We’re often told football and politics don’t mix and should be kept separate. But is that ever really possible?
People from all over the world use the sport as a safe haven to escape life’s challenges. Many see football as a unifier, the one common distraction in an increasingly antagonistic world. This ubiquity means football is essentially a reflection of wider society and so inherently finds itself tangled in society’s conflicts.
When you combine this global appeal with the (still relatively recent) shift towards players increasingly using their platforms to speak on matters away from the pitch, football is now in a position where it feels compelled to take political stances.
The bigger the club or player, the more expected they are to show solidarity against perceived injustice – directly challenging those who are keen for the game to remain neutral and even silent at times.
Not only does this present a conflict, it also means not all issues are handled with the same level of sensitivity. Football’s response to the violence in the Middle East has brought this discrepancy to the forefront. Liverpool in particular have come under fire for removing supporters from Anfield for showing support to Palestine, in line with a recommended directive from the Premier League.
How can football and politics be kept separate in these conditions? If football is going to allow political statements, how can it ensure it does so fairly? More importantly, what does football’s response to this war tell us about its relationship with politics?
In late October, the Premier League advised its clubs to prohibit Israel and Palestine flags inside stadiums, allowing clubs to enforce this guidance at their own discretion. While this is an apolitical stance on a matter that concerns many Premier League supporters and players, the rationale is easy enough to understand.
Given the violence has reached a contentious climax in recent weeks, the worry is that Premier League grounds could become a proxy for tensions to intensify and make people with flags targets of abuse at games. But this is a passive neutrality that allows some of the biggest clubs in the world to selectively absolve itself of social responsibility.
Liverpool’s implementation of this guidance has raised concerns after a supporter was escorted out of the ground by stewards and asked to remove their ‘Free Palestine’ jumper – a jumper which did not advocate support for Hamas or promote violence against Israel.
This led many to point to Liverpool’s support of Ukraine amid Russia’s invasion just last year. At the time, the Merseyside club didn’t only allow Ukraine flags into Anfield but also released a retail range in the same colours with all sale proceeds going to the DEC Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal.
To clarify, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this in isolation, but the fact it was a much more pointed response to another deeply political matter exposes a worrying inconsistency and causes real issues for supporters and their relationship with the club.
“It suggests certain causes are worth fighting for and others aren’t.”
Liverpool are not the only ones. Manchester United sacked a steward for offering to help bring Palestine flags into Old Trafford. Celtic have banned ultras group The Green Brigade from home matches after they defied the club’s request by displaying Palestine flags during their Champions League game against Atletico Madrid.
But Liverpool’s approach is more unsettling when you consider its history and reputation as a left-wing, socialist club. Former captain Jordan Henderson campaigned for and encouraged footballers to donate to the NHS during COVID. The LFC Foundation routinely gives back to the underprivileged in its local community. ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ has been sung at The Kop for 60 years and is a song which has come to symbolise the club’s unity in uplifting the disadvantaged in times of adversity. It is a rallying cry for social justice and equality, the idea that – in spite of the billions of pounds in the modern game – Liverpool is still a club for the people.
The wider implications of this are inescapably discouraging. It suggests certain causes are worth fighting for and others aren’t. It goes against the reputation Liverpool have worked tirelessly to forge over the years. And perhaps most troublingly, if a club like Liverpool can be so heavy-handed in its approach to something so sensitive, where does that leave the rest of football?
However, clubs aren’t the only ones caught in this storm. On a player level, the inconsistencies appear to run much deeper. Footballers are growing more used to raising awareness about issues close to their hearts through social media – and this something we’ve seen no shortage of in the last few weeks.
Oleksandr Zinchenko routinely uses his platform to speak out about the war in Ukraine: how it affected him, his family and fellow Ukrainians – and it’s something he’s been widely commended for. Most recently, Zinchenko showed solidarity with Israel on his Instagram, and while he restricted his account following backlash, he faced no official consequences for his stance.
Thibaut Courtois, whose wife is from Israel, also expressed his sadness and support for Israel after the initial terror attack on October 7. Despite La Liga’s reluctance to comment on the violence, there was no fallout from Courtois’ statement.
Manor Solomon, an Israeli international, was more outspoken in his stance – alleging on Instagram that Hamas was behind the Gaza hospital explosion and chose to blame Israel as a cover-up. And although the Tottenham winger’s Instagram account was temporarily suspended, he has faced no footballing consequences for his remarks.
Meanwhile, Anwar El Ghazi has been embroiled in a back and forth with Mainz which has resulted in his contract being terminated following a now-deleted post on his Instagram. The post in question included the line: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” Hamza Choudhury also tweeted and deleted the first half of this phrase with a Palestine flag emoji, leading to a warning from his club Leicester City.
It’s important to note that this phrase has been interpreted in vastly differing ways. The “river to the sea” is a reference to the land between the Jordan River, which borders eastern Israel, and the Mediterranean Sea to the west. But it is the use of the word “free” which splits opinion.
Within Jewish communities, the phrase is widely considered antisemitic, with the term “free” interpreted as a call for the elimination of the Jewish state in favour of a solely Palestinian one – leaving the status of Jews in the region chillingly unclear. However, among many pro-Palestinian circles, the statement expresses the desire for a unified state in which Palestinians can live freely as equal citizens without oppressing or being oppressed.
Context and intent here are key. Considering Choudhury apologised for any offence caused by his tweet and El Ghazi clarified that he condemned “the killing of all innocent civilians in Palestine and Israel”, it’s clear their intentions behind their expressions of solidarity with Palestine were no more malicious than Zinchenko’s or Solomon’s or Courtois’.
So why the one-sided backlash?
“There needs to be more bravery and leadership in ensuring football is as far-reaching and inclusive as it paints itself to be.”
There is a Western bias that clearly influences which causes fans and players are ‘allowed’ to show support for. Home Secretary Suella Braverman has repeatedly branded all pro-Palestinian marches as “hate marches” with the aim of “wiping Israel off the map.”
When a senior political figure can speak so carelessly about the pro-Palestinian cause, it makes those in support of Palestine feel even more compelled to raise awareness – especially when they’ve been advised not to – in stadiums or via social media for example.
This will only create a vicious cycle within football and beyond. The more delegitimised the Palestinian cause becomes in society, the greater the risk of tension in an already precarious situation.
The issue is, the greater political agenda in this country is set by an increasingly right-wing UK Government – and it’s one that trickles down into football, whether we want it to or not. First Braverman says the police must take a “zero-tolerance approach” on a matter as delicate as pro-Palestine protesters chanting “from the river to the sea.” Then the English FA tells its clubs that it will consult the police if any further players use the phrase in reference to Israel and Gaza. The parallels are clear to see, and there is a reluctance to properly engage with the Palestinian cause across the board.
Football and politics have been interlinked for decades. The sport has campaigned for various political matters that have suited its agenda before, often in a surface-level manner – look no further than the Rainbow Laces campaign. But it’s clear that Palestine is not included in football’s agenda. FIFA, UEFA and the FA are all happy to line up behind causes when it suits them, and this conditional activism is extremely harmful.
The response to support for Palestine within football has exposed a level of hypocrisy that undermines the sport’s role as an authority on political issues. There needs to be more bravery and leadership in ensuring football is as far-reaching and inclusive as it paints itself to be.
How can football be an escape from the real world when it constantly reminds us it’s just as insincere?