Baby oo pullover in the Gambia! – Football 4 Peace on the smiling coast

Imagine you have an opportunity to combine your biggest passions in life and spend a week on your favourite continent/country, play your favourite sport, meet amazing people and simply feel happy all the time. It probably sounds like a commercial in a tourist magazine, but hey – it gets even better than simple tourist vacation!

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Africa and football have been my passions and fields of interest for a long time. The first time I experienced them together was in South Africa for the FIFA World Cup, which were the best two weeks in my life. After four years I went to Africa again, again for football. But this time it was completely different. I joined Football for Peace (F4P), a sport-for-development-and-peace programme, in tiny West African country – the Gambia. We spent a week between 18 and 25 April in a small village of Kartong, coaching the local children, being trained as trainers, hanging out with the local coaches and overall – enjoying the Gambian sun, positive and friendly environment and deliciousss food. There are many things to say and my mind is overflown with memories. However, I’ll try to organise my thoughts and put them on the paper (well, technically, on the screen). I hope this will bring a bit of the Gambian sun in your room 🙂

Oh, and to make sense of the post’s title, a Nigerian song Pullover by Kcee and Wizkid was our specil anthem 😉

GambiaTo be honest, the Gambia is not difficult to be missed on the world map – it’s the smallest country in Africa. There are slightly less than 2 million people, who are mainly of Mandinka ethnic origin. Other ethnic groups involve Fula, Wolof/Serer,  Jola, Serahuli and others. The predominant religion is Islam, practised by around 90 % of the population. Around 8 % are Christians and another 2 % adhere to indigenous beliefs. The country is situated on either side of the Gambia River, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean. The Gambia is surrounded on three sides by Senegal and has only 80 km of the coastline (which is still the double of the Slovenian coast ;)) on the Atlantic Ocean. Due to its proximity to the Equator it has a tropical climate with the hot season from December to May and the rainy season from June to November. The main Gambian industry is tourism. Agriculture accounts for roughly 30% of gross domestic product (GDP) and employs about 70% of the labour force.

Although the territory of the Gambia was reached by the Portuguese already in the mid 15th century, it was later a bone of contention between the French and the English. The British Empire occupied Gambia in 1758. Placing and keeping the colony around the Gambia River was of crucial importance for the transatlantic slave trade – around three million slaves were taken from this colony in the course of three centuries. The Gambia achieved its independence in 1965 as a constitutional monarchy within the Commonwealth. In 1970, it became a republic with its first president Dawda Kairaba Jawara, who was re-elected five times. In 1994, the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council deposed the Jawara government and banned opposition political activity. Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh, chairman of the AFPRC, became head of state and remains the president to this day, meaning the Gambia has only had two presidents since its independence. It’s interesting to note that there are no tensions between the ethnic or religious groups – peace is an important component of the society and the Gambian people are really proud of that.

People I met were extremely nice, open-minded and helpful. Although according to the official statistics, a third of the population lives below the international poverty line of $1,25 per day, the people are very positive, as well as creative in terms of providing for their basic life needs. I know that their way of life is not easy at all and that there is a daily struggle for food, water and earnings to provide for the family. But when I observed the people, especially in the evening, when everyone came out on the street, talked, danced or just friendly waved to us, strangers (if I waved to a random person here in England or in Slovenia, everyone would think I’m totally weird), I realised it’s not Africa that needs the development aid – we need it, not in economic, but in humane and personal terms. Although the Gambians are materially much more deprived, they are at the same time much happier, complain less and know how to genuinely smile, even if to a complete stranger. There, I felt much more at home than in many European countries! It’s true – the Gambia is indeed a smiling coast!

Gambia F4P 2014


F4P International was established at the University of Brighton in 2001 and it operates on the voluntary basis on the international level. The project approaches football in a bit different, non-competitive way – children are not taught football skills, but values such as trust, respect, responsibility, equity and inclusion. Children play different teambuilding games through which they learn how to trust each other and how to be responsible for one another and for their teams. Teams are normally mixed in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, religion etc. so that children understand the importance of inclusion, as well as that they develop friendships with people who are different from them and even overcome prejudices and stereotypes. During the game, they are supported to help each other, especially the opponents, shake hands before and after the game, not to be too competitive, to pass the ball to all the co-players equally etc. The winner is not announced just on the basis of goals scored, but according to the fair-play points that are given to the teams.

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Such values based approach to coaching is of high significance especially in/between the societies that are in conflict. That’s actually why the initial idea developed – to use football to bring together children from divided Northern Ireland, where Protestants and Catholics viewe(d) each other as the enemies, and later from Palestine and Israel. F4P has held workshops and trainings in the UK, in Northern Ireland, Israel, Germany, The Gambia, Czech Republic, South Korea, South Africa and it’s even spreading. The F4P camps and events consist both of football and other sport-related games and off-pitch activities that together provide a platform for integration and inclusion of children. Programmes that promote inclusion, respect, equality and similar values through fun, relaxed, informal and popular activities such as football or other sports and leisure games therefore bear a big potential to eliminate/prevent stereotypes and to bring children together regardless of their race, gender, religion, ethnicity, nationality, sexuality and other categories of identity.

Critics of sport-for-development sector normally warn about the ideological underpinnings of such projects that stem from the Western neo-liberal values. While this concern should always be taken into account when conducting the projects abroad and cultural differences and local socio-political situation should play the leading role in framing such projects, I don’t think F4P is trying to impose any ‘Western values’ or interfere too much with local culture. I could see this in the Gambia, which was my first international football experience. Not only we played football and ‘our’ games, but we also included their local games in the programme. So just as much as we were teaching and coaching, we were learning as well. That’s why I experienced F4P in the Gambia more as a cultural/sports exchange rather than SDP intervention. Another important aspect of F4P is its sustainable approach – it doesn’t just go to a foreign country, play there for a while and then leave. Instead, we were coached as trainers together with the local coaches, who will be able to deliver values based coaching even when we’re gone (although F4P will be back in December 🙂 ). Training the local coaches therefore ensures sustainability and potential continuum for children, as well as it develops coaching, organisational and life skills of the coaches.


