the world stage” (Cubicle No More, 2013).

Once I stood in soccer field-turned-graveyard in Sarajevo. Now free Bosnia qualifies for World Cup for the first time. Congratulations!” (a comment by the CNN reporter Christiane Amanpour, who used to report on the war in BiH, on Al Jazeera: Fadilpasić, 2013).

Especially the debut participation at the FIFA World Cup, with the help of global media, therefore a) increases a state’s visibility in international affairs and b) changes foreign public’s perceptions and its international reputation. This is especially important for small or less powerful states that don’t appear in the world news headlines often. An example is Croatia, which “arrived for their maiden shot at the FIFA World Cup in 1998 as virtual unknowns” (FIFA, 2014c), just seven years after its declaration of independence, and registered its international presence through securing the third place in the tournament. A small, post-war country from the Balkans therefore became a world football-superpower in the eyes of the international public. Emerging and small states are much more excited when they make the international news and often cite the international media in their own national or local news report – being mentioned in internationally renowned media becomes news in itself. Slavica Pecikoza, the spokesperson at the NFSBiH, confirmed an increasing interest of international media in the Bosnian national team: “For the preparations of our team in Sarajevo between 15 and 27 May, 92 journalists, cameramen and photo-reporters from all around the world have been accredited. We don’t even count anymore, how many there are. We have a lot of work, but we are all proud that BiH is in the media centre of the world attention, and this time for beautiful things” (Al Jazeera Balkans, 2014). Being in the centre of the global attention therefore represents a source of national pride and self-confidence, which Bosnians lack otherwise.

While foreign media keeps portraying Bosnia’s participation at the World Cup as a source of the national unification, the analysis of national and local media shows a bit contrasting and more complex results. While international media claimed that the massive celebrations across BiH on 15 October, when BiH defeated Lithuania and qualified for the World Cup in Brazil, were attended by all three ethnic groups, some of the comments on local news websites negated such perception. Bosnian Serb official television RTRS did not even broadcast the match between BiH and Lithuania, choosing to show Serbia’s qualifier with Macedonia instead (SuperSport 2013). “In Republika Srpska, the victory was accompanied with a mood that was ‘colder than cold’” (Slanjakić 2013). I have done some media analysis to understand a) how media maintains or tries to change inter-ethnic relations; b) to see the readers’ comments and try to get some basic insight into how ‘normal’ people from different ethnic backgrounds see Bosnia’s participation at the World Cup. I will not share all of it here (I need to save it for my diss), but to sum up the findings I would say that there is still a lot of nationalism and inter-ethnic hatred. Bosniak Serbs’ and Bosniak Croats’ media has been reporting on the Bosnian team relatively neutrally, and not much differently from reporting on other teams. Reactions by the readers have been more diverse. Some Bosnian Serbs or Bosnian Croats claim their support for Serbian team (which is not at the World Cup so some of them feel they will have no team to support) or Croatian team. On the other hand, there are also many Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs congratulating BiH and even encouraging their friends to stop enhancing the old divisions. While the Bosnian team seems to be a great source of pride for Bosnians, the majority of Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats see Serbian and Croatian national teams as their primary teams and source for expression of their ethno-national identity.

Double role of the World Cup for BiH that might not last too long

Drawing from the theoretical approach to the World Cup and from the media analysis, it looks like that the World Cup has two main social meanings for BiH: potential to be a tool for national/inter-ethnic reconciliation and identity/nation building; and a source for increasing the presence of BiH in the international community.

Firstly, it would be naïve to say that the World Cup will bring a complete reconciliation. The analysis of domestic media has shown that some Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats are still very hostile towards the Bosnian national team. However, keeping in mind the state of Bosnian football some ten years ago, when football was completely divided along the ethno-national lines, multi-ethnic team and the fact that many Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats do support the ‘Dragons’ are a success in themselves. “More Serbs and Croats support our national team. /…/ Now it’s a natural thing that Serbs and Croats from Bosnia play for Bosnia. Things are better than they were before,” said NFSBiH’s spokesperson, Slavica Pecikoza (Beanland, 2013). The World Cup might therefore contribute to nation- and identity-building, since “it is much easier to imagine the nation and confirm national identity, when 11 players are representing the nation in a match against another nation” (Hobshawm, 1992, p.143). All three constituent nations are more likely to identify or at least support the national team since it includes players from all the ethnic backgrounds:

“The fact is that on the football pitch a pass does not discriminate between a Muslim and an Orthodox Christian. Miralem Pjanic (an ethnic Bosniak) will not refuse a pass from Miroslav Stevanovic (an ethnic Serb) because of events that took place while they were children and were far beyond their control. It is the trust that the goalkeeper Asmir Begovic (an ethnic Bosniak raised in Canada) has in defenders Emir Spahic (an ethnic Bosniak born in Croatia), Boris Pandza (an ethnic Croat) /…/” (Dedović 2013).

In terms of identity/nation building in BiH, it is important to understand Smith’s (1998) argument that nations are founded on ethnic communities of groups. Ethnic symbols provide a source which distinguishes ‘us’ from ‘them’ – and this symbols are still very persistent in BiH. Thus certain states, such as BiH, must draw on a diverse selection of cultural resources to construct cultural common denominators – such cultural elements must be credible and speak to common sense (Edensor, 2002). Edensor furthermore adopts Billig’s (1995) concept of banal nationalism, which claims that national identity is grounded in the everyday, mundane details of social interaction, habits and practical knowledge. Football as a favourite sport of the three ethnic groups, and the World Cup as ‘opium of the masses’ can therefore serve as common cultural denominators. However, national identity is facilitated also by the state’s legislative framework, which delimits and regulates the practices in which people can partake (Edensor, 2002) – as a consequence of the Dayton model, the legislative, political and educational framework in BiH unfortunately presents an obstacle rather the facilitator for reconciliation and identity building. In BiH, structural and institutional divisions are too strong to be simply overshadowed by football.

Secondly, the media coverage of the World Cup and pre-World Cup events already seems to be contributing to the increased presence of BiH in international news – and this time not because of the war, but because of their success. While this is important for Bosnia’s image abroad and for its repositioning in the international community, it is relatively different from the reality. It could be argued that the global media is portraying the unifying power of the World Cup in order to legitimise the World Cup by presenting it as a source of the good (especially when the World Cup in Brazil is at the same time target of many critics and is gradually losing its legitimacy in the eyes of global public) – stories about poor Bosnia that has risen to be a world footballing power that will bring together the divided population make much better headlines than protests in Brazil. Regardless of such concerns and of the fact that the World Cup doesn’t offer a solution to all national problems, such reporting provides an opportunity for the collective expression of pride and harmony rather than difference and might facilitate reconciliation (Van Koningsbruggen, 1997).

Bosnia soccer national team fans celebrate their 2014 World Cup qualifying match victory over Lithuania, in Sarajevo

Similarly as in the case of South Africa, where it wasn’t clear whether the 1995 Rugby World Cup would be transformative or would only create a temporary diversion from domestic problems (Nauright, 2010), it is questionable what the long-term effect of the World Cup will be for BiH. BiH has been currently experiencing the most terrible floods in its history and although it is sad, the tragedy has brought the people together – both ordinary people, who help each other regardless of their ethnicity or religion, and athletes from Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia (Džeko, Đoković, even Ibrahimović from Sweden) and all Bosnian football clubs, which is quite a precedent in Bosnian history. Džeko wrote on his Facebook profile:

“I have mixed feelings because I believed that our participation at the World Cup would unite us, but unfortunately, we have been united by the tragedy. Hundreds of people are helping – humanitarian organisations, sports organisations, companies, individuals, and this only shows that we always have to stick together, not just in a disaster, but also in happiness and joy”.


The World Cup has a potential to bring the people together even further and accelerate “bridge-building that still eludes peace-makers and politicians” (Kinder 2013, 154). On the other hand, the potential effect of the World Cup on unity and reconciliation will probably be severely undermined by the national election in October, which will reproduce old nationalistic discourses. As well, the World Cup lasts only for a month while other factors of inter-ethnic relations (such as divided school system, nationalistic media, Dayton political system etc) will continue to exist. I cannot make any firm conclusions since the World Cup is yet to happen. The World Cup (as the opium of the masses) has the potential to temporarily heal some of the old wounds, bring the people together and present BiH in a positive way. However, it shouldn’t be an illusion about unified Bosnian society – the reality is still far from reconciled Bosnia.


[1] Its official name includes both Croat and Serb words for football (nogomet and fudbal) in order to avoid disputes.

[2]Četniks were the Serbian royalist paramilitary combatants during the World War II and the ustaši belonged to Croatian fascist anti-Yugoslav movement. Both names  are used as derogatory terms. The word balija used to describe descendants of Turks of Ottoman Empire in the Balkans and has become an insult for Bosniaks, used by Croats or Serbs (Sterchele, 2010).

[3] FIFA. 2013. FIFA Statues, July 2013 Edition. Chapter II, Section 10: Admission, Paragraph 1, p.19.

[4]Although the football association of Republika Srpska wanted to play international matches, it was never recognised by FIFA and therefore the football team of Republika Srpska cannot represent Republika Srpska internationally.



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The World Cup advertising and the problem of sex tourism in Brazil

Adidas, which has been the official sponsor of FIFA and the World Cup since 1970 and extended the sponsorship contract with FIFA until 2030, released the 2014 World Cup T-shirts in February. They triggered a lot of controversy and consequently Adidas had to pull them out. The reason for outrage was the sexualised representation of Brazilian women and due to the problematic scale of sexual tourism in Brazil (both as a foreign perception/representation and as reality) the Brazilian tourist board Embratur demanded their withdrawal.



One T-shirt presents a sexy woman in bikini with open arms, which leaves an impression that she is inviting men to come to Brazil (or to her), and the words ‘Lookin’ to score Brazil’ might imply a different way of scoring than just scoring a goal. The heart on the other T-shirt (I love Brazil) strongly resembles the upside-down buttocks of a woman.

I suggest you to read the blog by Nicole Froio on the Guardian about hypersexualisation and stereotyping of Brazilian women here.

The Brazilian authorities complained against sexual presentation of Brazil and Brazilian women. They are strongly tackling the problem of associating World Cup in particular and Brazil in general to sex tourism. Embratur President Flavio Dino said in a letter sent to Adidas: “The Brazilian people and especially the Brazilian women deserve that respect. Companies should never treat the bodies of Brazilian men and women as tourist attractions.” Embratur is trying hard to prevent the sale of products that link Brazil’s image to sexual appeal, since they want to re-image Brazil in the eyes of the foreigners. For example, in 2012 the Ministry of Tourism asked 2,100 websites linking prostitution and pornography to Brazil to remove official travel branding. One reason for governmental intense campaigning to shed the countr’y reputation as a destination for sex tourism is the general goal of establishing a positive image about the country, which the World Cup, because of its global appeal and media coverage can help develop (not with such T-shirts of course). Secondly, the reason for a very strong reaction by the Brazilian government is the actual problem of sex tourism in Brazil. The Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, responded to the incident on Twitter, although not directly referring to Adidas. She wrote that Brazil is happy to receive tourists at the World Cup, but that it’s at the same time ready to combat the sexual tourism:


Prostitution in Brazil is legal, and due to poverty and inequalities a growing number of children are involved in it. Global sexualised representations of hot Brazilian women, very likely topless and in hot pants or thongs, are just adding to the problem. The World Cup can play a two-fold role: it can, through government’s and NGOs’ campaigns, increase the awareness about the problem (I think there will be even videos played about the problem of sex tourism on flights from Europe to Brazil during the World Cup); it can, on the other hand, increase the problem itself since there will be higher demand due to a big number of tourists, as well as higher supply since the women and girls will probably see the World Cup as an opportunity to increase their earnings. Solution? Campaigns – definitely. Tourists’ responsible and mature behaviour – absolutely (though not really likely I guess, I still remember how some of men from our group behaved in South Africa, for example one of them paid a hot dog and a can of coke to a woman to get her into the bed). Advertising like these two Adidas’ T-shirts – absolutely not. However, the problem is much more structural and the government and other actors have quite some work to do to eliminate or at least decrease the problem. It will be interesting to observe what role the World Cup will play in such endeavours.

