Soccer Is Politics, Whether It Likes It or Not

Europe’s clubs and leagues, meanwhile — to borrow a line from the novelist Jasper Fforde — have adopted cancer’s attitude to growth. They trail around the world on preseason tours, flog merchandise wherever they can, emblazon the names of any company that can afford it on their jerseys. They plant their flags in any territory they think can make them money with all the determination and moral authority of the scramble for Africa.

The Premier League has allowed its teams to be sold not just to oligarchs and vulture capitalists but to nation states: it is, after all, “ownership neutral.”

All of them take huge pride in the cultural phenomenon of which they are a part. They talk of soccer’s social role, its developmental benefits, its unifying potential. Soccer is often used as a tool of soft power, but it is a form of soft power, too. The Premier League, again, delights in the fact that it ranks alongside the BBC and the Royal Family — well, maybe not Prince Andrew — as one of Britain’s great exports.

All of that, though, comes at a cost. It is not possible to reap all of the rewards without acquiring some of the risk. Soccer’s thirst for growth, for new worlds to conquer and markets to exploit, has forced it into countless grubby compromises. It plays games in stadiums built by slave labor. It serves as an advertising vehicle for launderers of cartel money. It kowtows to despots. It shields its eyes from human rights abuses, and says it is only a sport. It says it is apolitical.

At a certain point, though, declaring yourself apolitical is, in itself, a political act. To willfully ignore something is to tacitly accept its existence. European soccer is willing to see the benefits of its power — the wealth that flows from it — but it has, thus far, refused to accept any of the responsibility.

That is not to say it is a straightforward issue. As one club official said, where do you draw the line? Do you refuse to tour the United States because migrants are being detained at the border and young black men shot by police? Should we suspend the Premier League until the Conservative party’s ideological austerity is at an end? Should Brazil be excluded from the World Cup as long as Jair Bolsonaro is president?

It is hard to draw the line. It might, in a way, even be admirable for European soccer to feel that, as a representative of the West, it is in no position to lecture anyone. But that does not mean it should be allowed to retreat into silence. It does not have the right to be ethically neutral, too. Özil is right: silence on persecution is a form of persecution. It is soccer’s duty, at times, to speak.