Some of the F4P coaches, who have been abroad with F4P before, said that Gambia is different from other projects since it’s not really a divided society. For example, in Israel, children from Jewish and Arab communities wouldn’t even talk to each other on the first day, let alone play together and have physical contact. But throughout the week, social bonds would gradually develop and through sport and fun the children from antagonistic communities would start to humanise each other, understand that they have a lot in common and that there is actually no reason to hate each other. Friendships would develop between children who have been told since their birth that they need to be enemies. I love Mandela’s quote (I know, I’ve used it a lot of times already, but it’s really something I believe in): “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite”. In the Gambia, fortunately, there is no such conflict. Our kids were friends from the first day, especially because a lot of them knew each other before. However, they achieved a progress in terms of understanding the five values (respect, responsibility, inclusion, equity and trust) and applying them not only on the pitch, but also beyond the football arena. For example, before the coaching sessions every day, we all together picked up the litter from the ground to show respect for the environment and through that, they understood the importance of taking care of the areas they live in. They understood that they need to show respect and responsibility not only in football, but also in school, in their families etc. When we were asking them who they will show respect for in their lives, a girl replied: “for every human being” – it was one of my favourite moments.


Apart from football, games and discussing the values there were countless moments of dancing and singing. I loved how we concluded almost every game with a little dance – and believe me, those kids are sooo talented, I loved their moves! 🙂


We were staying in a local eco-resort Sandele. Although it was founded and it’s run by an English couple, it only employs local people, uses local nature-friendly materials and buys the goods from the locals and local shops. It’s run by the solar and wind power and therefore uses only renewable sources of energy. Hot water showers are heated by the sun and the toilets are composting. People are employed to do all kinds of work, ranging from cooking and cleaning to building facilities and crafts making. In general, the Kartong village has a reputation of an eco-friendly village. We also visited a place where women collect the oyster and sell them. The community we met is a part of the Try Oyster Women Association which is working to raise the standard of living of these women to become self-sufficient through improved cultivation techniques. We tried the oysters and they were delicious!

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I loved working with children every day, not just because I’m still a big kid, but because they inspired me a lot, and not just in terms of their football skills. Besides being super cute, they were also very friendly, respectful and always trying to hold our hands and play with us – I know that was in big part because we were strangers and different from their peers, but having worked with children from Slovenia and England before, I can say that they are much more joyful. Sometimes I am sad when I see children at home playing only with their computers and phones – if you send a kid out today, he/she will ask: “What I am supposed to do outside?” A lot of children in Europe have simply forgotten or not even learnt how to play simple games outside and how to use the environment for joy. Children in the Gambia, on the other side, use everything they find for the game – used tires, empty cans, wooden sticks etc. Of course, they also love playing football – barefooted, and their skills are really good, they simply have the touch for the ball. What I’m saying is that they are much more creative than European children, who are over-protected by their parents. That’s why I’m saying the ‘development aid’ should flow both ways – Europe (and the rest of the ‘developed’ world) should stop in all its hectic rushing towards god knows where and reflect on some very basic principles of life and joy. However, although there are many talented kids, it’s true that they have much less opportunities to realise their potentials. I’ve talked to two boys – one of them loves painting and would like to become a professional painter and the other one would like to pursue his career as a doctor and help people. Both seemed very passionate, but they complained that their families can’t afford sending them to the university. Therefore I hope more will be done in the Gambia regarding the education system so that children will be able to follow their dreams, realise their potentials and develop various skills. As well, I hope F4P has given/will give them not only motivation, but especially some of the values and life skills that will contribute positively to their future steps.

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Inspirational movie about the TMB Panyee Football Club

Koh Panyee is a small island in Thailand – it’s actually a floating village in the sea without any inch of soil. The children loved to watch football on TV, but they weren’t able to play it due to lack of space. However, this didn’t stop them. In 1986, they decided to build their own pitch, using the resources and space they had. They build a floating wooden football pitch on the sea, where they could practice. The video tells the inspiring story of TMB Panyee FC – I loved it, hope you’ll like it too 🙂




The Match Against Poverty – some thoughts

I was totally impressed by the Match Against Poverty in Bern on Tuesday, 4 March. Not just that the match was great, full of goals and actions (it was 8:6 for Zidane&Ronaldo and friends in the end), it was also played with the purpose of helping the Philippines. In this blog you can find some of my thoughts and impressions about the game that were originally published here, but soon I will write a more detailed report about the whole trip to Switzerland and some (sports) international organisations.


Football is a great source of entertainment. But are entertainment and serious issues mutually exclusive? Tuesday’s Match Against Poverty in Bern, organised on an annual level by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), certainly proves the contrary – football can be used for noble purposes, too.

Stade de Suisse, the second biggest stadium in Switzerland and the home ground of BSC Young Boys, was filled with football enthusiasts. We were all waiting for the 11th Match Against Poverty to begin.The Match Against Poverty has been held annually since 2003 at the initiative of the UNDP Goodwill Ambassadors Zinédine Zidane and Luís Nazario de Lima, more known as Ronaldo, with the aim to raise awareness about the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and mobilise people to contribute to poverty alleviation. The objective of the match in general is to raise funds to support specific development projects selected by the UNDP. Two thirds of the match proceeds will be used to bolster recovery efforts in the Philippines, where more than 5,000 people lost their lives to Typhoon Haiyan, with almost 1 million people displaced and an estimated further 11.8 million affected. BSC Young Boys will donate the remaining third of the profits to the club’s partner charity, the Laureus Foundation Switzerland, which provides financial and practical support to sports-related projects at the national level.