The only surprising thing about the revelations about FIFA’s corrupted officials is that they contain no surprises

When Wikileaks released the confidential and classified documents and US State Department diplomatic cables, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek commented: “The only surprising thing about the WikiLeaks revelations is that they contain no surprises. Didn’t we learn exactly what we expected to learn? The real disturbance was at the level of appearances: we can no longer pretend we don’t know what everyone knows we know.”

The statement is applicable to the recent reporting by the Daily Telegraph about a Qatari company’s bribes to Jack Warner, former FIFA Vice President, linked to the Quatari successfull bid for the 2022 World Cup. The documents obtained by the Daily Telegraph revealed that he was paid $1.2 million for work carried out between 2005 and 2010 from the Qatari company Kemco shortly after the decision to award the country the tournament had been made. Additionally, his sons were paid almost $750,000 and one of his employees received a payment of $400,000. It doesn’t come as a surprise that the Qatari company that made the payment is owned by Mohamed Bin Hammam, former FIFA executive committee member and presidential candidate, who was in July 2011 banned for life from FIFA and all football-related activity after being found guilty of bribery by FIFA’s ethics committee. He filed a complaint to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which aanuled the ban because a FIFA probe led by former FBI director Louis Freeh’s agency failed to find conclusive evidence.


FIFA has quite a history of bribes and corruption and although I don’t want to sound too populistic, it’s kind of expectable that Qatar could not have won the right to host the 2022 World Cup without any secret deals behind the closed doors. The documents revealing the facts therefore don’t really come as a surprise, or using Žižek’s words: “The only surprising thing about the revelations about FIFA’s corrupted officials is that they contain no surprises“. So what we are seeing in the news at the moment is not a changing explosion of transparency. As J.P.E. Harper-Scott said: “In structural terms, nothing has changed in our public life. We always knew about the venality of people at the top, and of the vacuousness of government interactions, and so on, and the airing of what we already know – through Wikileaks, on ‘Panorama’ (or any other investigative sources) – doesn’t make the slightest difference.” However, such thoughts are not to diminish the importance of documents revealing corruption and dirty games. Without them, public opinions and assumptions remain exactly that – opinions and assumptions. It comes as an irony, but didn’t the CAS dismiss FIFA’s ban to Mohamed Bin Hammam due to lack of evidence? Investigative journalism (an example is Andrew Jennings, who fights for transparency in sport, see his web page and his documentary) is therefore of great significance – it provides a platform for public discussions and it’s the first step to tackle corruption. And as Žižek said: “We can no longer pretend we don’t know what everyone knows we know.


This sentence is valid both for the global public and for FIFA. FIFA can’t pretend anymore that allegations about the corruption surrounding Qatar’s bid are just empty words. That’s why FIFA has had an independent investigation conducted into previous allegations of impropriety around the bid – the report by the FIFA’s independent ethics prosecutor, Michael Garcia, a former US attorney, is expected later this year. Just when the new corruption affairs were occupying the public and media debates, Garcia showed up in Zurich on Wednesday, 19 March, to interview all current members of executive committee who were involved in the 2018 and 2022 World Cup vote. However, current members are not enough – more than half of the 22 men who voted to award the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 World Cup to Qatar are no longer members of the executive committee. Several have been implicated in corruption allegations. Garcia’s interviews are not thought to be connected with the report about payments from Bin Hammam’s company to Warner and his family, though. But still: how independent can a man, set up and paid by FIFA, be in investigting the very same organisation? Some of the tweets show public dissatisfaction with such principles:

corruption scandal

In response to recent allegations, FIFA only released a brief statement. It read: “Fifa has no comment to make on this matter. In principle, any evidence of potential wrongdoing can be submitted to the investigatory chamber of the independent ethics committee of Fifa for further investigation.”  This scandal is already being investigated by the FBI, who even recruited Warner’s son Daryan as a co-operating witness. We’ll see what the findings will show – both FBI’s and Garcia’s. But regardless of their content – will they change anything? Some of the executive committee members might step down, who knows what will happen with Bin Hammam and Warner, FIFA as an organisation will probably distance itself from the scandals and Blatter will play the poor guy whose trust was betrayed and who was the one who ordered investigation (primarily to improve his image and secure him the votes in the presidential elections?). But the structures of voting will remain the same; strive for profits rather than for the principles of justice will go on, and even though FIFA’s image might sink (or it’s already sinking), what will we do? Complain about FIFA’s undemocratic governance, autocratic rule, non-transparency and controversial decisions prior to the World Cups, yet we’ll rush to the FIFA’s website to secure the tickets, go to the matches or watch them on TV and for a month be drugged by the “spirit of the World Cup”? Aren’t we, the global football fans, also partly legitimising FIFA’s activities? I admit – I am really looking forward to all the future World Cups. Of course, this is not an excuse for FIFA to be so ignorant and unaccountable. But the so much needed reforms are obviously not taking place. If this was the case with the governments, protests and even revolutions would take place – take recent revolution in Ukraine or a bit older one in Iceland for example. Of course, distinction between the public and the private (non-governmental) does play the role – but on the other hand, isn’t football something that is in public interest? How to force FIFA into reforms? What’s the role of the Swiss court? And what is our role? I don’t have questions to that. I might be naive, but I just want the beautiful game back.


And the award for the best Slovenian ambassador goes to… Slovenian athletes!

The majority of Slovenians who either travel or live abroad, have encountered the following situation: “Where did you say you come from? Slovenia? Oh, Handanović! And Dragić, great NBA player! And that skier, Tina, right? She rocks man!”

Very little conversations with the foreigners omit the sports topics – not just because sport is something universal with a global appeal, but especially because sport is an area Slovenians can be really proud of. The recent success at the Sochi Olympics certainly proves so.


After Slovenia had won its fourth medal at the Sochi Olympics, one of my professors started his lecture by saying: “Slovenia is doing a fantastic work at the Olympics!” There was a big number of articles in the foreign media about a big success of a small country. The social media were flooded by Brian Quinn’s article “And the Winner of the Sochi Olympic Games is…Slovenia?”. It is our national characteristic that we get extremely excited when mentioned in the foreign media, but at least such articles shed much better light on “a small country with a big heart” than the news about the corrupt politicians and bad economic and financial situation. Such compliments should not serve as the opium for the masses – we still have to get back to reality and think about how to improve political and economic situation in the country. However, the above-mentioned examples teach us one thing: sport is a great tool for diplomacy.

While traditional diplomacy is conducted mainly by the state actors, sports diplomacy as a form of public diplomacy extends well beyond such an understanding and includes a variety of state and non-state actors. Sports diplomacy can be used to improve and refine the image of a country, to boost peace and promote friendly relations among nations, to promote trade and tourism, to encourage international development and to integrate minorities. Of course, sport can play a negative role in international relations as well, such as to encourage nationalism, racism, conflicts and even accelerate a conflict into war – the most famous example is so called Soccer War between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969. However, I want to focus on the positive aspects of sport which can contribute to a state’s soft power and therefore to its diplomatic efforts.

There are many ways of conducting so-called sports diplomacy. The most obvious one is participation of athletes at the international sports events and consequent ‘swaggering’ on the basis of their victories. A tool of sports diplomacy that is probably the most effective in enabling a state to achieve its foreign policy goals is hosting sports mega events. The master in such an example of sports diplomacy is South Africa, which has hosted 20 international sports events since 1994. More recently we can also see Russia’s efforts to be the host of globally popular sports events, such as the Olympics, Formula 1 race, and the FIFA World Cup. Hosting mega-events can significantly reposition a country in the international community and change the perceptions about it abroad. However, at the same time it can also bring a number of other important issues in that country to the surface and onto the global stage (in front of TV screens and people’s daily conversations) – i.e. environmental impacts of hosting such mega-events or workers’ rights. Moreover, all the international sports events present not only a chance for the athletes and fans from different countries to come together, but also a platform for “high politics” – relaxing atmosphere, sport spirit and informal environment offer a great setting for diplomatic meetings.

Former Slovenian and Russian presidents Dr Danilo Türk and DImitrij Medvedjev met at the play off match between Slovenia and Russia

Former Slovenian and Russian presidents Dr Danilo Türk and DImitrij Medvedjev met at the play off match between Slovenia and Russia

Slovenia is active more or less in all the above-mentioned diplomatic efforts connected to sport. Our Olympians did an amazing job at the Sochi Olympics – their good performances carried the name of Slovenia around the world and brought it into international public discourse. Although we like to say we are a skiing nation, we can brag about our successes in non-winter sports as well – just remember the participation at the 2002 and 2010 FIFA World Cups, successes at the European basketball championships (4. place in 2009, 5. place in 2013 etc.), 2. place at the 2004 European and 4. place at the 2013 World Handball Championships etc. At the majority of the tournaments or international matches, the athletes and teams are supported by our politicians. I will never forget how the former president Dr Danilo Türk cheered “Champions, champions!” after defeating Russia in a World Cup qualifying play-off match in Maribor in November 2009; or how enthusiastically the president Mr Borut Pahor waved the Slovenian flag at the Eurobasket last year. Such acts not only show state’s support to athletes, but also send an important message and picture abroad: politicians are “cool”, sport is important to the country, and probably most importantly – Slovenia is united and therefore strong.

Lastly, Slovenia successfully hosted Eurobasket 2013 which contributed to its international visibility. The tournament was advertised by some of the Slovenian embassies, by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and at the Bled Strategic Forum, the highest diplomatic and business conference in Slovenia. Unfortunately, the financial and infrastructural aspects often prevail in decisions about hosting the events – an example is the 2013 Universiade, which was supposed to take place in Slovenia, but was cancelled after the Slovenian government said that there were not enough budgetary resources to hold the event. I am not proposing that Slovenia should be hosting such large-scale events in the times when people, especially the youth, are facing high unemployment rates and when there is not enough money for social services; however, regarding the long-term plans, our government(s) should keep in mind that hosting sports events brings investments, creates temporary jobs and markets the country to the world.

In the times when we are still a bit confused about our role in international relations and the ways to market our beautiful country and attract tourists, our athletes are playing a key role in representational activities of the country. I am aware that my passion for sport makes me somewhat biased, but I think they deserve to be called the best Slovenian ambassadors. However, it has to be noted that the current Slovenian sports diplomacy is spontaneous rather than explicitly planned. Slovenia is still waiting for the new foreign policy strategy to be made/adopted ‒ the old one dates back to 1999 and its goals (mainly the membership in the EU and NATO) were already achieved. Allegedly, the new one will focus on economic diplomacy. Both economic diplomacy and broader foreign policy goals can be facilitated by sports diplomacy. This is not to say that sport should be a priority in our foreign policy; however, it can serve as a good supporting tool that can bring investments in the country, present a nice picture of Slovenia, increase international awareness and knowledge about our small country, help with promoting the national brand “I Feel Slovenia” and offer politicians and diplomats a neutral environment to discuss serious issues.

i feel slovenia

I do not think sport will be specifically referred to in the new foreign policy strategy; however, I strongly suggest the government to consider the role of sports diplomacy, possibly link it to general foreign policy goals and priorities and possibly even propose a separate strategy or a working paper for it. After all, we have great conditions and capabilities for it. In order to have effective and internationally recognised sports diplomacy, more cooperation between different ministries (especially the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Education, Science and Sport), embassies, all the sports associations, the Olympic Committee of Slovenia and various sports clubs is needed. Furthermore, Slovenian athletes will need uniform sportswear in terms of the same colours being used consistently. This in my opinion would serve not only to strengthen the team spirit between different sports, but also provide a greater global recognition – for the country and a particular sport. For example, Croatia and their red and white checkered squares on all of their national sportswear are recognised all over the world. Currently there are two main options in Slovenia – white, blue and red, and white, blue and green. The problem with the first option, although it is consistent with our flag, is the fact that we are not the only country with such a combination of colours. No wonder we get to be mistaken for Slovakia from time to time. The second option, white, blue and green, proved to be quite visible and recognisable in Sochi. Slovenian athletes were quite standing out with these colours. I am not saying this is the best option, but it would certainly be beneficial for our marketing, nation branding and visibility to have uniform clothes at all international sports competitions.

