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Politics Take to the Soccer Pitch

Sean SinicoJanuary 19, 2006

Willing to use any means at their disposal to gain the public's favor, politicians are more than happy to stage their political battles on the soccer field, but experts wonder if it really has an effect.

Packed stadiums are often too good a stage for politicians to say no toImage: dpa - Bildfunk

Whether by banning nations from taking part in international sports matches or boycotting events in antagonistic countries, politicians have often used sports as a tool to make political statements and advance their own agendas.

The most recent example has come from a number of German politicians who have called for banning Iran from the 2006 soccer World Cup in response to anti-Semitic comments from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Iran Präsident
Ahmadinejad called the Holocaust a mythImage: AP

FIFA, world soccer's governing body, announced it would neither ban Iran from this summer's event nor get involved in political issues. German Chancellor Angela Merkel also stated Wednesday that she does not support expelling Iran from the tournament.

Days after the Iranian president's statements, which called for the destruction of Israel, Germany's Bundesliga leader, Bayern Munich, played a controversial training match in Tehran sparking debate as to whether it legitimized Ahmadinejad's government.

No clear line dividing politics and sports

Bayern's manager, Uli Hoeness, told reporters, "We want to reduce this to soccer only." However, Iran's vice president and head of sports, Mohammad Aliabadi, said the game did indeed have "political significance." English broadcasts to the 50,000 fans of "Peaceful use of nuclear energy is the natural claim of the Iranian nation" at the beginning of the match helped demonstrate the Iranian approach.

But even if Bayern were only interested in the 300,000 euros ($363,000) they received for the 12-hour trip to Tehran, it's far too late for anyone to ignore the fusion of sports and politics, according to sociology professor Gabriele Klein, who focuses on movement, sport and dance at the University of Hamburg.

FC Bayern München gewinnt Testspiel in Teheran 2:1
What happens in the game isn't what's most important when it comes to politicsImage: dpa - Report

"Sports have always been politicized," she said. "The actual game on the field during the soccer World Cup is only a small part of the entire event."

The political furor that erupted last week over FIFA's cancellation of Berlin's World Cup opening gala -- an event that wouldn't have an effect on the tournament's outcome -- also shows there's more to sports than which team wins.

More than just a game

"Being named host of a large sporting event is of major importance to municipalities as well as national organizers," Klein said. "Whether a city is a venue for World Cup matches is important, because sport is much more of a mass phenomenon than other festivals."

The important cultural role sports plays and the emotions it stirs up in fans make it an ideal way for politicians to gain favor among their constituents, according to Hans-Georg Ehrhart of Hamburg's Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy.

Gerhard Schröder spielt Fußball
Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder often tried to connect economic success with victory on the fieldImage: AP

"Politicians try to push themselves into the forefront in an attempt to get some of the shine of the event to rub off on them," he said. "You can see it by the number of politicians sitting in the stands."

While politicians in democratic countries have little opportunity to gain any actual standing with voters by kicking a soccer ball or throwing the opening pitch, authoritarian regimes have repeatedly attempted to use international sporting events to legitimize their power, Ehrhart added.

One of the most infamous examples of the politicization of sports occurred during the 1936 summer Olympic Games hosted in Nazi Germany. Hitler used the games as a chance to showcase the Third Reich and impress the world by improving Berlin's sports facilities and making a show of the until-then modest Olympic tradition.

The positive side to politics mixing in

But it's not always negative when politicians get involved in sports. Sporting events provide international politicians with a chance to meet without the pressure of international summits and press conferences, according to Thomas Löwer of Philipps University in Marburg.

Nixon in China
"Ping pong" diplomacy helped Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon normalize relations in the 1970sImage: AP

"Sporting events are always a nice meeting point for politicians," said Löwer, adding that Pakistan and India's politicians meet at international cricket matches and that the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan helped those two nations improve relations as well. "Sports provide a way for countries to get together."

But the players who make the political door-opening events possible -- and who are seldom asked for their personal opinions -- are not concerned with what world leaders are saying in the stands, according to Reza Fazeli, a soccer agent who represents a number of Iranians in the German Bundesliga.

"The players are athletes who are not influenced by international politics," he said. "Politics is one thing and sports is another, and politicians should simply stay out of soccer."