Ronaldo and Zidane had mobilised a team of internationally renowned football players, some of the biggest names in football, to play against the professional club from Bern, BSC Young Boys, consisting of current and former club’s players. The list of footballers who joined Ronaldo and Zidane includes: Ronald de Boer (Netherlands), Steve McManaman and Jamie Carragher (England), Robert Pires, Christian Karembeu, Youri Djorkaeff and Patrick Vieira (France), Davor Šuker (Croatia), Gaizka Mendieta, Fernando Hierro and Michel Salgado (Spain), Paulo Ferreira, Fernando Couto, Nuno Gomez, Luis Figo and Paulo Sousa (Portugal), Marta and Giovane Elber (Brasil), Pavel Nedvěd (Czech Republic), Carlo Cudicini, Paolo Maldini, Gianluca Zambrotta, Gennaro Gattuso, Christian Vieri and Fabio Cannavaro (Italy), Hakan Sukur (Turkey) Hidetoshi Nakata (Japan), Antonios Nikopolidis (Greece), Santiago Solari (Argentina) and Freddie Ljungberg (Sweden). The referee of the match was one of the best refereesno other than the legend of in modern football, Pierluigi Collina.


It was impressive to see the crowd’s excitement when the footballers started to warm up. I tend not to be a drama queen, but I must admit that when the football legends came on the pitch, I held my breath for a while. After all, Ronaldo, Zidane, Makéléle, Figo, Vieri and all the others were the ones who introduced the world of football to me when I was a little girl. I still remember how we were fighting with my friends over “who will be Zidane” and “who will be Figo” when playing football. Not to mention all the fuss with exchanging album stickers during the FIFA World Cups and EUROs and how hard it was to get some of the players mentioned above. It was our childhood dream to see these football players play live. They were our big role models.

An athlete as a role model is a contested term. While the argument in favour is centred around the concepts such as hard work, success, fair-play, persistence, performance, dedication and determination, some critics say that professional athletes are just over-paid dolls in the system of capitalist sports industry which exploits the popular appeal of sport. No matter which side one is leaning to, the fact remains that many people, especially children, look up to famous and successful athletes. It is therefore important that the athletes remain self-aware about their position not just in a specific sport, but in the society as a whole. The true role models, in my opinion, are the ones who acknowledge their popularity and power and utilise them for the good – not just on the pitch. That’s where charity comes in. Apart from their success, a big number of celebrities are known for their humanitarian projects. One might of course criticise such celebrity humanitarianism as self-promotion, marketing and attention seeking. But regardless of such concerns it has to be noted that those people do have capability and ability to attract the public attention, mobilise people and raise more funds. As well, In addition, due to media exposure of the world-class athletes, movie and music starts and other role models, such humanitarian activism raises awareness among the fans and motivates them to think about other people, even if they come from a different part of the planet.


The UNDP recognises such potential of sport. Five out of nine current UNDP Goodwill Ambassadors are internationally renowned athletes – and there are many more within the whole UN system. Their role as ambassadors goes well beyond traditional diplomacy – they don’t represent states, not even the UN as an organisation, but general principles of humanity with the aim of spreading the messages of peace, poverty reduction, equality, education etc. around the world. This is not to say that such activism will completely eliminate the problems. Poverty, for example, is a complex structural problem that cannot be solved just by let’s sayhaving Pique play a game ofing football with children from disadvantaged areas for example. The proceeds from yesterday’s match will not suddenly revive the damaged areas of the Philippines. However, such activities can offer a much needed support to development projects and additional source of funding, raising awareness and mobilising people to be active citizens. Again, there are criticisms of development projects per se, focusing on their neo-colonial, neo-liberal and interventionist nature and controversial effectiveness, but such discussion is beyond the scope of this article. What is relevant right now is the fact that the Philippines do need money for recovery, and that this money, due to already bad economic situation, cannot come only from the state’s budget. The initiative by Ronaldo and Zidane to donate the proceeds of the match for the recovery of the typhoon-hit areas is therefore to be welcomed and supported. To me, the players who take part at such projects count as the true role models.


Nelson Mandela once said: “Sport has the power to change the world”. While the 2014 Match Against Poverty alone will not significantly reduce poverty, let alone change the world, it will contribute to the overall efforts to bolster improvement of the living conditions in the Philippines. The annual continuum of the match allows it to raise awareness not just about poverty and MDGs, but also about the power of sport to mobilise people. This is especially important in the times when the belief in the good side of sport is declining as a result of undemocratic and non-transparent sports governance, profit oriented sports industry and requirements for high performance and success. The result of the Match Against Poverty is therefore of only marginal importance, although it was great to see 14 (!) goals scored by such prominent players – it was 8:6 for the Zidane&Ronaldo team. – But what is more significant is the aim of the match. And to be completely honest, to me personally, apart from making a small contribution to charity, to make my childhood dreams come true and finally see Zidane (he still dominated the game with his master skills), Mendieta, Maldini, Collina and the crew in personlive. I am sure I wasn’t the only one with such aspiration. But I guess this is exactly what the organisers were counting on and what makes sport an excellent tool for humanitarian activism.

See the highlights:

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Match Against Poverty

“There are no spectators, we are all players!”  (Match Against Poverty)

Football is a great source of entertainment. Footballers play, referees control the game and spectators watch. However, this is a very simplistic portrayal of the match. Not only are the fans considered as the 12th player, there are examples where everyone who is a part of a match, including footballers, referees, organisers, media, spectators and others, can play a role of the player and co-create a meaning of the match.