Our international sports achievements are definitely to be celebrated and praised. For us, the fans, it is still primarily about the good results and national pride. We have to be aware that the role of sport in our country can be extended to international level and assist in diplomatic and nation-branding efforts. Ambush marketing of competitive brands at the Olympics and the World Cups is strongly prohibited, but there are no specific rules for (ambush) marketing of the countries, right?

slo team


You can also find this article here:

The turbolent politics of Egyptian football

On Academia I’ve come across a very interesting blog, called The Turbolent World of Middle East Soccer, edited by James M. Dorsey. It covers political and social issues surrounding football (soccer) in the Middle East. “This blog explores the role of soccer at a time of transition from autocratic rule to a more open society.” The main emphasis is therefore on the political struggles in the times of the Arab Spring. As the author describes it: “Soccer in the Middle East and North Africa is played as much on as off the pitch. Stadiums are a symbol of the battle for political freedom; economic opportunity; ethnic, religious and national identity; and gender rights. Alongside the mosque, the stadium was until the Arab revolt erupted in late 2010 the only alternative public space for venting pent-up anger and frustration. It was the training ground in countries like Egypt and Tunisia where militant fans prepared for a day in which their organization and street battle experience would serve them in the showdown with autocratic rulers. Soccer has its own unique thrill – a high-stakes game of cat and mouse between militants and security forces and a struggle for a trophy grander than the FIFA World Cup: the future of a region.

The latest article is exploring the state of football in politically turbolent Egypt, where football on one hand represents a platform for protests, and on the other hand, it serves as an ‘opium of the masses’ to keep their attention diverted from the ‘more serious issues’, such as politics. The following text is a copy-paste of the article Egyptian autocrats stuggle with soccer’s political pros and cons. You can find the original piece of work here.


By James M. Dorsey
An Egyptian government initiative to build more than a thousand new soccer pitches to “keep youth off the streets” against the backdrop of a rising number of clashes between fans and security forces and a likely extension and expansion of the ban on spectators attending matches highlights the opportunities and threats the beautiful game poses for Middle Eastern and North African autocratic rulers.
A youth ministry official told, a news website operated by the US military’s Central Command, that the government was investing $93 million in 1,100 pitches across soccer-crazy Egypt that would be built by the end of this year. An Egyptian Football Association official told the website that the pitches would help produce a new generation of professional soccer players.
The decision to build the pitches came as 25 policemen were injured in clashes with militant soccer fans, a court sentenced 15 other fans to two years in prison for demonstrating without a license in an earlier incident, another court acquitted six security officials on charges of responsibility for the death of 83 protesters during the 2011 popular revolt that toppled president Hosni Mubarak in which fans played a prominent role, and world soccer body FIFA censored the government for interference in the affairs of one of the country’s soccer clubs.
The incidents reflect the dilemma that soccer creates for Middle Eastern and North African autocrats. The pitch offers itself in autocratic countries alongside the mosque as the foremost contested public space that autocrats cannot fully control and are unable to simply shut down. At the same, time it also creates opportunities for them, including the ability to polish their image through association with the region’s most popular form of entertainment, the possibility to distract public attention away from widespread grievances, and at times the chance to manipulate public emotion in their favour.
As a result, the Egyptian government’s effort to promote soccer and use the sport to garner public support amounts to a double-edged sword in an environment in which the return to repressive autocracy following last July’s military coup that toppled Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president, is undermining the post-Morsi military backed regime’s legitimacy.
Egyptian strongman General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is widely expected to stand for election in forthcoming presidential elections slated for April which he would likely win with a landslide. General Al-Sisi has emerged as a cult figure since he toppled Mr. Morsi whose Muslim Brotherhood succeeded in barely a year in office to become the country’s most reviled political grouping. The military-backed government resigned on Monday in a move that some analysts speculated was designed to pave the way for the presidential candidacy of General Al-Sisi who doubled as defence minister in the outgoing cabinet.
With the military’s banning of the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, repressive restrictions on the right to demonstrate and freedom of expression, the killing of some 2,665 protesters since the overthrow of Mr. Morsi and the arrest of thousands more according to human rights activists, the expansion of the crackdown to include not only Islamists but youth who were in the vanguard of the rebellion against Mr. Mubarak, and the emergence of an armed Islamist insurgency, soccer has re-emerged together with universities as  a protest platform.
Like in the days of Mr. Mubarak, soccer evokes deep-seated passions among a majority of Egyptian and gives disaffected youth an opportunity to confront police and security forces, together with the Brotherhood the country’s most despised institutions. Years of confrontation with security forces in stadia and popular neighbourhoods has instilled among militant soccer fans a sense of intolerance towards what they perceive as abuse and mistreatment.
That sentiment is compounded by a widespread belief among the fans who constitute one of the country’s largest civic groups that they have been deprived of the opportunity to realize the goals of the 2011 popular revolt that included a quest for dignity, social justice, greater freedom and an end to corruption.
Fear of the militant soccer fans or ultras has prompted the interior ministry to suspend soccer matches for much of the past three years. Moreover, fans have been banned from attending domestic league matches since the suspension was lifted late last year. Egypt’s worst sporting incident occurred early last year during a brief period in which soccer matches were allowed in the presence of supporters. 74 people, mostly fans of storied Cairo club Al Ahli SC, were killed in a politically loaded brawl in the Suez Canal city of Port Said.
The ministry this month delayed a decision to lift the spectator ban and is considering expanding it to international matches following clashes last week between security forces and Al Ahli ultras. 27 fans and 25 policemen were injured at the end of a Confederation of African Football (CAF) CAF Super Cup match between Al Ahli and Tunisia’s CS Sfaxien. The clashes were sparked by the fans’ chanting of slogans against the police and the interior ministry. An unverified video posted on YouTube showed fans beating an officer with a stick.
The ban on spectators is proving in and of itself to be a lightning rod that is compounded by the re-emergence of police and security forces as an unaccountable a law unto themselves. Al Ahli’s Cairo arch rival Al Zamalek SC was fined last month after the club’s militant fans stormed the stadium during a closed door domestic match. “This is a state of injustice and aggression… Those who confront tyranny are captured and killed,” the Ultras White Knights (UWK), the militant Zamalek support group, said after two of its members were sentenced to two years in prison for wearing a scarf with the words ‘permanent revolution.’
Anger is further fuelled by the refusal of successive post-Mubarak governments to hold security forces accountable for the deaths of more than 1,000 anti-government protesters prior to Mr. Morsi’s downfall as well as the return and rehabilitation of Mubarak era businessmen who were either suspected or indicted on charges of corruption. This month’s acquittal of the police officers was the latest in a string of trials that rights group say failed to hold the country’s security forces accountable for demonstrators’ deaths.
Said a militant soccer fan in a tone of disgust; “This is Sisi’s Egypt: protesters go to jail and the police can do whatever they want. This is what shaped us under Mubarak. This is what is shaping us now.’

New protests against the World Cup in Brazil

The first anti-World Cup protest in Brazil this year was attended by around 2000 protesters in Brazil’s largest city, Sao Paolo, as well as in 6 other cities. There is outrage that Brazil is spending more than $20bn for this summer’s World Cup, but not investing in public services and taking care of their own people. Demonstrators gathered in front of the Sao Paulo Art Museum and then headed out to another part of the city chanting slogans against the tournament:

If we have no rights, there will be no Cup.”

As the AP reports: “By rights we mean the people’s right to decent public services,” said university student Leonardo Pelegrini dos Santos. “We are against the millions and millions of dollars being spent for the Cup. It is money that should be invested in better health and education services and better transportation and housing.”

Demonstrators hold a banner that reads "There will be no World Cup" during a protest against the 2014 World Cup in Sao Paulo

Student Juliana Turno said “This is a small sample of the protests that will happen when the World Cup begins.”

See the video on Al Jazeera.

protest jan 14



Waving flags, carrying banners and chanting different slogans against the FIFA World Cup, the demonstrators took to the streets.  The Anonymous Rio protest group reffered to the protest as the first act in its “Operation Stop the World Cup” campaign. The event started peacefully but police later clashed with some protesters. Some “Black Block” anarchist demonstrators attacked an empty police car and tried to overturn it, while others torched a small car and smashed the windows of banks. Police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets, dispersing the crowd. More than 100 demonstrators were detained.

In Rio de Janeiro, about 50 protesters gathered in front of the Copacabana Palace hotel, holding signs blasting the World Cup. After about an hour, the crowd moved onto a main street that runs along Copacabana beach, halting traffic as police watched from the side.

Another activist group sat on lavatories on Ipanema beach in the city to protest against what they say is a lack of basic sanitation in the city. Activist group My Rio said the aim of the protest was to raise awareness of the thousands of litres of untreated sewage they say is pumped into the sea off the city every day. Some 70% of Rio’s sewage is untreated and flows into the sea off Copacabana, Ipanema and the Guanabara Bay. These beaches are due to host several of Rio’s events at the 2016 Olympics and Paralympics.

“To me it is unbelievable that there’s not basic sanitation in a city like Rio.”


cegrab-20140126-021242-319-1-252x337The protests are obviously signalling public dissatisfaction with hosting the World Cup and the Olympics since at same time the state lacks basic public and social services. There is always a question of legacy of the sports mega events (SMEs). There is a big trend in developing countries to host SMEs as a tool of their sports diplomacy in order to pursue some of their (foreign policy) goals, such as showcasing themselves on the global scale, nation branding, repositioning, attracting foreign investments, increasing tourism etc. As the host of both the next football World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016, Brazil has an opportunity to show the world the vitality of its emerging power. However, Brazil’s soft power and its recent public diplomacy efforts to attract visitors to the World Cup and to convince them about Brazil’s exotic and passionate culture are seriously endangered by the protests. A successful national brand cannot be established if there is a big discrepancy between domestic and foreign policy. While the World Cup will definitely bring some benefits, only a small percantage of the population will benefit. Brazil should therefore seriously rethink its spending. The role of the state is to take care of their citizens, provide them with basic services and put their demands before the demands and expectations of FIFA, IOC, corporate sponsors and as well – us, the international (sports) public who is looking forward to the spectacle without questioning its legitimacy. It’s probably too late to prevent the World Cup from happening, but it’s not too late for structural reforms and tackling inequality. If there’s money for the stadiums, there should be money for hospitals and schools as well.




5th of December was a very sad day for South Africa, Africa, and the whole world. At the age of 95, Nelson Mandela, the first South African black president and in my opinion the greatest man in the modern history, passed away. Reactions of people worldwide prove that the man was the most popular leader in the recent history – and there are many reasons why. His promotion of equality and human rights, determined fight for freedom, strive for national reconciliation over retaliation and love over hatred, together with his positive attitude, simplicity and warm smile could not leave one untouched.


As always, quite some critics have emerged, criticising his unfinished achievements and canonisation of his persona, to whom I say: yes, South Africa is still facing a lot of problems, but without him, it would be much worse off. Without him, the apartheid wouldn’t have ended peacefully, but very likely with a civil war. Without him, the dominant emotion would probably be hatred between the black and white communities. Without him, the ANC would have very likely taken a different approach – that of revenge against the white minority who used to suppress the ‘Coloured’. He was a very powerful man, but he wasn’t almighty – it’s inappropriate to diminish his achievements by saying he didn’t solve all the South African problems. Although he is presented as a saint, it is important that his ideas are discussed, especially by the youth. It’s important that we all learn from him. It’s important that his legacy lives on. It’s important that his story is so highlighted – in the world of many conflicts, tensions and discrimination, we need to hear a positive example of how fight can bring positive changes, of how the eternal belief in people is a basis for good relations and of how the ‘enemy’ can be beaten peacefully and without revenge. So his story is not so much about what he achieved, but how he achieved it. There are a lot of books and articles written about that (a must read: Long Walk to Freedom), but I want to focus on one specific way he used to bring people together: sport.

“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.”

Mandela, himself a boxer, recognised the power of sport and its widespread popularity. In order to lead the people, one must understand what kind of meanings people ascribe to the simplest things in their lives – and Madiba was a master of that. He used and promoted sport to fight for freedom both when he was still in prison, as well as later when he was the president. During his time in prison, there were two main processes signalling the way sport can be used to beat the regime. Firstly, Mandela strongly supported international boycotts of South African teams at the international sports events. South Africa was namely banned from the Olympics from 1964 (in 1970, it was formally expelled from the IOC) to 1992, expelled from FIFA in 1963, which was followed by other international sports federations (tennis, rugby, golf etc.). Such boycotts put a lot of pressure on the South African regime, since sport had always been widely popular there. Mandela was also inspired by the activism of Muhammad Ali and the Human Rights Salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Secondly, he strongly supported a football league Makana which was established by the prisoners on Robben Island. The political prisoners on Robben Island, South African Alcatraz, organised semi-professional football league despite the initial opposition by the wardens. The Makana Football Association used football as a symbol of dignity, respect and freedom on the unfree island. Football became the driving force in motivating the prisoners for the fight for freedom.

