Lest we forgetOn 2 November 2016, Sports Shorts wrote about the English and Scottish Football Associations’ request for their players to wear armbands featuring poppies. On Friday, the two teams ignored FIFA’s guidance and decided to play with the armband anyway.  Our blog post on this issue noted the thorny intersection between sports and politics and the desire of governing bodies to ensure that they are not caught in the middle of potentially contentious issues.

The decision to play with the armbands, irrespective of FIFA’s rules, shows that this is clearly not an issue that will go away lightly. The present issue relates to items of clothing bearing a symbol that many see as innocuous.  However, this is not the first time that the poppy has caused controversy in football.

Some may remember the controversial protest carried out by a small number of Celtic FC fans during a 9-0 rout of Aberdeen in 2010.  Those fans were unhappy with their strip bearing the poppy symbol, as some saw it as a hyper-politicised symbol that, in the context of Ireland, extended beyond the confines of the Poppy Appeal charity.

Political statements in football, however, often go much deeper than apparel.

Many will be aware of the political and historical significance, rooted in the Spanish Civil War, that FC Barcelona attaches itself to.  It proudly adorns the motto ‘Més que un club’ across one section of their home stadium, the Camp Nou, as a symbol of an identity which is inextricably linked to Catalan culture.  Catalonia occupies a contentious space in Spanish politics as the region has often called for independence from Spain.

In September of this year, Barcelona fans displayed 30,000 ‘esteladas’, powerfully symbolic Catalan flags, during a Champions League tie with Celtic FC.  In doing so, Barcelona fell foul of Article 16 of the UEFA Disciplinary Regulations which states that:

“[A]ll associations and clubs are liable for the following inappropriate behaviour on the part of their supporters and may be subject to disciplinary measures and directives even if they can prove the absence of any negligence in relation to the organisation of the match:

  1. the invasion or attempted invasion of the field of play;
  2. the throwing of objects;
  3. the lighting of fireworks or any other objects;
  4. the use of laser pointers or similar electronic devices;
  5. the use of gestures, words, objects or any other means to transmit any message that is not fit for a sports event, particularly messages that are of a political, ideological, religious, offensive or provocative nature;
  6. acts of damage;
  7. causing a disturbance during national anthems;
  8. any other lack of order or discipline observed inside or around the stadium.”

Last season, Barcelona was fined €150,000 in respect of the same issue, after fans had chosen to ignore UEFA in what they saw as a proud display of their heritage.  For many, it seems that politics is a meaningful part of being a Barcelona fan and evidently the club agrees.  In September, the club issued a press release vowing to take their appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (“CAS”), stating that:

“The Club shall be appealing against this sanction, and shall be taking all legal measures in order for the same to be revoked, for it considers it to be totally unjust and to be opposed to the exercise of the freedom of expression.”

Political controversy in football also made the headlines in October 2014 during a qualifying match for UEFA Euro 2016.  Albanian fans flew a drone carrying a banner that promoted Albanian nationalism into the stadium in Belgrade during a politically charged tie with Serbia. Fighting broke out both on the pitch and in the stands and the game had to be abandoned.

The UEFA Control, Ethics and Disciplinary Body (“CEBD”) heard the case in the first instance and found the Albanian FA (“FShF”) in breach of Article 16 (above) on account of the drone’s appearance. Albania was deemed to have lost the match (3-0) and the FShF were issued with a €100,000 fine. The Serbian FA (“FSS”) was also given a €100,000 fine and it was ordered to play two games behind closed doors because of the violence that took place in the stadium. The matter was then brought before the UEFA Appeals body who upheld the decision in the first instance.

Both football associations appealed UEFA’s decision to CAS. CAS rejected the appeal filed by the FSS and upheld (in part) the appeal filed by the FShF. The FShF was deemed to have breached Article 16, but the panel found that the match was abandoned as a result of the FSS’ inability to secure the stadium. In accordance with Article 27 of the UEFA Disciplinary Regulations, the FSS was found to be “responsible for a match not taking place or not being played in full”. CAS stated in the judgment:

“[T]he Panel concludes that the Match stoppage and the eventual Match Referee’s abandonment of the Match were proximately caused by the security lapses of the Match organizers and the intolerable and outrageous acts of violence exerted on the Albanian players by the Serbian supporters and by at least one security steward. For these acts the FAS bears the exclusive responsibility in accordance with the UEFA rules.”

The intersection of politics and football is not a new phenomenon.  However, attempts by the governing bodies to reduce controversial incidents and to sustain the sport’s mass appeal have met with backlash in some instances and been applauded in others.

The issues are rarely black and white; there is often a balance to be struck between freedom of expression and the need to stop potentially violent reactions to antagonistic behaviour. FIFA and UEFA would rather not have to pick sides, hence their rationale for enshrining the de-politicisation of football in their respective rule books.