One such example is the Match Against Poverty. The match has been held on an annual basis since 2003, meaning this year’s match presents the 11th great initiative to combine football and humanitarianism. The 11th Annual Match Against Poverty will take place in Bern, Switzerland, and will start at 20:00 local time on 4 March 2014. The driving force behind the match are football legends  Ronaldo and Zinédine Zidane (my childhood heroes 🙂 ). Ronaldo and Zidane, who are part of a group of UNDP Goodwill Ambassadors, have mobilized their team of internationally renowned football players for the friendly match against the Bern professional football club, the BSC Young Boys and Friends.


The list of football legends includes: Ronald de Boer (Netherlands), Steve McManaman (England), Robert Pires, Makélélé and Youri Djorkaeff (France), Jens Lehmann (Germany), Gaizka Mendieta, Fernando Hierro and Michel Salgado (Spain), Paulo Sousa and Deco (Portugal), Roberto Carlos (Brasil) and Pavel Nedvěd (Czech Republic). Yes, I am very excited to see some of the footballers who brought football closer to me in my early childhood! And even better: the match will be presided over by the best referee ever, Pierluigi Collina.

However, it’s not only about the legendary football stars. What is more important, is the purpose of the match. Proceeds raised will help recovery efforts in the Philippines. Two thirds of the match proceeds will be used to bolster recovery efforts in the Philippines, where more than 5,000 people lost their lives to Typhoon Haiyan, with almost 1 million people displaced and an estimated further 11.8 million affected. BSC Young Boys will donate the remaining third of the profits to the club’s partner charity, the Laureus Foundation Switzerland. The Foundation provides financial and practical support to sports-related projects at the national level, and is part of the global Laureus Sport For Good Foundation, which supports over 140 projects in 34 countries around the world.

“Through the 11th edition in Bern we hope to be able to raise both awareness and funds for the people in need in the Philippines” said Zinédine Zidane. “Working together in support of the victims of Typhoon Haiyan we will all be winners in the Match Against Poverty.”

 “It always inspires me when a game is more than a game,” said Collina. “The 11th Match Against Poverty will not only score goals for the players but also for the people of the Philippines. It is an honor for me to referee again this Match.”

The match is an amazing initiative by the United Nations Development Programme. It acknowledges the true power of football – power to entertain, to inspire, to help others. Cudos to Zidane and Ronaldo, and of course to all the players and others participating. Players, who use their fame and popularity for such noble purposes, definitely deserve our admiration. The title Goodwill Ambassador is therefore well deserved.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI was in the Philippines two years ago and the country and especially the people inspired me a lot. They live in poverty, but yet they are one of the most positive people I have ever encountered. Their smiles bring a sunshine day. However, the sunshine was dismantled by one of the most powerful storms on record, Typhoon Haiyan. The UNDP has already put a lot of effort in bolstering recovery and revival of local economy. The match is a great chance for all of us to be a part of the global projects and initiatives and contribute to the recovery in the Philippines. It might be a small contribution from each of us, but together, we can make a significant change. And have fun at the same time 🙂

You can buy the tickets on the official page of Stade de Suisse (link) or at the Ticket Corner (link). For more information, see the online pages of the UNDP: here and here.

I have my ticket, now it’s your turn! 🙂

World Cup Groups

tweet lovren

This is just one of the numerous tweets that appeared as a result of the FIFA Final Draw on the 6th of December. I copy-pasted it since I am kind of happy and excited that Croatia is playing against the host country, Brazil 🙂

The opening match of the tournament will see Brazil play against Croatia (Group A) on 12 June 2014. Here are the groups for the 2014 World Cup:


The Group of Death is probably the Group G, especially because of Germany and Portugal. Although the European teams are perceived to advance most easily, everything remains open – we saw quite a performance of the Ghanian team at the last World Cup in South Africa (my love for Africa of course makes me support Ghana). Portugal has one of the best players, Christiano Ronaldo, who lead his national team to the World Cup. However, a single dominant man will not be enough to beat the opponents – the Portuguese team as a whole will have to perform better than in the qualifiers if they wish to advance. Expectations might be high, but they are mainly focused on Ronaldo. It’s a similar situation as it was in the case of Argentina at the last World Cup. Everyone expected a miracle from Messi who was a shiny star in Barca at that time (I’m not saying he isn’t anymore), but he was quite in a shadow in his national squad. Although Germany is according to the rankings the best team in the group, the US might appear dangerous. Their national manager is Jurgen Klinsmann, who has already led German national team as well. He is therefore quite knowledgable about the German team. rankings group g

Another group that could be considered as a Group of Death is the Group B, with Spain and Netherlands repeating the 2010 final. Asked if Spain were in the toughest group, Del Bosque said: “No, I don’t think so, the group with Uruguay, Italy and England is also tough.” While Spain is still the first on the FIFA rankings, the Netherlands is placed ninth, and Chile and Australia 15th and 59th respectively. Being the latest European champions (both of 2008 and 2012) and the world champions (2010), Spain is definitely one of the main candidates for the winner.

Stay tuned for analyses of respective groups and teams, and until then a little teaser:

ticketing update

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).


Football as a ritual

Although the ritual as such is part and parcel of religion whose relation/similarities to football were already analysed in the previous blog post, I want to compare football and ritual separately. The following post is actually part of one of my seminar papers, so the language of theoretic parts mainly will be a bit more academic (with quite some referencing). I will argue that football has become deeply ritualised and that the meaning it has for people all around the world makes it more than just a sport.


According to Cazeneuve (1986, 14), the expert on the sociology of ritual, ritual is either individual or group act which allows room for improvisation, but above all depends on rules and faithfully reproducing model which form exactly what is ritual within it. Numerous (sports) mega events often borrow the religious rituals and integrate them into their own procedures and ceremonies, which proves how much a man need rituals in everyday life. Additionally, ritual unveils a basic human need to search for power, since a man doesn’t conform to his social living as a pure determination, but searches for more.