»We needed football. Without it there would have been so much depression. It made you feel free in an unfree status.« Terror Lekota, prisoner no. 14/76 (for more on the story of football on Robben Island, I strongly suggest reading More than just a game – Football vs Apartheid by Chuck Korr and Marvin Close – it’s one of my favourite books). Mandela, as one of the most ‘dangerous’ prisoners, wasn’t allowed to play in the league. However, he was aware of the league, was following the results and developments and understood what the game meant to the prisoners.

Immediately when he became the president, he started using and promoting sports for two main reasons: to achieve national reconciliation and to increase international reputation of South Africa. It has to be noted that quite some Whites were afraid that the Black majority would take over the country and revenge after the fall of apartheid. Mandela wasn’t really the favourite person for some white South Africans, who feared they would lose their jobs, status and power. However, Mandela was smart enough to know that political stability and nation building cannot be achieved by retaliation, but by reconciliation and equality of all the communities. He tried to show his determination to equally treat all the communities inter alia by promoting favourite sports of all the communities. Immediately after his inauguration in 1994, he attended a match in Johannesburg where South Africa beat Zambia, instead of engaging in political and diplomatic events following his inauguration. The victory of South Africa signalled return of South Africa and its renewed international presence. Mandela attended the match to honour the power that football played in the fight against apartheid. “I wanted to make sure our people know how much I appreciated the sacrifices made by our athletes during the many years of the boycott. I have no doubt I became president today sooner than I would have had they not made those sacrifices.” And since football has traditionally been the favourite sport of the black community in South Africa, his presence at the football match instead of attending the political ceremonies sent a strong message: that he will engage in everyday issues of high importance for the people, especially sport.

In a similar manner, he attended the Rugby World Cup held in South Africa in 1995. Rugby has been traditionally the sport of the white minority but Mandela supported it just equally as football. Sport was probably the best tool to connect him with people he would have otherwise hardly reached. He strongly encouraged the Springboks, the South African national rugby team, to train hard in order to win the 1995 World Cup, something which was hardly to believe in. Although firstly rejected by the white rugby audience, by his supportive and positive attitude he became a champion of the rugby fans. By wearing the Springboks’ jersey at the final ceremony of the World Cup, where he had the honour of celebrating the South African players on winning the World Cup, his message became very clear: there are no Blacks or Whites, there are just the people who breathe for the same team. His promotion of the Whites’ sport proved that there is no place for racial divisions in sports. He transformed a sport used to divide the people into a sport unifying and bringing them together. The movie Invictus is very illustrative of how Mandela used sport to end hatred and promote friendly relations between the divided communities.

Secondly, Mandela was a strong advocate of sports diplomacy. Not only he appeared on the main sports international events abroad; most of all, he wanted to bring sports mega event to South Africa. He understood that sports have a wide global popular appeal that attracts the publics as well as the commercial sector. Through hosting sports events, he wanted to raise South African reputation and transform the perception of South Africa as an apartheid state to the rainbow nation, as well as to invite multinational corporations and financial institutions to invest in the poor country. Since 1995, South Africa has hosted 20 big international sport events. Not all of them were of course completely Mandela’s credit; however, he played a big role in bringing international sports back to South Africa, the country once excluded from the international sports community. Although South Africa hosted the FIFA World Cup only in 2010 (it was originally planned that South Africa would host it in 2006, but as a result of power games within FIFA the hosting of the event was postponed), Mandela was instrumental in bringing the World Cup to South Africa. He was a part of the South African delegation that went to make the final bids for the right to host the 2010 World Cup and his passionate speech was believed to be of crucial importance.

It is 28 years since FIFA took a stand against racially divided football and helped to inspire the final story against apartheid. While we were on Robben Island, the only access to the World Cup was on radio. Football was the only joy to prisoners,” he said.


Mandela celebrating on 15 May 20014 after South Africa was awarded the right to host the World Cup 2010

It was the World Cup 2010 where Madiba made his last public appearance. His death on 5 December was followed by a big number of condolences not only from politicians, but also from prominent sports figures. A tribute was paid also at the final draw for the World Cup in Brazil. Although sport is mainly about competition, Mandela proved that sport can also be about friendship, peace, reconciliation and bringing people together. Just like he had an eternal belief in people, he had an eternal belief in sport. He is an inspiration to all of us.

Mandela SA

Rest in peace, Madiba. 😦

Should FIFA be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize?

In 1956, Jules Rimet, 3rd FIFA president and the ‘father’ of the FIFA World Cup, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 1988, the president of the Swiss Football Association, Heinrich Röthlisberger, nominated João Havelange, FIFA’s 7th president, for the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 2001, the game of football (soccer) was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Swedish lawmaker Lars Gustafsson, who suggested that FIFA could accept the honour on behalf of the sport.

The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded on the annual basis since 1901, with some exceptions such as wartime. There have been quite some controversies about some of the awards, such as to Henry Kissinger in 1973 and recent awards to Barack Obama, the European Union and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Needless to say, the above mentioned nominations related to football were a bone of contention as well. They all share a common assumption: football has the power to connect nations and peoples and promote peace. While the first two nominations attributed that power to the agency of FIFA presidents, the third one recognised the binding potential within football as such. FIFA as its world governing body was perceived as the most appropriate entity to take the prize. Since what Gustafsson called “the sport that helps international relations” (ABC News 2001) refers more or less to institutionalised practice rather than to (innocent) game, I want to answer the following question: should FIFA be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize? In order to discuss the question I will firstly look at some of the principles, examples and controversies surrounding the Nobel Peace Prize. Then I will analyse the role of FIFA in taking forward the ‘peace potential’ of football. My approach to FIFA will therefore be holistic; I will deliberately avoid discussing whether the award should be given to its president (I guess the answer to that is quite clear).


Nobel-Peace-Prize-medal-002The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to 126 Nobel Laureates since 1901 ( 2013a). The candidates eligible for the Nobel Peace Prize are those persons or organisations nominated by individuals who fulfil certain criteria, listed here. The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded by a committee of five persons who are chosen by the Norwegian Storting (Parliament of Norway) for a mandate of six years, with possibility of re-election. According to Alfred Nobel’s Will, the prize should be given to those “who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” There are five Nobel prizes in the following fields: physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace. The peace prize should be awarded to “person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses” ( 2013b).

According to the original intentions of Alfred Nobel, there are three explicit reasons for awarding the Nobel Peace Prize, which not only reflect how Nobel perceived peace, but what meaning peace had in the broader society in the beginning of the 20th Century. As Bulloch (2008, 583) explains: “‘Fraternity between nations’ evokes an old-fashioned liberal institutionalism and endorses both the state and a system of norms by which to arbitrate disputes between states impartially. The ‘abolition or reduction of standing armies’ is nineteenth-century language for arms control measures, although Nobel must have considered the preponderance of British sea-power to be an essentially benign characteristic of a liberal world order; not a terribly surprising attitude for an enormously rich industrialist whose products were shipped all over the world. Lastly, ‘peace congresses’ in 1901 were not abstract academic conclaves at which the concept of peace was discussed, but instead were hard-edged bargains of interest calculation, the historical hinge points of European order, at which the great powers of Europe gathered together to divide and re-divide the spoils of their 400-year conspiracy of global domination.”

The negative definition of peace as the absence of war is not sufficient; however, there is no universally accepted ‘positive’ definition of peace. The reason for the non-existence of the definition might be the changing conceptions of the concept of peace, which are reflected also in awarding the Nobel Peace Prize, which “has always reflected something important about prevailing ideas concerning the concept of peace” (2008, 575). In the initial period after 1901, the Nobel Peace Prize inherited a set of broadly liberal ideas about peace between states. The prevailing conception of peace was therefore one of peace as order. Here are some of the examples of individuals and organisations awarded: The International Committee of the Red Cross, Thomas Woodrow Wilson, Frank Billings Kellogg, UNHCR etc. ( 2013c). In the general mood of the 1960s, the prize gradually adopted a clearer disposition towards the idea of peace as justice. The changed focus was made complete when the award to Kissinger in 1973 caused a wide public dissatisfaction and political embarrassment. Since then, the committee has slowly widened out the criteria to incorporate all forms of social and restorative justice, and has navigated the end of the Cold War to reflect a broadly cosmopolitan sensibility. As a consequence, awards have been made that introduce environmental degradation and a condition of poverty as legitimate causes of violence, issues which present more mundane aspects of the search for peace and stability (Bulloch 2008). The examples range from Martin Luther King, Amnesty International, Doctors without Borders, the UN, IAEA, to Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank, Al Gore and IPCC etc. ( 2013c). After the events of 9/11, the paradigm changed and the idea of peace as justice was partly replaced by the idea of peace as order. This doesn’t mean that ‘peace as justice’ is no longer important, but it has become to bear the assumption that security cooperation is a precondition for justice. “Therefore ‘peace as order’ can be subtly reimagined away from the absence of war between states, and towards ‘peace as human security’ (Bulloch 2008, 590).

It could be argued that some of the recent awards were awarded according to the perception of ‘peace as human security’: in 2008, to Martti Ahtisaari for his efforts to resolve international conflicts; in 2009, to Barack Obama, for his efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between people; in 2011, to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women’s rights to fully participate in peace-building work; in 2012, to the EU for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe; and in 2013 to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons ( 2013c). However, Milharčič (2013) argues that some of the recent awards were based only on the potential of individuals and/or organisations to bring peace and not on actual contribution to peace or security. He calls this ‘the award for a good intention’. According to him, the prize is given to people and organisations that actually haven’t done what they were awarded for. I agree on that point with him.  For example, the award given to Obama early on in his first term was based on the premise that he would pursue peace and end existing violent conflicts. His promises to close Guantanamo and withdraw the US troops from Afghanistan were soon forgotten. His failure to provide for a solution in the Middle East, especially in the conflict between Palestine and Israel, increasing number of drone attacks and consequently dead civilians kind of support the argument to revoke his prize (which is not possible). The EU was awarded the prize in the midst of cooperation in the intervention in Afghanistan, supporting the project of racial purity of the West Bank, huge protests in Greece because of the austerity measures imposed by the insensitive Troika, collapse of some of the European economies, and despite the failures in Srebrenica and inability to deal with the refuges in the Mediterranean (Milharčič 2013). It must be noted though that this is a very one-sided argumentation. The EU has put a lot of effort into conflict prevention in its neighbourhood and in other regions – successfully prevented conflict between Macedonia and Albania in 2001 is just one of the examples (although managed together with OSCE).  Furthermore, promoting democratic ideals and human rights, binding different European nations together etc. are long-term processes whose results are not directly visible. We can’t know what would happen on the European continent if the EU wasn’t there, but it’s definitely a question worth asking. The point I want to make is the following: some of the recent Nobel Peace Prizes have been awarded to institutions and people that did indeed strive for peace, but their success was two-fold. Furthermore, the awards were given in the times when some other controversies were surrounding the work of the Laureates (such as Guantanamo in the example of Obama; economic crisis in the case of the EU etc.). It is in the light of these awarding principles as well as of the three above-mentioned perceptions of peace – as justice, human security, and friendly relations between nations – that I want to develop the arguments whether FIFA should or should not be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Kofi Annan


FIFA is an international non-governmental organisation and world’s governing body of association football. When FIFA was established in 1904, it had only seven members, all of them European. Today, FIFA recognises 209 national associations, which makes its membership larger than the one of the United Nations. FIFA’s mission is: For the game. For the world. As the slogan explains, FIFA’s role doesn’t end with promoting football. One of the largest global organisations has set itself another goal: a better future for the world.


 The world is a place rich in natural beauty and cultural diversity, but also one where many are still deprived of their basic rights. FIFA now has an even greater responsibility to reach out and touch the world, using football as a symbol of hope and integration.

