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The Politics of the World Cup

The Politics of the World Cup

It was a magnificent finale to a tense group stage encounter.

Standing at five and a half feet, Xherdan Shaqiri’s run wasn’t graceful, but with legs pumping like pistons, the Switzerland midfielder surged past the defender and stuck the ball through the Serbian goalkeeper’s legs to win the game 2-1. Then, for the second time that evening, came the gesture.

Within moments of Granit Xhaka’s stunning equaliser minutes before, social media had translated the gesture as the Albanian eagle. Albania, who hadn’t qualified for the finals, were suddenly thrust into the World Cup spotlight. Shaqiri was born in Kosovo to Kosovar Albanian parents, but his family had left for Switzerland prior to the outbreak of war in his native land.

“When the war started it became impossible to go back, and things were very difficult for my family members who were stuck there.” He told the Players Tribune “My uncle’s house was burned to the ground, and there was a lot of suffering.”

Taunting the fans of Serbia with the Albanian eagle gesture may not have been the wisest decision and could have landed him with a ban. However, Shaqiri, booed by the Serbians prior to the match, was understandably swept up in the emotion of that goal, and nailed his nationalist colours to the mast. Just not those of the country for whom he’d just won the game.



Every World Cup professes to be about inclusion and celebration. FIFA and the hosts of each tournament will pay lip service to “putting politics aside” and focussing on a “festival of football”, which is mightily convenient when the host nation’s political machinations are the subject of international condemnation.

Shaqiri and Xhaka’s gestures tested those clichés. While interpreted by many as two men defiantly displaying a symbol of a shared heritage, they were also scolded for doing so there and then, directly towards the Serbian fans.

The nature of international relations means that every international tournament has the potential to throw up ‘powder keg’ fixtures. In qualifying for Euro 2016, a Serbia-Albania game was abandoned after an Albania fan flew a provocative ‘Greater Albania’ flag over the pitch in Belgrade. However, situations such as these are not limited to the Balkans.

1986 saw England play Argentina in a World Cup quarter-final with memories of the Falkland Islands conflict still fresh in the minds of both countries. 1974 saw East Germany play West Germany. There have been many occasions where nations have faced former colonial masters at major tournaments. What would the world have made of a US vs North Korea fixture on football’s biggest stage, had the nations both qualified as they did in 2010?

The common, idealist response would be to suggest that football exists on its own plane, away from the tribulations of the modern world. It is adored the world over for its offer of escapism from the horrors of reality. Yet whilst undoubtedly a form of escapism, international football is about national identity and national emotions. Troubles of the past or present cannot be left in the changing room when the players step out onto the pitch.

There are, however, instances of unity in the face of hostility. In 1998, The United States faced Iran against a backdrop of hatred that had existed between the two nations for decades. Even the most die-hard football fan may struggle to remember the outcome, a 2-1 win to Iran. Yet what is remembered are the scenes before the game, where the two captains exchanged flowers and the teams posed for a joint team photo. Here was football as a force for good, bringing people together in the name of sport. While the photograph didn’t do much to heal American-Iranian relations in the long-term, it did at least provide a rejoinder to the common narrative.



There has been much talk, too, of how Russia in 2018 was a remarkable advert for inclusivity and tolerance. Fans who travelled to Moscow or St. Petersburg returned with stories of how warmly embraced they were by the Russian people and by extension the country as a whole. This has led many to jump to the unfortunate conclusion that much of the negativity aimed in Russia’s direction by the Western press was misguided or over-exaggerated. Even off the pitch, football can provide a façade to hide inconvenient political realities. Indeed, hosting a major tournament has proven to be a remarkable public relations boon for authoritarian regimes.

Many will view international football through the lens of either the cynic or the optimist. We can look at fans from all over the globe coming together and celebrate the almost unique ability of football to heal wounds and improve relations. Or we can see it as representing the worst traits of nationalism and hostility towards ‘the enemy’, whoever that may be. In fact, it’s often both. Thankfully, the Serbia vs Switzerland fixture was uncommon in its political charge, with every other game passing off without incident.

Elsewhere, though, Croatian defender Domagoj Vida was the subject of controversy after making pro-Ukraine comments to a camera in the wake of his sides penalty shoot-out victory over Russia. No matter the intentions of Vida, he, like Shaqiri and Xhaka, demonstrated just how quickly politics can be pulled into focus at the World Cup. In the modern game, these moments can be quickly recorded, dispersed and analysed, and that trend will likely become even more pronounced in years to come.

Football is the world’s one true global game. It is simultaneously a global unifier and an exercise in forced diplomacy. Shaqiri’s winner brought excitement and drama into the living rooms of countless millions, but his celebration reminds us that football will never be able to escape politics. As the game brings us together, it can just as easily pull us apart.


Authored by David Cowlishaw

David Cowlishaw

David Cowlishaw is a freelance football writer based in Lancashire and the founder of two football podcasts.


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The British Online Archives blog is a platform for scholars to present their research to students and the general public. The posts cover a range of historical themes and debates from around the world. The opinions expressed represent those of the authors, not British Online Archives or Microform.

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