žogaReferring to the initial definition, football can be defined as a ritual through the following: firstly, it is a group act. Secondly, it has to follow specific rules, which on the other hand allow a lot of improvisation. Think about a football match: there are certain rules which cannot be broken (90 minutes of playing, prohibition of using hands, offside etc.), but despite the rules, each match is a story for its own. There are always different actions, different positions, even different judging. And thirdly, exactly the above mentioned things form the substance of ritual in football. Football is therefore a sociological and anthropological phenomenon due to its ritual characteristics (among other things). Social meaning ascribed to sports in general is based on the status of an athlete who has the power to intervene between individuals who form the crowd, and between a moral code of society, since an athlete represents important social values, such as courage, determination, self-discipline etc (Birrel 1981, 354).

Susan Birrel (1981) develops a thesis about sport as a ritual on the basis of Durkheim’s and Goffman’s theories. According to Durkheim, rituals impose rules how to behave in the presence of sacred objects or their representations. Through ritual treatment of symbols of the sacred, the individual places self in respectful relationship to sacred things. Gradually, rituals become stylized patterns through which individuals express their respectful relationship to those objects or values designated as special or sacred. This is a process through which individual is integrated into a community or society that abides itself to the moral code (Birrel 1981, 357). It’s much more about a ritual’s process rather than its content. Therefore sport as well can be viewed as a process which confirms the values bringing together the community. Contrary to Durkheim (who focuses on religious rituals), Goffman searches the presence of ritual in everyday interactions that comprise the bulk of social experience. Accepting rituals and codes of conduct are important because interacting individuals continually take on the responsibility of embodying important social roles. This is quite evident in sport – individuals stick to their roles (if not, they are punished) and also react on the roles of others.

Besides Durkheim’s functionalist concept, another approach is worth mentioning: a phenomenological point of view. This perspective doesn’t understand rituals as “mere celebrations of collective representations that pre-date them but instead as social practices above all (i.e. as forms of action) by means of which such collective representations are created and renewed, or replaced by alternative representations (Sterchele 2007, 211–13).

 Ritual elements in football

»A ritual consists first of all of a meeting or a gathering together (in the same place) of fansmore than one person. It is the excitement caused by this mutual presence that furnishes a potential emotional weight, which is gradually reinforced as the gathered people begin to act—to move, speak, sing, be silent, shout—in a coordinated and synchronized manner, following repertoires of action regulated by a whole set of explicit and implicit prescriptions. The excitement rises as it is expressed and transports those who participate in the ritual to a different world from that of daily routine, transmitting to them the sensation of being in contact with something ‘‘sacred’’ that they themselves are helping to create. The rhythmic coordination of gestures transforms individual feelings into collective feelings and makes it possible for the members of the group gathered together to feel part of a moral community« (Sterchele 2007, 213). Similarity to football is evident: first of all, individuals have to gather at previously determined places. Their mutual presence creates excitement, which brings them to act according to their roles: footballers have their own dance with a football, which culminates with a goal that can be perceived as a kind of catharsis, which brings footballers closer to something sacred, something beyond our senses. Meanwhile, fans cheer and support their teams, which includes moving, speaking, singing, shouting, screaming, even being silent —in a coordinated and synchronized manner. Both a team (either a club or a national squad) as well as an audience can be perceived as a collective – even a singular form of nouns team and audience implies a collective substance.


Going more into the detail, the additional elements that are present both in football and in ritual are the following: moral communities, rules, power and institutions, separate time and separate space (Sterchele 2007, 114‒15). Members of community get together, share their excitement and enthusiasm, move together, adapt to one common rhythm and consequently increase their emotional involvement. This (moral) community in football consists of players, referees, trainers, coaches, managers and fans. Šterk (2008) compares football team to two Freudian masses of people: army and church. Loyalty and conformity to the same goals transforms individuals into one big crowd – such loyalty is possible only when the connection between individuals is emotional and not economic for example. Stevenson and Alaug (2000, 459) agree with this, claiming that what counts in ritual is our mutual attendance and emotional involvement and not rationalisation.

fifa uefa

Having ritual rules implies that there is somebody/something that has a power to make and change rules. This is normally a mandate of specific institutions. While in religious rituals such a mandate is given to pope, cardinals, Ayatollah, shamans and others (depending on religion), it is different national and international sports organisations (FIFA, UEFA, FA etc.) that impose rules, determine sanctions, dates and timetables etc. Both religious rituals as well as football matches have their own calendars – both of them are repeated in cycles, on separate time. Summer and Winter Olympics, World and European championships take place every 4 years, the Champions League is going on between September and May, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. All the big rituals demand huge amount of preparations, which is especially evident in sports mega events. Plans and preparations for Russia and Qatar are already in the process although the two World Cups seem quite distant right now. Rituals are implemented at separate places which have to be distinguished from other (everyday) places on the first sight. Religious rituals have churches, mosques, temples etc., and football rituals have stadiums and pitches. “If a football is a sacred thing, then a pitch is a shrine” (Hosta 2009, iv). “The stadium, like the church, is a place of congregation- and, some would say, worship” (Gaffney 2008, ix). Not only the shape of the stadium implies a special place with a special purpose – there are normally a lot of lights, flags, noises, songs, even helicopters flying above it. For further reading about the stadiums as illuminating cultural lens, I suggest Temples of the Earthbound Gods (2008) by Christopher Thomas Gaffney. The book examines many aspects of stadiums (in Latin America) and through tracing the history of football in Brazil and Argentina that includes colonial influences as well as indigenous ball courts in Mayan, Aztec, Zapotec, Mixtec and Olmec societies, it links the development of stadiums to urbanisation and nation building.