We see it as our mission to contribute towards building a better future for the world by using the power and popularity of football. This mission gives meaning and direction to each and every activity that FIFA is involved in – football being an integrated part of our society. (FIFA 2012a)

You can watch the video about FIFA’s mission here.

How is this mission implemented? Or is it just a rhetoric, aimed at gaining better image of an organisation whose legitimacy is declining? There are three main channels which enable FIFA to pursue its goal of a better future and that the results of these could present a base on which to award FIFA the Nobel Peace Prize. These are: 1) organisation of the FIFA World Cup and other international matches and tournaments, 2) its status of international non-governmental organisation, 3) its Social Reponsibility (CSR) programmes. The arguments will be accompanied by some criticisms and controversies which question the eligibility of FIFA to win the Peace Prize.

1)      Organisation of the World Cup and other international tournaments and matches

fifa wcThe FIFA World Cup is the global sports mega event where people of different nationalities, races and ethnicities come together. For one month in four years, the notion of the global village loses its abstract meaning and becomes very concrete (the same holds true for the Olympics). The spirit of the World Cups is normally a very positive one, and when people come together in such an atmosphere, it’s much more likely that they will develop friendly relations with other fans, accept their differences, understand and respect them. It could be argued, however, that the World Cup is a very exclusive event. Not a lot of people can afford to see the World Cup matches live which creates a temporary elite, taking part in the ‘happy global village’, and the periphery, which is excluded from sharing the spirit of global friendly relations. The prices of the tickets and other expenses as a result of the World Cup should definitely be reduced in my opinion. However, the World Cup is watched all over the world, so even if one is watching the World Cup behind the TV, one can get the idea of the whole world coming together. Although the basic principles of the World Cup are competition and commercialisation, the event sends a positive picture that the world can come together in peace and in the spirit of fair play. It therefore doesn’t come as a surprise that FIFA adopted a new principle of handshake for peace at the 2012 Congress. “With this new protocol, the referee and team captains will now not only shake hands before the match starts, but meet again at the same place on the pitch directly after the final whistle, closing the game with the ‘Handshake for Peace’” (FIFA 2012b). Interestingly, the commitment to handshake of peace was introduced in a partnership with the Nobel Peace Centre. Is this just the way for FIFA to get closer to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee? Kramer (2000) is very critical of such initiatives and Blatter as the president – according to him, Blatter has set his sights on the Nobel Peace Prize. He claims that Blatter takes advantage of every public opportunity to emphasise the beneficial effect of FIFA and that he does it in order to improve his image and not so much because he really cares about Africa and other places where FIFA is developing football. But despite all the buzzwords about future of humanity, the reality of the World Cups doesn’t end with nations coming together in a peaceful way. In order to build proper infrastructure, hundred thousands and even millions of people are displaced, without any rights guaranteed. Merchandising and licesing rights protect corporate sponsors instead of people – local population is unable to sell their products in the areas around the stadiums or another official venues so FIFA’s “greater responsibility to reach out and touch the world” doesn’t really extend further than to its corporate partners.

Another reason why the World Cup and international matches per se have a potential to bring nations together, has been explored in the previous blog post. International matches are attended by state’s representatives and therefore offer a positive and informal environment for sports diplomacy. Again, the potential is two two-fold: on one hand, international football matches enhance friendly relations, but on the other hand, they encourage nationalistic expressions and therefore enhance hatred and negative feelings towards the opponents. See the previous blog post for more.

The World Cup as a global event, comprising multinational corporations, media, tourism, financial and political sector, involves a lot of developmental programmes. They come both from FIFA (for example, 80 million $ founding from FIFA to the 2010 Fifa World Cup Legacy Trust intended only for developmental projects) and its partners – Coca Cola being in charge of the project for clean water, Hyundai/Kia taking care of educational programmes, Sony leading the project Dream Goal 2010 with the aim to alleviate extreme poverty and hunger, prevent spread of AIDS, malaria and other illnesses etc. (Neirotti et al 2010, 35‒57). There are also other benefits, such as investments into infrastructure and public services, increase of tourism, new jobs etc. However, these are  mostly temporary, short-term benefits and inherent care for people is questionable. The main beneficiaries are sadly not people, but major corporations and powerful sectors. This is not to say that such programmes are completely without benefits – especially educational campaigns, clean water projects etc. can be of real help to the local population. Altough this fits into marketing and branding purposes of the funding companies, such concerns shouldn’t just diminish some practical impacts.

There is one strong argument why FIFA’ World Cups are contrary to the principle of peace, especially peace perceived as justice. The infrastructure for the World Cup is being built on the exploitation of the poor. One case is Qatar. Thousands of migrant workers will spend the next 9 years building the stadiums ahead of Qatar’s 2022 World Cup in terribly harsh conditions (no water, no safety, living in crowded rooms…), often doing 12 hours shifts in the heat with little regard for their general health and safety. The International Trade Union confederation predicts that if the current mortality rates are maintained, up to 4000 migrant workers may die before a ball is kicked in 2022. Another problem is the Kafala sponsorship system, which binds every single employee to a sponsor or employer, so that they are not allowed to leave that employer’s job or even the country without their permission. Thousands of migrant workers are therefore stuck in Qatar, with no legal protection at all. FIFA must have been aware of this system before awarding the World Cup to Qatar (Rodriguez 2013).  Blatter’s comment to this was: “But I will also touch on this concern which concerns many people in the world and that is the working conditions in that country but we can’t be the ones who can change it. It is a responsibility not only for Qatar but the construction companies, and there are many European companies working there. We cannot turn a blind eye but we cannot make a direct intervention – but the Qatar government have confirmed they will do so.” (Burnton 2013). Brazilian workers are working in similar conditions – some officials are comparing them to the slavery-like ones. The recent protests have sent a clear message that the World Cup will only harm the people instead of benefiting them. While the Brazilian government is spending millions of dollars on the World Cup infrastructure, the quality and availability of the basic public and social services are falling. FIFA’s responses were similar in both cases: working conditions and public spending are in the hands of governments, FIFA cannot interfere in internal affairs. In the light of Blatter’s claims of FIFA’s worldwide responsibility and a strong duty to society, such comments come as a joke. While it’s true that FIFA can’t change national legislation, there is a principle of conditionality available. If FIFA can impose conditions for the quality of stadiums and other infrastructure, demand that countries change their legislation in order to host the World Cup (the Dutch parliament released FIFA’s demands or so called Government Guarantees which governments need to sign in order to host the event – you can see them on Andrew Jenning’s website, the link is here)  why doesn’t it impose stricter demands regarding workers’ rights? If FIFA want to keep calling itself peaceful and accountable, it will firstly have to take much more active approach in tackling the negative externalities of the World Cups and actually focusing on people and their rights.


2)      FIFA as an international non-governmental organisation (INGO)

International organisations have emerged in the system of complex interdependence. They have the capacity to connect people in relation to common causes beyond national boundaries. Therefore, they have the power to bring people together, whereby friendly relations are an inherent value. The status of international non-governmental organisation has helped FIFA promote peace in two ways: 1) having a power to bind nations, and 2) being independent and unaccountable to any government.

Firstly, internationalisation through the expansion of the FIFA family and the promotion of harmony among nations and power blocs has always been fundamental to FIFA (Sugden and Tomlinson 1998, 7). FIFA’s power started to rise after the collapse of the British Empire, when new independent states sought for membership in FIFA, which gave the organisation a worldwide membership. FIFA therefore became a forum for discussions between former colonies and colonisers. Sugden and Tomlinson (1998) see FIFA also as a platform for resistance. Football was used in the struggle for liberation in many African countries. “In the absence of economic and military might, newly independent African nations discovered in football a medium through which to register their presence in the international arena” (Sugden and Tomlinson 1998, 130). In the 1970s, FIFA was run by João Havelange, whose mission was to make FIFA a universal organisation. He increased the number of participants in the World Cup, provided materials to underdeveloped associations, helped underdeveloped states construct and improve football infrastructure and provide technical and medical teaching. His strive to turn FIFA into a world power, binding all nations, was acknowledged when he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize 1988. His rhetoric of universality and peace was adopted by his secretary and the current FIFA’s president, Sepp Blatter. As Kramer (2010) notices, Blatter tries to present himself Africa-FIFA-trophy-artas the champion of the poor, as a “statesman on a mission of peace”. His big success was bringing the World Cup to Africa – however, he also brought the World Cup to Qatar, despite all the environmental and human rights concerns. Contribution of Havelange and Blatter to development of football in Africa is undeniable; however, it has to be noted that there are other (selfish) interests behind. One is definitely the presence of commercial sponsors and the market potential of emerging countries, and FIFA, itself an offshore financial centre, and being financially bound to its commercial partners such as Coca Cola, Adidas, Sony etc., is highly aware of this. The second reason is the principle of equal voting rights. A big number of newly independent states in the time of decolonisation therefore presented a new ‘market’ of potential votes for Havelange, and it was actually the votes of the Third World that helped him become the president. Africa’s status as the key electoral constituency in the struggles for the FIFA presidency in 1974, 1998 and 2002 is deeply explored in Darby’s (2003) article. He claims that those seeking the FIFA presidency have always sought to present themselves as the advocates of African football – Havelange’s election manifesto, Johansson’s efforts to establish an Afro-European concord, and Blatter’s GOAL project and support for a World Cup hosted in Africa are all a proof of this. Kramer (2010) therefore accuses Blatter of being an opportunist when it comes to the politics of sports. He is said to be merely “using his self-declared weakness for Africa — he has recently been calling it a “love story” – to curry favour among poorer member countries and thereby to secure votes from their football associations.” Regardless of the selfish interests it has to be admitted that FIFA as an international organisation did help bring nations together and it did made possible for newly independent countries to declare their international presence in a peaceful and sporty way.


Secondly, FIFA as a non-governmental organisation is not accountable to any government. It’s governed by the Swiss law (which offers FIFA as a registered non-profit organisation a tax exemption, how appropriate 🙂 ), but its member associations don’t represent their states of origin in political terms. While the states are bound by the international law not to intervene in internal affairs of the other states, FIFA is much freer in that sense. For blatterexample, Blatter paid a visit to the Iranian president in the beginning of November, and he made a straightforward appeal to the Iranian authorities to end the prohibition for women to attend men’s football matches that has been in force since the 1979 Islamic revolution. I am sure that much more fuss would be made if Obama suggested that – it would be considered as the interference of the US into domestic affairs of Iran. Another example is the role of FIFA in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. FIFA’s involvement as mediators has brought Israeli and Palestinian football officials closer together; under FIFA’s patronage, delegations from both countries agreed to each appoint a liaison officer to facilitate the movement of players in and out of Palestinian territories. Palestine Football Association is a full member of FIFA and Blatter has consistently defended their rights. FIFA can therefore significantly contribute to peace between Israel and Palestine – football, namely, is never completely separated from the politics. Here you can watch a promo video about their cause. In the case of Iran Blatter said: “I did not intervene to change the law but, as the president of FIFA and defender of football in Islamic countries, I had to present this plea to the political authorities” (Yahoo Sports 2013). However, a question remains: if FIFA sees itself as a defender of football, human rights and fairness, why doesn’t it speak up in Brazil and Qatar? It’s obvious that FIFA’s pleas for peace are motivated by different interests and that their activities for promoting peace, no matter how good and successful they are, are very inconsistent. As well, the fact that it’s unaccountable to any government (except partly to the Swiss one since it is established under the Swiss law) makes it exempt from international law as well. Switzerland is quite famous for money laundering, protected bank accounts, not dealing properly with corruption – there is no better safe haven for FIFA, is it? Peace, understood as human security and justice, requires accountability, responsibility and transparency as well.


3)      FIFA and Corporate Social Responsibility

CSR has become an important trend in the entrepreneurial sector. Since the field of sport cannot be eliminated from the other social issues, sports organisations are increasingly embedding CSR in their mission – to bring positive consequences for the society as well as to improve their reputation. FIFA started to actively involve CSR into its strategy in 2005 when Federico Addiechi became the Head of the CSR department. FIFA’s radical change in SCR strategy transformed from a reactive approach to an extremely proactive approach (Neirotti et al 2010). In the year of 2010, 22 % of all the expenses were spent on developmental projects – a total of $ 794 million (FIFA 2010, 19). The strategy to achieve FIFA’s mission of building a better future by channelling the power of football is divided up into five core areas (FIFA 2013a):

People: providing a safe and healthy working environment for all of their people

Game: ensuring that the game of football reflects the highest values of society

Events: organising international tournaments since they offer exceptional platforms to raise awareness, highlight particular issues and implement projects and campaigns on the ground

-Society: providing resources and engaging with its member associations, commercial affiliates, development agencies and others to provide children and young people with valuable resources and know-how

-Planet: addressing environmental issues (global warming, environmental conservation and sustainable management) seriously and mitigating negative environmental impacts linked to its activities.

Some of the key (constant) projects/areas of CSR are:

Football for hope – initiative that uses power of football to achieve sustainable social development; programmes, conducted in partnership with some NGOs, which try to address social problems that young people face – these include HIV/AIDS, education, integration of disabled children, conflict management, peacebuilding etc (FIFA 2013b).

FIFA against discrimination– abolishing all forms of discrimination in football by a) raising awareness, for example with FIFA’s Anti-Discrimination Days and the initiative Say No to Racism; b) punishing those who are behave contrary to the principle of non-discrimination (FIFA 2013c).

-Fair Play – evaluating and rating behaviour on and off the pitch, giving the FIFA Fair Play Award, organising FIFA Fair Play Days, overall promotion of the principle (FIFA 2013d).

Taking care of the environment – zero emission building of FIFA headquarters, project Green Goal, implemented at the World Cups (curbing carbon emissions, promoting green technology etc.) (FIFA 2013e).

Goal Programme – funding member associations to implement projects designed to develop football in their countries; the programme is essentially aimed at associations with the most pressing needs as an expression of solidarity (FIFA 2013f).

I strongly suggest reading an analysis of CSR activities in South Africa at the time of the World Cup.

The demonstration of programmes and their analysis shows that there was a wide spectrum of CSR activities. Similar projects are planned for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, see the Sustainability Strategy here.

Mr AddiechiThe majority of CSR activities aim at alleviation of poverty, environmental protection and children’s development and education. All of these are issues that can prevent future conflicts and build peace – not immediately, of course, but in a long-term. According to Bulloch’s (2008) analysis of different perceptions of peace, FIFA’s CSR activities therefore contribute to peace understood as justice. Although racism is still a persisting issue in world football, it has to be acknowledged that FIFA has tried a lot to wipe it out of football. New anti-racism resolution was adopted at the FIFA Congress in Mauritius this year, on the basis of which first or minor offences will result in either a warning, fine or order for a match to be played behind closed doors, while serious or repeat offences will be punished by a points deduction, expulsion or relegation (BBC 2013).

However, the CSR activities get criticised mainly for two reasons. Firstly, quite some projects at the World Cups bring only short-term benefits. In countries like South Africa and Brazil it’s not enough to be there for a month and then leave. FIFA is partly aware of this problem – Mr Addiechi confirmed that these programmes need to incorporate a legacy component that allows them to last beyond the World Cup (Neirotti 2010, 3). The 2010 Legacy Trust has recently published a report about the legacy of the World Cup 2010 in South Africa, which is showing promising results (FIFA 2013g). Of course, in order to get the big picture, reading just a FIFA’s report is not enough – talking to the locals in South Africa would probably give different answers. Sustainability should absolutely prevail over improving image of FIFA and its sponsors when planning the CSR activities. Secondly, FIFA’s main sponsors in CSR are multinational corporations such as Adidas, Coca Cola, McDonalds, Castrol, Budweiser, Sony, BP. While one controversy definitely stems from the fact that some of these MNCs come from sectors such as fast food, alcohol and oil industry, which probably won’t really contribute to development in underdeveloped regions, the bigger issue here is the self-promotion of these companies. “Many businesses only use their CSR initiatives to generate positive public relations material, rather than for legitimately altruistic and humanitarian reasons. In fact, when speaking with FIFA CSR Director Federico Addiechi on 16 June 2010, he admitted that FIFA committed this exact sin as recently as ten years ago, noting that the organization judged CSR success via “Return on Image”. However, Mr. Addiechi stated that FIFA has turned a corner in this regard, and is truly committed to improving the countries in which it holds events.” Really? How exactly are they improving life in favelas in Rio by displacing people? Commitment to protect workers in Qatar is obvious in their excuse that they are “not the United Nations”.

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 The question whether FIFA should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize is definitely controversial. In the light of recent corruption and match-fixing scandals, prioritising profits over people, trying to distance themselves from human rights issues in hosting countries, the first and obvious answer would probably be no. Its autocratic regime of ruling doesn’t help either (I can’t believe Blatter is going to run for the president again). However, some of its activities and programmes are bringing positive change to the society – both on a global and a local level. Even if it’s just for improving the image, there are certain positive impacts. The very basis for such a power is the global popularity of football – it’s easier to connect people and send messages of peace and friendly relations through the most popular game on the world than by politics for example (see the previous blog post). So the nomination by Lars Gustafsson didn’t come out of blue.

The organisation which claims to have a global responsibility beyond the field of football should not remain silent and passive around the issues of workers’ exploitation and displacement of people as a consequence of new stadiums. The organisation whose principle is fair play, should not be involved in corruption and other scandals on such a massive scale (see BBC Panorama documentary, FIFA’s Dirty Secrets). The organisation which has the principle of environmental protection embedded in its CSR strategy, should not award the World Cup to Qatar. However, as the awarding of the Peace Prize in the last decade suggests, none of the recent Laureates is purely good and without any flaws. Surely, the EU doesn’t contribute to peace without some negative effects and without political scandals. So if one follows the logic of the recent awarding principles, FIFA kind of fulfils the criteria to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. While Obama and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons received the award not so much for what they had done, but for what they were about to do (Milharčič 2013), FIFA has actually achieved a lot in its 109 years of existence. Its contribution to peace and friendly relations should not be completely overshadowed by corruption, controversial financial activities and other issues, although these deserve the most serious critique. Although FIFA, just like the EU or Obama, does have a potential to bring peace, its practices contradict the very principles of peace and justice. We should keep in mind that both the Nobel Peace Prize and FIFA’s developmental programmes and promotion of football as a means for better future stem from Western liberal values. And these (sadly) allow for quite some deviation when pursuing higher goals, don’t they? Machiavelli’s logic of the ends justifying the means is therefore still very alive, and apparently, both FIFA and the Nobel Peace Prize Committee are following it. Although I am a huge lover of football, I don’t think FIFA, especially in the current situation and with its current structure and functioning, should be awarded the Peace Prize. But I do think both FIFA and the principles of awarding the Nobel Peace Prize should seriously reform themselves. With a serious and complete reform FIFA would contribute much more to humanity than with its bragging about its contribution towards building a better future for the world.


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Bulloch, Douglas. 2008. For Whom Nobel Tolls? An Interpretive Account of the Migration of the Concept of Peace as Perceived through the Solemn Eyes of Norwegian Lawmakers. Millennium – Journal of International Studies 36 (3). 575‒95. Available at: (20 November 2013).

Burnton, Simon. 2013. Qatar 2022 World Cup: FIFA press conference: as it happened. The Guardian, 4 October. Available at: (25 November 2013).

Darby, Paul. 2003. Africa, the FIFA Presidency, and the Governance of World Football: 1974, 1998 and 2002. Africa Today 50 (1): 3‒24. Available at: (25 November 2013).

FIFA. 2010. Financial Report 2010. Available at: (18 June 2013).

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FIFA. 2012b. ‘Handshake for peace’ between FIFA and Nobel Peace Centre, 25 May. Available at: (24 November 2013). 2013a. About Social Responsibility. Available at: (18 June 2013). 2013b. Football for Hope. Available at: socialresponsibility/footballforhope/index.html (18 June 2013). 2013c. Anti-Racism. Available at: socialresponsibility/antiracism/index.html (18 June 2013). 2013d. Fair Play. Available at: socialresponsibility/fairplay/index.html (18 June 2013). 2013e. Environment. Available at: socialresponsibility/environmental.html (18 June 2013). 2013f. Goal Programme: Mission and Goals. Available at: (26 November 2013). 2013g. 2010 Legacy Trust Showing Promising Results. Available at: (26 November 2013).

Kramer, Jörg. 2010. FIFA’s Ambitious President: Sepp Blatter – Champion of the Poor or Self-Promoter? Spiegel Online Internatioal, 15 June. Available at: (25 november 2013).

Maguire, Joseph. 2005. Power and Global Sport: Zones of Prestige, Emulaton and Resistance. New York: Routledge.

Milharčič, Ervin Hladnik. 2013. Nagrada za tlakovanje z dobrimi nameni. Dnevnik, 12 October. Available at: (21 November 2013).

Neirotti, Lisa Delpy, Kristina Brzezinski, Kevin Clark, Brian Falasca, Harry Heisler, Lisa Jourdan, Alicia McClintock and Christopher Watts. 2010. 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa – Corporate Social Responsibility Analysis. The George Washington University School of Business. Available at: /get_file?uuid=c6414e61-de4f-45ba-9bfa-f9a5ca6ae025&groupId=38595 (17 June 2013). 2013a. The Nobel Peace Prize. Available at: (20 November 2013). 2013b. Alfred Nobel’s Will. Available at: (20 November 2013). 2013c. All Nobel Peace Prizes. Available at: (21 November 2013). 2013d. 14 Questions and Answers about the Nobel Peace Prize. Available at: (21 November 2013).

Rodriguez, Tom Perez. 2013. Exploitation & Enslavement: Has Football Lost its Humanity? Football Beyond Borders. Available at: (25 November 2013).

Sugden, John and Alan Tomlinson. 1998. FIFA and the Contest for World Football: Who Rules the Peoples’ Game? London: Polity Press.

Sugden, John and James Wallis (Ed.). 2007. Football for Peace? The Challenges of Using Sport for Co-Existence in Israel. Oxford: Meyyer & Meyer Sport.

Warshaw, Andrew. 2013. Palestine-Israel stand-off eases slightly as FIFA mediates next steps. Inside World Football, 24 September. Available at: (25 November 2013).

 Yahoo Sports. 2013. Football chief Blatter urges Iran to admit women to stadiums, 7 November. Available at:–sow.html (Accessed on 16 November 2013).

Football – Building Friendly Relations Between Nations?

In 2001, the game of football (soccer) was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Swedish lawmaker Lars Gustafsson, who suggested that football helps improving international relations. While I will explore the principles of the Nobel Peace Prize in relation to football in the next post, the aim of this post is to explore the potential of football for promoting and building peace between nations and therefore improving international relations. Since this post is kind of an introduction to the next article (Should FIFA be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize?), I will analyse diplomatic power of football in terms of institutionalised practice, although an example of the peace potential of football as a game will be made in the conclusion.

Mandela holding the Cup

Sport is probably the most effective means of communication in the modern world, bypassing both verbal and written communication and reaching directly out to billions of people world-wide. There is no doubt that sport is a viable and legitimate way of building friendship between nations.” Nelson Mandela (in Maguire 2005, 1)

Applying the logic of deduction, the same holds true for football – especially because it’s the most popular (both in terms of watching and playing) and wide-spread sport in the world. Its popularity makes it an efficient tool for manipulating people, both for good and bad causes. While football can send positive messages of equality, non-discrimination, inclusion, fair play, sportsmanship and understanding, it can, on the other hand, encourage national rivalry and hatred, racism, homophobia, nationalism and exclusion. Because of the popular appeal of football, the governments want to transfer part of that popularity in the field of politics. The global public is tired of constant conflicts, political power games and manipulations, corruption etc. and with football, the politicians can persuade people and attract their attention much easier than through conventional political and diplomatic means. The governments around the world are therefore increasingly acknowledging the (diplomatic) power of football and consequently, the term soccer/football diplomacy has been coined. Bubalo (2013, 4) provides a straightforward definition of football diplomacy: “At its simplest level, football diplomacy is the use of a common interest in football to create networks. These networks can be used for a variety of other purposes, including diplomacy, forging political and business connections, promoting products, tourism, development, and education.” Soccer diplomacy can be used to; (1) improve and refine the image of one’s country, (2) amplify friendship, boost peace, and share comradeship among nations, (3) promote trade and tourism, (4) encourage international development, (5) integrate minorities, and (6) most importantly to improve international relations (Eden 2013, 15).


