We tend to get angry when footballers talk politics. But should we cut them more slack?
Who would you rather spend the day with, Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi? Let’s suppose you can spend the time as you wish, with one exception: football can play no part in whatever activity you do. You’re not even allowed to talk to them about football.
Pundits and fans relentlessly compare Messi’s and Ronaldo’s footballing achievements. Few compare their characters. There are good reasons for this. They are professional footballers, not monks, and their ability to kick a football is hardly affected by their moral authority. At any rate, character qualities are intangible, unlike goals per minute, and probably less important to most fans anyway. Real Madrid fans are unlikely to care much about whether Ronaldo is kind to animals or a Barcelona fan about whether Messi is a good listener. They care about whether they are helping their team to win or not.
The question is also rarely asked because comparisons of their personal qualities leaves little to talk about. Both are famously football obsessives. Perhaps the only thing that occupies Ronaldo more than football is himself: before Ronaldo, only dictators had the self-confidence to build museums dedicated to themselves. While Messi might appear modest by comparison, that’s about as much as you can say for him: he has such singularity of purpose that he had his house designed to look like a football pitch from above.
While Ronaldo’s and Messi’s footballing skills are superlative, their public personas are largely uncontroversial and apolitical. This is not an accusation and not necessarily their fault: there are widespread expectations that while professional footballers are fine to use their platform to get people to buy things, they should shy away from having opinions about politics or society. When they do express opinions about things beyond football, they are usually met with hostility: Gerard Pique’s vocal support of the Catalonian right to vote for independence was confronted with an astonishing degree of anger, in part from conservative Spanish loyalists, but I suspect, also because people felt that a footballer was getting ideas above his station. Pique disregarded football’s ideas about what a footballer should and shouldn’t talk about.
Football’s governing bodies, whether the FA or FIFA, do everything they can to discourage the mixture of football and politics. There is an important and apparently sensible principle behind this. By forcing a separation between football and politics, by, for example, banning the wearing of political badges or symbols, they aim to prevent football becoming a vehicle for propaganda.
Ironically, driving a wedge between football and politics might reinforce the worst of both and, more than anything else, guarantee that football is political and in all the wrong ways.
Yet apoliticism might be as harmful as the propaganda football’s governing bodies so assiduously prohibit and political naivety can paradoxically have unwanted political implications. FIFA’s decision to allow the Russian Republic of Chechnya to host a World Cup base has already landed them in hot water: Ramzan Kadyrov, the de facto leader of Chechnya, who has been accused of extrajudicial killings and the torture of LGBTQ+ people, visited the Egyptian players as they prepared in Grozny and posed for photos with stars including Mo Salah. Amnesty International were quick to condemn the photo with Salah as “pure sportswashing”.
Kadyrov has a proven instinct for a photo opportunity, especially when it comes to footballers. Until he was banned from Instagram, he populated his account with photos of himself and football stars including Ronaldinho and Didier Drogba. Kadyrov’s use of Instagram might have been pioneering for a dictator, but his appeal to football is nothing new. General Franco and Mussolini were both highly sensitive to the currency that could be gained by co-opting football for political purposes.
Ironically, driving a wedge between football and politics might reinforce the worst of both and, more than anything else, guarantee that football is political and in all the wrong ways. Why then are footballers actively discouraged from thinking politically or expressing political sentiment? Aside from an ingrained snobbery about a footballer’s right to intervene in public debate, it’s also about money: an outspoken footballer is a commercial liability. It is easy to imagine a near future in which a retired Messi or Ronaldo is wheeled out as an ambassador for FIFA’s plan to expand the global reach of the game by hosting its flagship event in North Korea. “The 2034 North Korea World Cup: not even the worst place which hosted it”. If either player were to speak out against that regime’s human rights abuses, they might compromise FIFA’s most commercially exploitable event.
What might the political footballer look like? Neville Southall, ex-Everton and Wales goalkeeper and winner of the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year in 1985, might provide one possible role model. Southall’s recent fame spawns as much from his Twitter profile as from his footballing exploits. In the past few years, he has leased his Twitter to groups including, but not limited to, a sex workers’ collective, a suicide bereavement charity, a drugs helpline and various LGBTQ+ projects. Southall’s idea is simple: to educate people that might otherwise never hear first-hand the experiences of the marginalized groups to whom he is lending a platform.
It is easy to imagine a near future in which a retired Messi or Ronaldo is wheeled out as an ambassador for FIFA’s plan to expand the global reach of the game by hosting its flagship event in North Korea.
Southall is also not shy to intervene in public (Twitter) debates about politics. One of his more bizarre series of Tweets addressed the theme of skeletons and imaginatively linked that back to Tory austerity politics:
Tories new policy
Save money on burials
Make your nans skeleton into a coffee table and your uncle into
Saving the country money
Southall’s Twitter presence is refreshing. I probably think this because I broadly agree with him. But what if I didn’t? What if he was a self-declared fascist like Paolo Di Canio? It’s hard to accept that someone with views like him should be able to use their status as a famous footballer to spread fascism. I can only offer as a counter that most players are not and would not be fascists, and that perhaps their being more politically engaged would make them more alive to the corruptions of their own game, how it’s run, how it’s marketed and how their role as commercial ‘influencers’ might be pernicious. Perhaps we need to carefully consider what our attempts to discourage politics among our footballer players says about us and who we idolize. It might even make the game more interesting. After all, who would you rather hang out with, Messi, Ronaldo or Neville Southall? And remember, you can’t talk about football.