One should not forget the sacred objects. During a ritual, the attention is normally paid to distinguished individuals and sacred objects, which can in football refer to paying attention to footballers on the pitch and to the number one sacred object: a football. Contrary to a church, where one looks up, in football a man looks down. “A football is a sacred thing. If the Earth revolves around the Sun, then people turn around a ball. Apparently the presample of a sphere is so strongly integrated into our motivational structure that we cannot resist it” (Hosta 2009, iv). Rappaport (2004, 34-6) adds the meaning of reciting traditional phrases and exclamations which are always present in rituals (for example, at weddings, prayings…). How does this relate to football? Firstly, there is always an anthem at the beginning of a match. Footballers have their own exclamations – for example, when they form a circle prior to the game and exclaim ‘Goooo’ or something. Not to mention exclamations, songs and screams of fans. Even the commentators have their share. There is one very famous comment by ex-Yugoslav commentator Mladen Delić. When ex-Yugoslavia scored in the last minute against Bulgaria and therefore made it to the European Championship, Delić screamed a very famous statement, which still has kind of a sacred connotation among people from ex-Yugoslavia: “Ljudi moji, je li to moguće?!” (My dear people, is this really possible?!)


Ritual elements behind the TV

tvIt is pretty clear that football matches are a place where one can find a lot of ritual characteristics. What about people who don’t watch matches live, but on the TV? According to Šterk (2008), the ones sitting in front of the TV are part of a very special ritual, by which she mainly refers to men. Similar ritual rules apply for men during World Cups as for women during their period – they are too sensitive, you have to treat them carefully, sex is a marginal activity. Šterk presents ritual on the basis of French anthropologist Arnold van Gennep’s analysis: ritual consists of interlinked, but distinguishable phases: separation, transition and reincorporation. Men firstly separate from a daily life/routine by gathering in a living room or more often, in a pub, where there is a special holy grail: TV. Another sacred element is of course a bottle of beer. Often they also separate themselves from women, although with an increasing number of women watching football this is slowly changing. When a match begins, a man enters into a liminal phase: he acts irrational, distant, blessed, and he forgets about the old rules and adheres to new ones. Just like a woman during her period, a man reacts nervously, he loses control, and one can approach him only with a bottle of beer. As the author suggests, such behaviour is not due to natural inclinations of gender/sex, but it is a typical cultural behaviour, based on social values and gender roles. With feminised men and masculinised women the trend is definitely changing.

The cult of a hero

One of the most typical sports rituals is awarding the athletes. Praising winners is an ancient custom which became widespread in the Ancient Greece. Winners of the Olympics were viewed praised as gods. Today, sports champions are idols and little gods as well – some people are doing crazy things just to be in their presence, talk to them etc. Peple tend to identify with sports heroes, which makes them more connected in some ways. (Vodeb 2001, 137).


Birrell (1981) claims that one of the most important ritual meanings of sport is an athlete’s ability to mediate between an individual and the moral order. As Weber said, an individual uses charisma as a virtue by which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated  as endowed with supernatural, superhuman or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. Particularly important for the creation of symbolic leaders is the dramatic encounter, when an individual steps above the others. It’s just like that in football: heroes are born in dramatic moments, when we don’t ask ourselves to be or not to be, but will it be a goal or will it not. And where there’s a goal, there’s a hero. One such example is Mladen Rudonja who scored his one and only goal at the decisive match against Romania which led Slovenia to the World Cup in Korea and Japan. Although there were many footballers who probably contributed more to good performance of Slovenia, Rudonja was the hero. When things are going tight, heroes will always be the ones who will resolve the dramatic moment.

Heroic sports deeds function as a mirror of important social values. Basic characteristics of a sports hero include energy, action, power, determination, persistence, courage, will to change things etc. A hero therefore embodies values that are supposed to present the whole community/society. The influence of almost mythological figure of a hero is in connecting daily routine life with the field of the supernatural. A sports hero is therefore a mediator between average people and supernatural cosmos, whereas the key of this connection lies in a secret bond between a hero and an admirer – however, none of them can exist without the other (people always exist in relation to the Other) (Šaver 2005).

Ritual has an ability to bring together people and form their common identity through a symbolic code. Football as a form of ritual can therefore bring together people and in some ways function as a means of formation of national identity. However, I want to explore this topic further and will write a separate post about it.

sa fans

Although anthropologists might argue whether football (or other sports) is a form of ritual, it is quite evident that football has important social characteristics and impacts, in some ways similar to rituals. As compared to other sports, football is the most popular and watched one (with exception for the North America) and it would be worth exploring why this is so and what influences national/regional sports preferences. Might try to figure it out in some of the following blog posts 🙂


Birrell, Susan. 1981. Sport as Ritual: Interpretations from Durkheim to Goffman. Social Forces 60 (2): 354−76. Available at: (29 November 2009).

Cazeneuve, Jean. 1986 (1971). Sociologija obreda. Ljubljana: Studia Humanitatis.

Gaffney, Christopher Thomas. 2009. Temples of the Earthbound Gods: Stadiums in the Cultural Landscapes of Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Gerjolj, Stanko. 2003. Šport in religiozna dimenzija življenja. V Filozofija športa, ur. Dušan Macura in Milan Hosta, 51−9. Ljubljana: Fakulteta za šport, Inštitut za šport.

Hosta, Milan. 2009. Žoga!? Cel svet jo brca in meče, ona pa skače od veselja! Delo, Sobotna priloga, 12 (21 November).

Rappaport, Roy A. 2004. Ritual and religion in the making of humanity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sterchele, Davide. 2007. The Limits of Inter-religious Dialogue and the Form of Football Rituals: The Case of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Social Compass 54 (2): 211−24. Available at: (1 December 2009).

Stevenson, Thomas B. and Abdul Karim Alaug. 2000. Football in Newly United Yemen: Rituals of Equity, Identity and State Formation. Journal of Anthropological Research 56 (4): 453−75. Available at: (18 November 2009).

Šaver, Boštjan. 2005. Šport, mediji in družbena konstrukcija junaštva – Primer Humar. Mediawatch, november 2005. Available at: (1 December 2009).