Football cannot stop a war or completely eliminate injustice; however, it can contribute to improved communication between the states, and good communication per se is the very basis of good international relations. Football matches are normally attended by the high-profile guests, such as states’ presidents, prime ministers, foreign and sports ministers, businessmen etc. Consequently, bilateral meetings are naturally encouraged; football matches might even break ice when the official diplomacy has failed. This argument will be demonstrated by some examples of successful football diplomacy.

The most famous example is probably the match between Iran and the USA at the FIFA World Cup 1998 in France. Although the match was viewed as a battle of ideologies and the nationalistic and political tensions were expected, the players tried to overcome political divisions. In an act of defiance against all forms of hatred or politics in sport, both sides presented one another with gifts and flowers and took ceremonial photos before the start of the match ( 1998). President Clinton taped a message before the game in which he expressed the hope that the match would be a step forward ending the estrangement between both nations. FIFA declared June 21st “Fair Play Day”. Although the match itself doesn’t have consequences for the current bilateral relations, it did encourage the leaders of both states to communicate, and furthermore, it did send an important message: the confrontation between Iran and the USA can happen peacefully, in the spirit of mutual respect and understanding.


The second example proves how a football match can break ice for two states which are not communicating. Turkey and Armenia were scheduled to play a FIFA World Cup pre-qualifier match in Yerevan on the 6th of September 2008. At that point of time, the countries didn’t have diplomatic relations, their border had been closed for 15 years and there were two issues strongly separating their peoples: mass killings of Armenians in Turkey during and after the World War I, and Armenia’s support of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. Regardless of the difficult state of affairs, Armenian president Serz Sargsyan invited Turkish president Abdullah Gül to watch the match. This resulted in the first modern Turkish leader paying a visit to Armenia and for the first time, the Turkish fans (over 5000 of them) travelled to a game in Armenia. This football diplomacy provided a new impetus between Turkey and Armenia. Due to the warmed up climate between the two countries, the two foreign ministers signed the Turkey-Armenia Protocols (one of them establishing diplomatic relations) in the presence of the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrow and the EU Foreign Affairs and Security official Javier Solana (Eden 2013, 22‒4).

turkey armenia

koreajapanThere were big political tensions between South Korea and Japan during the bidding process for the FIFA World Cup 2002. Their relations were strained at the time due to the historical legacy (in 1910, Japan took over Korea’s sovereignty) and the competition to win the right to host the first World Cup to take place in Asia accelerated the tensions. FIFA’s decision to grant the right to host the event to both countries came as a surprise. (It has to be noted that the decision is not a result of FIFA’s plan to bring the countries together; rather, it was a consequence of power struggles within FIFA.) Neither of the countries were at first enthusiastic about co-hosting the World Cup (Sugden and Tomlinson 1998, 111‒20). “Although both countries had originally hoped to host the championship independently, once they declared commitment, it became a matter of mutual face-saving, which might have caused a sense of rivalry but in a constructive way” (Eden 2013, 27). Peaceful collaboration and enhancement of bilateral relations was the only way to successfully organise the event, manage the complex bureaucracy, legal and financial issues, and tournament logistics, involving travel and communication between two countries separated by the sea. Opinion polls in both countries after the event showed that around 70 % of South Koreans and around 60 % of the Japanese felt that their bilateral relations have improved directly as a result of the 2002 World Cup (Horne and Manzenreiter 2002; Eden 2013, 27‒8).

football-warThere are of course (and unfortunately) examples of football encouraging the conflicts as well. Probably the most famous example of such a role of football is the so called Soccer War between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969. The causes of the war don’t involve football directly, but are related to issues over the land reform in Honduras and demographic and immigration problems due to large number of El Salvadorians both legally and illegally living in Honduras. However, the tensions coincided with the qualifiers for the 1970 FIFA World Cup, which were characterised by a high level of violence and rioting. On the day of the play-off match (26th June 1969), which was won by El Salvador, El Salvador broke all the diplomatic relations with Honduras. The war began 18 days later. In this case, football fuelled hatred between the people of two states and football matches were used as a place for violence and attacking the (political) opponents.

The developments surrounding the qualifying match for the 2010 World Cup between Algeria and Egypt are another case of international soccer reinforcing a negative relationship between two states that are already facing mutual distrust. After the violent incidents at the return match in Egypt, Algerian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, called Hosni Mubarak twice to discuss the crisis. Since the countries were tied after two matches, a play-off match was played on a neutral territory, in Sudan. At the match, the Algerians were attacking the Egyptian fans, which led to Egypt recalling their ambassador to Algeria. Also, some of the Egyptian fans rushed to the Algerian Embassy in Cairo after the game, vandalizing cars and stores, burning Algerian flags and injuring around 35 police officers (Eden 2013, 20‒2). This example certainly shows that the diplomatic potential of football is two-fold.


These are just some of the examples presenting the role of football in international relations. Because international matches are necessarily tied to the notion of the nation, football can enhance nationalistic expressions and tendencies, and on the contrary, bring together fans and politicians from countries that are otherwise experiencing crisis in their bilateral relations. Football matches between Croatia and Serbia are just one of the numerous examples of football enhancing nationalism. The dual role of football applies also to other social phenomena – while football can bring together different races, genders, classes, people with different sexual orientation etc., it can just as well separate them. It is therefore the role of people, governments and football organisations to exploit the positive potential of football in order to bring different people together and celebrate their diversity in the spirit of non-discrimination, peace and fair play. A very positive example of an initiative of this kind is Football for Peace (F4P), a join project by the University of Brighton and the British Council. F4P uses values-based football coaching to bring together children from Israel and Palestine. “The work of F4P seeks to make pragmatic and incremental grass-roots interventions into the sport culture of Israel, helping to build bridges between otherwise divided communities and at the same time make a contribution to political/policy debates around sport in the region. Specifically its fourfold aims are to: provide opportunities for social contact across community boundaries; promote mutual understanding; engender in participants a desire for and commitment to peaceful coexistence; and enhance soccer skills and technical knowledge” (Sugden 2007, 1). F4P is an extraordinary initiative which utilises the power of football for a good cause. Football is one of the rare spaces where Israeli and Palestinian children can be together, learn about each other and be taught in the spirit of mutual understanding and respect. When those children grow up, they won’t think of each other as terrorists and illegal occupiers, but as of people who share passions and hopes. Such programmes are definitely the reason why football is called a beautiful game. There are a lot of similar initiatives that demonstrate the enormous power that football has in bringing and promoting peace and they definitely deserve a further analysis.

 f4p F4P_small peace-sign-26930391216_xlarge

References: 1998.  France 1998 World Cup: 1st Round – Day 12 Match Reports. Available at: (23 November 2013).

Bubalo, Anthony.  2013. Football Diplomacy Redux: The 2015 Asian Cup and Australia‟s Engagement with Asia. Lowy Institute for International Policy, March 2013. Available at: (23 November 2013).

Eden, Jon Theis. 2013. Can Soccer Improve International Relations? Major Research Paper: Soccer and International Relations, 23 July. Available at:,%20Jon%20Theis%2020135.pdf?sequence=1 (22 November 2013).

Horne, John and Wolfram  Manzenreiter (Ed.). 2002. Japan, Korea and the 2002 World Cup. London: Routledge.

Maguire, Joseph. 2005. Power and Global Sport: Zones of Prestige, Emulaton and Resistance. New York: Routledge.

Sugden, John and Alan Tomlinson. 1998. FIFA and the Contest for World Football: Who Rules the Peoples’ Game? London: Polity Press.

Sugden, John and James Wallis (Ed.). 2007. Football for Peace? The Challenges of Using Sport for Co-Existence in Israel. Oxford: Meyyer & Meyer Sport.

Political history of football in Iran

With the FIFA World Cup 2014 in Brazil approaching and a big number of states already having qualified for the most popular single sport international mega event, the excitement is rising. Although there hasn’t been a draw for the group stage yet, there are already a lot of speculations about potential winners, best players and respective countries’ successes. One of the countries to have made it to the World Cup is Iran, which is currently in the focus of international community’s attention because of the talks on their nuclear programme. Since a big part of media is focusing on the ‘nuclear aspect’ of Iran, I want to approach this state from a bit different perspective – I want to have a look at its political history of football. I want to explore football in relation to political and social circumstances which played a significant part in development of football in Iran.

There are some basic facts about Iran’s football national team:

-it’s known as the Team Melli;

-it ranks 2nd in Asia and 47th in the world (FIFA World Rankings)

-Iran first made it to the World Cup in 1978 (World Cup in Argentina) – just a year before the revolution

-Brazil is going to be the 4th World Cup for Iran

-current coach is Carlos Queiroz 

-FIFA declared Iran as one of the most prominent football nations in Asia (FIFA 2008)

-The Azadi Stadium, with the capacity of 100.000 people, is  the fourth biggest stadium in the world and the first in the Middle East


The following blog post is a summary of the article by H. E. Chehabi, A Political History of Football in Iran (available here). Other sources I used are more or less current newspaper articles.

Football is probably the most popular sport in the world and scholarly attempts to make sense of its popularity go back almost a century. Looking from a global perspective, it is a game in which each team works together to try to occupy as much of the territory of the other as it can, culminating in scoring a goal as a symbolical sign of conquest. The pitch therefore becomes a metaphor for the competition between communities, cities and nations. The excitement that the game generates is well known – there was even a “soccer war” between Honduras and El Salvador.

However, Iranian national sport is wrestling, a discipline whose tradition has lasted for more than a thousand years. Physical exercises were mostly individual in nature, reflecting the national character of Iranians. Despite the wide popularity of wrestling, the biggest excitement was caused by the country’s participation at the FIFA World Cup 1998, since “nationalism peaks because many consider collective action a truer test of a country’s spirit than individual talent” (Chebabi 2002, 372). Since the Islamic Republic has always persisted to keep global culture at bay, the widespread popularity of football in Iran calls for some explanation.

The Introduction of Western Sport to Iran

 The introduction of Western sport in general started mainly through schools, since it was believed that sport and physical exercise are of vast importance for creating a healthy nation that could revive the glories of Ancient Iran. Another reason is that Iranians were not really a cooperative nation and Western collective sports were considered as the means to achieve better cooperation and consequently progress. The European officers of the teaching staff made their Iranian student exercise regularly and in 1919 the minister of education, Nasir al-Mulk made physical education part of the official curriculum of Iranian schools.

It is commonly believed that football was brought to Iranians through three major conduits of modernization: missionary schools, the oil industry and the military. Firstly, in British missionary schools, games, including football, were part of the curriculum. While missionary schools made football familiar only to the sons of the elite, working class Iranians became acquainted with the game through the British employees of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. These young Iranian football players, who joined the British workers, firstly met some hostility from their social environment, since the players’ shorts violated traditional dress codes, for the Sharia requires men to cover their legs from the navel to the knee. Elsewhere in Iran, football was introduced by the British officers of the South Persia Rifles to the Iranian troops they commanded, who then spread the game among the population.

In 1920 a number of Iranian and British football enthusiasts established the Iranian Football Association to encourage Iranian players and to popularize the game. Soon it was renamed into the Association for the Promotion and Progress of Football and Reza Khan agreed to become its honorary president. It became the first registered modern Iranian sports organisation.

  Football under Reza Shah

Reza Shah, born Reza Khan, became the Shah of the Imperial State of Iran in 1925. He established a constitutional monarchy that lasted until the overthrow in 1979. He introduced many social, economic, and political reforms during his reign, ultimately laying the foundation of the modern Iranian state.

Pahlavi Mohammad Reza playing football himself while being educated in Switzerland

Pahlavi Mohammad Reza playing football himself while being educated in Switzerland

By the mid-1920s football became a symbol of modernisation. After coming to power, Reza Shah continued showing an interest in football. He even attended a match between an Iranian team and a team of British expatriates, in which for the first time, the Iranians beat the Britons at their own game. As a sign of greater confidence and also of improved relations between Iran and the Soviet Union, the Iranian cabinet sent 15 football players to an international tournament in Baku. Due to serious losses and consequent critics by the newspapers, the interest in football waned.

The age of Reza Shah was the golden age of varsity sports in Iran. Especially the National Association for Physical Education, established in 1934 under the patronage of the crown prince and the state’s sponsorship, turned football into a popular game and in spite of traditional resistance, football caught on. Not only because of its physical value, but especially because it taught Iranian boys to play fair and create better human relationships.

 Football under Muhammad Reza Shah

 Football_Federation_Islamic_rep__of_Iran-logo-53DC16A88C-seeklogo.comIn 1945, the national football federation was established and it soon joined FIFA. In the 1950s and early 1960s Iranian football was still overshadowed by successes in wrestling. It was only in the late 1960 that football became a major spectator sport. The reasons were various – huge urbanisation, in which mass society favours sports like football, which can be followed by tens of thousands of spectators at stadium; spectators for whom the teams provide focus of loyalty and collective identification at the time when traditional community ties and rituals are weakening; occurrence of television and so on.

In 1968 a victory of strong political importance happened. Only a year after Israel defeating its Arab neighbours in the Six Day War, Iran beat Israel in the finals of the Asian Nations Cup. There were many rumours about bribery, but for the Iranians, the match was not a contest between nations, but between religious groups. This victory made soccer a true phenomenon in Iran.

Domestically, the rivalry between two biggest clubs, Pirspulis and Taj, dominated Iran’s pre-revolutionary football scene. It also had a political dimension since Taj was subsidised by General Khusravani, a military man with close connections to regime and on the other hand, Pirspulis could be identified with the religious opposition as Princess Fatimah Pahlavi was reputedly one of its major share-holders. In 1970 Taj began publishing a sports periodical, trying to gain readers by printing photos of players in the company of female film stars and singers. Because of that the religious oppositionists accused the Pahlavi regime of being morally corrupt.

In the last years of the shah’s regime, oppositionists sometimes even alleged that the regime promoted football to keep the population apolitical and divert public attention from serious matters. In the revolutionary upheavals of 1978 athletes played a minor role. For example, Parviz Qilichkhani, then the best footballer, announced at a press conference in California that he would not join Iran’s national team for the World Cup in order to protest against repression in Iran. With the triumph of the revolutionaries in early 1979, football fell on hard times.

Football in the Islamic Republic of Iran

 Sport was not really on the agenda of the revolutionaries, since it was perceived as the hedonistic excess of Iran’s westernised elites. The political leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran opposed football due to the excitement it generated, which is in contradiction with the principles if Islam. Another reason is the perception of football as the western sports and the means of capitalistic imperialism, which Iran as one of the major opponents of the US strongly resists. Highly religious Iranians were especially bothered by the nakedness of men who showed their legs and by the presence of women. Therefore it was long prohibited for women to watch footballers since it is believed that an unrelated woman may not look at the naked body of an unrelated man, even if the intent is not deriving lust.

Some football pitches were turned into places for the weekly Friday prayers and all football clubs were nationalised. Players were not allowed to wear shirts with Latin letters on them. There was a strong propaganda against football, claiming that political, economic and cultural problems couldn’t be solved by sports, since that caused a lot of unnecessary expenses. Most of the public entertainment was banned and football remained one of the few leisure activities for men. After an incident in 1984, when there were serious riots because a match had been moved to a stadium with much smaller capacities and only few people could watch the game, the Islamic Republican Party concluded that that football fever was a colonialist plot, causing suspicious meetings, too much excitement and black market in tickets and drugs.

However, if the regime had tried to prohibit football, it would have antagonised the classes, on whose support it depended most. In late 1980s, some of the leaders began to realize that the policy of disapproval of sports was self-defeating and they became less strict on sporting events that seemed innocuous enough. But still the dispute over women’s participation wasn’t solved. In the early 1990s, women’s sport revived through the initiative of the daughter of the then president. Conservatives strongly opposed any kind of women’s presence at men’s sports competitions, but in 1994 it was announced that women could attend football matches. Only three days after a match, at which 500 women seated in a special section of the stadium, the football federation resined this decision, claiming that some women had approached footballers to ask for autographs and therefore violated the rules of Islamic norms.

During the 1980s, the Iranian national team didn’t attend any World Cups due to the Iran–Iraq War (1980–88). Domestic football suffered the inevitable effects of the conflict as well. The national team withdrew from the Asian qualifiers for the 1982 World Cup, and refused to participate in the qualifiers for the 1986 World Cup because of having to play on neutral ground.

Gradually Iran’s rulers accepted that football was undoubtedly the most popular sport in

Winning the gold medal at the 1990 Asian Games

Winning the gold medal at the 1990 Asian Games

the country. The greater support of state led to improved performance of the national team. At the 1990 Asian Games in Beijing, the Iranian team won the gold medal in football. In 1997 football fever acquired new political importance because the coach, Mayili-Kuhan, who was identified with conservative faction, didn’t allow some of Iran’s star players, who played in German Bundesliga teams, to join the national team. The result was a lousy performance in the qualifying games for the World Cup and when Iran lost 2-0 to Qatar, the matter became an affair of state and was even discussed in the parliament. This coach was replaced by Valdeir Vieira and under his supervision the team managed to qualify for the FIFA World Cup 1998. The celebrations were huge and only then Iran’s leading politicians learned what South American presidents have known all along, namely that by associating themselves with a popular activity they show that they share the passions of the people.

USA_Iran_WorldCup2006 At the FIFA World Cup 1998 in France Iran played against the USA and FIFA declared June 21st “Fair Play Day”. President Clinton taped a message before the game in which he expressed the hope that the match would be a step forward ending the estrangement between both nations. There was a lot of excitement prior to the match because of the US politics after the Iranian revolution. However, in an act of defiance against all forms of hatred or politics in sports, both sides presented one another with gifts and flowers and took ceremonial pictures before the match kickoff. In Iran, people celebrated the result of 2-1 as the victory of their team, but elsewhere in the Middle East, crowds celebrated the defeat of the US. The win had a strong political message. In the US, the game was hardly noticed by the media. For Iranian youth, the participation at the World Cup meant that their nation rejoined the international community. The integration of Iranians in world society was symbolically furthered after the competition, when many top Iranian players started playing for foreign football teams, especially in Germany. The national team didn’t succeed in qualifying for the 2002 FIFA World Cup which caused many demonstrations and rumours spread that the government had deliberately instructed the national team to lose as to prevent a repetition of the celebrations of 1998.

iran usa

However, Iran made it to World Cup 2006 in Germany. Qualification to the World Cup in Germany again resulted in mass celebrations, hysteria and rioting, causing internal chaos and unrest between youth and government officials (Iran Football Online). In November 2006, Iran was temporarily suspended from FIFA due to “government interference in football matters and violation of Article 17 of the FIFA Statutes” (FIFA 2006).

iran.armbands.190 During the qualifications for the 2010 FIFA World Cup at the match against South Korea, four members of Iranian national team wore green wristbands as a signature colour of the protests again the re-election of Ahmadinejad as the president (which was suspected to be fixed by the Iranian government) and as the support of the opposition candidate Mir Hussein Moussavi. While the players couldn’t physically participate at the demonstrations on the streets of Tehran, they used the FIFA World Cup Qualifier as leverage to focus international attention on the protests. As well, some of the fans were waving flags with slogans like ‘Free Iran’ or even ‘Go to hell Dictator’ (see more on the story here). The gesture by the players drew worldwide attention and comment. In addition to being barred for life by Iran’s soccer officials, the four players were said to have been forbidden to give interviews to the news media. According to one pro-government newspaper in Iran, the team members have been ‘retired’ from the team (Bell 2009). However, this wasn’t the first example of such kind. Similar form of resistance occurred at the 1998 World Cup in France, but remained unnoticed by media. At the match against the US, huge anti-Katami banners and T-shirts with pictures of Maryana Rajavi, one of the leaders of Iranian opposition, signalled the protest against the regime. As Levermore (2009, p.28) noticed: “Three minutes before kick-off a large orange balloon with a portrait of Maryana Rajavi suspended from its floats across the pitch, bobs over the heads of Iranian players and is eventually captured by the referee on the half way line. You look down at the TV monitor on your workstation to get a close-up of the image, but the screen is showing pictures of some pretty American girls in the crowd”.

women iranFootball is increasingly gaining female’s attention, which was proved when 70.000 fans turned up at the stadium after qualifying to the World Cup 2006, among which 5.000 were women. FIFA report shows that since 2005 an organised women’s football set-up has existed and in 2008 there were 58 women’s teams (FIFA 2008). However, women are still prohibited from attending men’s football matches. The ban was even extended to live public screenings of games in last year’s European football

Blatter meeting Rouhani

Blatter meeting Rouhani

championships. Just a week ago (on 7th November 2013) Sepp Blatter, who was visiting Teheran for 2 days, even appealed to the Iranian authorities to end that ban. As he stated: “I did not intervene to change the law but, as the president of FIFA and defender of football in Islamic countries, I had to present this plea to the political authorities.” (Yahoo Sports 2013). The topic on female spectatorship in Iran was covered in the 2006 movie Offside, in which a group of young Iranian girls dress up a boys to sneak into Tehran’s Azadi stadium to watch that year’s World Cup qualifying playoff against Bahrain.

 Under Ahmadinejad, there was a lot of political interference in football. Afshin Ghotbi, who was head coach of the national team from 2009 to 2011, reported to Al Jazeera (Duerden 2013a) about the state of Iranian football affairs: “My experience as the national team manager of Iran was that football plays a major role in the political, social and even economic direction that the nation takes and the people who decide the direction of the country are constantly using the game for their political agenda. There are pluses and minuses to it all. The government’s financial resources support the game but it becomes politically manipulated. It becomes too dependent on the political system and the money and it starts operating as a political business.” Even Wikileaks revealed a diplomatic cable from Tehran that allegedly said: “Ahmadinejad has staked a great deal of political capital in Iranian soccer… in an effort to capitalise on soccer’s popularity with constituents.” Furthermore, although competing at the Gulf Cup of Nations, a biennial regional tournament, happening in January 2014, would be very useful for practicing and testing the team’s condition prior to the World Cup, Iran refuses to participate due to the name. Tehran calls the gulf the Persian Gulf, and does not countenance any contradictions (Duerden 2013b). 

The prospect of the World Cup 2014 might avert fans from caring about political problems and consequences of international isolation. Currently, Iran is struggling with the US-led sanctions which are severely harming Iran’s economy. Iran is having troubles selling its oil, the currency is unstable, foreign reserves are falling and inflation is going in the opposite direction. This affects football as well. Not only because of the crumbling economy, but also because international transfer of money can’t be taken for granted. For example, in 2012 the Iranian Football Federation (IFF) had problems receiving a payment of $1 million from the Asian Football Confederation (Duerden 2013b). What will be the position on football of Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, who has promised more open politics, transparent nuclear programme and improvement of Iran’s international standing, will be probably seen soon – if not earlier, at the World Cup. However, his reforms might prove beneficial also in the field of football.

South Korea Iran World Cup Soccer


Bell, Jack. 2009. Iran Did Not Suspend Players, Coach Says. The New York Times, 26. 6. Available at: (Accessed on 19 March 2011).

Chehabi, H. E. 2002. A political History of Football in Iran. Sports and Games 35 (4): 371–402. Available at: (Accessed on 2 November 2010).

Duerden, John. 2013a. Iran leaders gain as football loses. Al Jazeera, 1 March. Available at: (Accessed on 16 November 2013).

Duerden, Jon. 2013b. Iran drifting away in a political tide. World Cup Central, 11 August. Available at: (Accessed on 16 November 2013).

Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). 2006. FIFA suspends Iran Football Federation, 23 November. Available at:,1369,126229,00.html (Accessed on 16 November 2013).

Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). 2008.  Football in Iran. Available at: =950325.html (Accessed on 19 March 2011).

Iran Football Online. Available at: (Accessed on 19 March 2011).

Kim, Brian and Danny Mammo. 2009. Iran’t Political Corruption and Turmoil: How Football Brought it to Light, Soccer Politics Pages. Available at: (Accessed on 16 November 2013).

Levermore, Roger. 2009. Sport’s role in constructing the ‘inter-state’ worldview. In Sport and International Relations: An Emerging Relationship, ed. Roger Levermore and Adrian Budd, 16‒30. London: Routledge.

Yahoo Sports. 2013. Football chief Blatter urges Iran to admit women to stadiums, 7 November. Available at:–sow.html (Accessed on 16 November 2013).