Šterk, Karmen. 2008. Tisti mesec v letu. Delo, Sobotna priloga, 29−30 (7 June).

Vodeb, Roman. 2001. Šport skozi psihoanalizo. Trbovlje: FIT.


Football as a religion

When Pope Francis spoke at the World Youth Day in Rio and said that Jesus is more important than football (though himself a huge football fan) I asked myself – is this only a way to attract more believers (though in my opinion not really an efficient way, especially before the Brazilian population) or a subtle clash between two different, yet very strong religions. Put differently: can football be viewed as a religion?


Sport as such is not only a physical activity, but also a social phenomenon. Deductively, the same holds true for football. Football has many consequences on people, society, politics and international relations and so on and has therefore become a growing interest field for anthropology, political science, humanities, sociology etc. I decided to take a bit more sociological approach this time and try to analyse some elements of football in relation to and in comparison to other social phenomena: religion (as indicated above), ritual and battlefield (war).


Bill Shankly once said: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” This sentence implies religious capacity of the beautiful game. Much more than players themselves, some fans live for football, believe in their teams and find the greatest sense of their life in this popular game. An example: while around 900.000 people go to church every week in the UK, approximately the same number of the UK residents attends football matches in the Premiership and other nation-wide leagues. Not to mention the TV viewers, whose number exceeds millions. Is it only the fun and spectacle that football offers to them or is there something more? Have they (we) turned to football as a new form of religion?

football religon

Marx said: “Religion is opium of the masses.” So is football.  It distracts people, dictates their way of life, influences their behaviour and many people experience transcendental feelings on the pitch, stadium or in front of the TV (and elsewhere, especially in the bars :)).  People do many things in the name of religion as well as in the name of football, ranging from attending pilgrimages as compared to visiting world cups to committing terrorist attacks as compared to (for example) murdering Andrés Escobar after he scored his own goal at the FIFA 1994 World Cup. Reasons why people choose a specific football club over another one or join one religion and not the other vary from rational to irrational. However, in religion, a big percentage of believers are born into a religion, since they take over a religion of their parents. This often depends on the country/region/area they live in, though with the trends of (global) migration and multiculturalism the geographic factor is becoming less important. Some turn into a (different) religion because of marriage, a specific life situation, a certain experience and so on. Also the choice of one’s favourite football club a lot of time depends on one’s family – especially fathers like to dress their sons in their favourite club’s outfit, take their children to their favourite club’s matches, even name their sons after football legends and so on. However, there is probably more free will in choosing your own football club, while supporting a specific national team normally depends on one’s citizenship or residency. Many fans choose their club on the basis of team’s success, values, way of playing, spirit, home city, overall popularity etc. This holds true especially when deciding about your favourite club on a regional or even global level – many Barca fans all over the world like FC Barcelona so much because of its success, because of its players, its temperament and so on.  But just like in religion, a choice often depends on geographical and cultural environment: someone from Liverpool won’t support Manchester, but will be Liverpool FC fan since their youth. Even people who don’t watch football at all and probably even despise it, will very likely cheer for a team from their home town when playing an important match. In Europe born person will very unlikely turn to Hinduism, but will probably declare himself a Christian. And even if this person is an atheist or prefers Hinduism to Christianity, one will very likely live more accordingly to Christian way of life because one was born into a society, strongly influenced by the Christian values. So both in football and religion, we cannot completely escape our closest environment – despite being atheists or not caring about football at all.

religion football

Belief in supernatural beings

kaka religionThe common characteristic of many religions is belief in supernatural beings, normally referred to as gods. There are also many other beings that are believed to possess special powers or special characteristics. Even atheistic religions that focus on ethics and not on a god, such as Buddhism, have their own important individual, such as Siddharta, also known as Buddha, who wrote the Buddhist commandments. Football on the contrary doesn’t really have its own god, but it has a lot of heroes that are worshiped like gods by fans. Just as the Muslims believe in Allah and in his good deeds, Madrid fans believe in Christiano Ronaldo and in his capabilities. An extreme example is fans of Maradona who founded the Church of Maradona in his honour and treat Diego as their god (more about it later). A difference between religion and football is that there isn’t belief in any higher human-controlling moral authority in football, while in many religions believers believe that their god sees everything and controls their lives. However, demands are made both to gods and football players. While believers turn to God and pray to him for health, luck, love, wealth or whatsoever and demand improvement of their life conditions, football fans put demands on players – to score goals, to play well, to win the match and so on. And when true believers are disappointed by their god and true fans disappointed by their players, they will still continue to believe in them and try to find reasons why god or players couldn’t implement their commands and wishes.


Some religions give many rules regarding the prayer (praying 5 times per day while beingprayer oriented towards Mecca in Islam for example), some leave it to believers, some demand praying in sacred places and so on. Prayer is perceived by believers as a special form of communication with their god or other supernatural beings. Footballers or football fans don’t really have prescribed prayers, but what are national or club anthems other than a special form of communication between supporters of one team? A believer feels connected with god when praying and in a similar manner a football fans feels connected to his or her team when singing an anthem. Just as there is a rule to pray after a mass in a church, there is a rule for the anthems to be played and sung before the beginning of a match. And when football fans are also religious believers, they pray to their god for a win and good performance of their team 🙂 Actually, even if football fans are not really religious, they can often be seen holding their hands up in the sky and praying to some non-existent, non-known higher authority for win or whatever result/performance they want.


Both football and religion have their own rituals, but this will be examined deeper in the following blog post.

Moral code

bibleMoral code is part and parcel of religion. It determines values of believers, their behaviour and way of life. Breaking the rules and acting contrary to the underlying values brings punishment – sometimes a very concrete one, sometimes more imaginary, such as going to hell, sometimes simply a moral dissatisfaction. Many religions require strong obedience to rules, which are often very concretely prescribed – Ten Commandments in Christianity, Decalogue in Islam, sīla in Buddhism and so on. An underlying principle of football is a fair play and there are very clear rules about it. Punishments are even more concrete than in religion. When behaving badly and breaking the rules, god will send you to hell and a referee will send you back to a changing room (actually, also supporters of the opponent team will send you to hell). Even a red card is of the same colour as hell in our imagination, isn’t it? 🙂


Institutionalisation means better organisation, structure and – power. The Catholic Church is one of the richest institutions in the world, with very clear hierarchical structure, rules, wealth, global reach and power. It enters into inter-state relations and actually has a sui generis state of its own, Vatican with the Holy Seat. It is divided into geographical areas and these are wider dispersed into stakes and wards.  The most famous embodiment of institutionalisation of football is FIFA, the world governing body for the association of football. Similarly to the Catholic Church, it has its member associations in 209 countries (which is more than there are officially recognised states and its membership therefore exceeds the one of the United Nations). It has many relations with states, especially when organising world cups or other competitions. Both institutions have some similar characteristics: goals of spreading Christianity/popularity of football, spreading their values, acting globally, doing good around the world (helping the poor, CSR activities at FIFA), being extremely corrupt, having a lot of wealth, organising big events (World Youth Day, FIFA World Cups), bringing together people of different nationalities and races, having special privileges (the Vatican citizenship, the Vatican bank, not having paid taxes to Italy before 2012; FIFA not having to pay taxes in Switzerland) and trying to influence the world affairs.

fifa_logo vatican

Intolerance to the others

Clashes between Serbian and Croatian national teams don’t require description. Similar is with conflicts between the Liverpool FC and Manchester United, Celtic and Rangers, Olimpija and Maribor etc. Fans are often intolerant of each other which might lead to serious violence. Religion, especially Christianity and Islam as religions with global reach have some believers who commit violence in the name of religion. Crusades, Christianisation of indigenous people, terrorist attacks, prohibition of marrying someone of different religion are all signs of intolerance to other religions and competition for new believers. It has to be stressed that none of the religions as such teaches people to be violent, just as the clubs don’t tell their supporters to fight the opponents (after all, such outbreaks of violence cost the clubs) – such violent and intolerant behaviour depends on different interpretations by individuals and groups.  However, such behaviour throws a shadow over religion/football and many opponents to a specific religion or to football use it as a way to delegitimise it. There are many people that connect the Church only with corruption and paedophilia or Islam with terrorism and war or on the other hand, football with violence and racism. All of them, religious authorities, believers, football officials, football players, fans etc. will have to give up intolerance, hatred and violence towards the others in order to regain and maintain a religion’s or football’s legitimacy.

crusades hooligans


Father of the Olympism, Pierre de Coubertin, didn’t want to create religia athletae – religion of sport in vain. Although probably not really a religion, sport and football as globally the most popular sport do have some religious elements and characteristics. Sociologists might disagree with the notion of football as religion, but Alejandro Verón founded the Church of Maradona (Iglesia Maradoniana) in 1998 in the city of Rosario in Argentina. It’s more of a parody than a real religion or syncretism, but it well expresses some of the main elements of religion, and also some of the irrational beliefs that other religions claim to be true. And on the other hand – who is there to determine what is to be believed and practiced and what not? In my opinion, some religions have much weirder beliefs and rules than this one, although I find it amusing 🙂

APTOPIX Argentina Church of Maradona

Here are some characteristics of the Church of Maradona: Diego Maradona is believed to be the best player of all time and supporters of the Church of Maradona count the years since Maradona’s birth in 1960. The religion even has its own 10 commandments:

1)      The ball must not be stained, as D10S  has proclaimed;

2)      Love football over all things

3)      Declare your unconditional love of football

4)      Defend the colours of Argentina

5)      Preach the words of Diego Maradona all over the world

6)      Pray in the temples where he preached, and to his sacred mantles

7)      Do not proclaim the name of Diego in the name of a single club

8)      Follow the teachings of the Maradona Church

9)      Let Diego be your second name, and that of your children

10)   Don’t be a hothead and don’t let the turtle escape you (No ser cabeza de termo y que no se te escape la tortuga)

Here you can also find a short documentary about the Maradona Church:


This example proves that some people do treat football in a similar manner as religion. There are many more elements of religion that could be compared to football (some of them will be discussed in the post about football as ritual), but there is one, a very important one, lacking: belief in the supernatural. Football heroes might be treated as gods and some tricks and actions might appear as magic, but in the essence, football as a game can be rationally explained, without any need for dogmatic stories. Nobody was struck by a voice of a higher authority telling him to spread football among non-believers. Although fans might behave as religious fanatics, in my opinion the distinguishing element that prevents honouring football with the status of religion is exactly this lack of supernatural and unexplainable. But of course, if someone claims football as his or her religion – I support it, everyone has a right to their own belief and to expressing it.

For conclusion I’ll simply say: Whether or not football is religion, whether or not we are football fans and whether or not we declare ourselves religious, we should never forget that each and every person has their own beliefs, and if they are different from ours, it doesn’t mean they are wrong. Both sport and religion are in their basis good and it’s on us to bring out the potential for good and eliminate the space for abuse and bad things.


Is football just a game? A TEDx talk

I’ve always been searching for a TEDx talk about football. And here it is, a talk at TEDxIHECS. Two guys from A World of Football very nicely articulated and presented what I strongly believe in: football is not just about money. It has a great potential to bring people from disintegrated communities together, to provide a positive change for children, and regarding its popularity and universality, to generally serve as a great social tool.

(Plus they are mentioning my favourite country on the Earth, South Africa <3)

Here’s they TEDx talk about some concrete examples of football bringing about positive developments, definitely worth listening to: