Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

There’s an often repeated statement: ‘Politics should never be mixed with sports.’ Ideally this should be the case, but the fact is that sports and politics do mix and there’s nothing one can do about it. Sports are played by men and women, many of whom are as much affected by their respective countries’ politics as their fans and/or countrymen and women. So, despite the many rules enacted by international sporting bodies to discourage this mix, politics often manage to play a visible role in how a sportsperson or their fans end up behaving on and off the field.

The most stunning example is the one in which the armies of El Salvador and Honduras actually went to war after El Salvador won the decisive game during the qualifier series between the two countries for the 1970 FIFA World Cup. The ensuing war became known as the ‘Soccer War’ even though the causes of it were more complex. Relations between El Salvador and Honduras were already tense before the matches.

Clashes between fans of both the nations had already taken place during the matches. Then, after El Salvador squared the series 1-1, its government broke off diplomatic ties with Honduras. The El Salvadorian government accused its Honduran counterparts of unleashing violence against refugees from El Salvador and expelling 11,700 of them.

Sports should not be mixed with politics, but underlying political tensions are often not lost on the fans

When El Salvador won the third game, more violence between fans of the two countries in the stands was followed by an actual war between the two nations.

This is just one example. During the 1986 Football World Cup, the memory of the 1982 war for the Falkland Islands between British and Argentinian forces was still fresh. Tension among fans of both the countries was running high when Argentina met England in the quarter-finals. Rioting between supporters of the two countries had taken place just before the match in which several British fans were hospitalised. Argentina went on to win the match, after a controversial goal from its captain Diego Maradona put them ahead, kicking off an intense football rivalry between the two countries.

During the 2004 Football Asia Cup in China, when the home side played their ‘historical nemesis’ Japan (the country had occupied China during World War II), the crowds did their best to drown out the Japanese national anthem with loud chanting and booing. In the late 1960s, black American athletes and the former world heavyweight boxing champion, the great Muhammad Ali, often expressed ‘black power’ symbolism and rhetoric during international meets. Recently, the multimillion-dollar American football scene was rocked by controversy when many black major league players refused to stand straight during the playing of the American national anthem in a show of dissent against what they saw as prevalent racism in the US.

Lask week, fighting broke out between Pakistani and Afghan fans, outside and inside the stadium during an after Pakistan’s close game against Afghanistan in the Cricket World Cup in England. Some Afghan fans also jumped into the ground in an apparent attempt to attack the Pakistani players after the match. Pakistan and Afghanistan have had a long history of rocky relations and mistrust.

Read: ICC to take action after fans clash at Headingley

There are millions of Afghan refugees in Pakistan who began to arrive in the 1980s during the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan, which was funded by the US and Saudi Arabia and willingly facilitated by Pakistan. Just before the match, during this year’s world cup game, the CEO of the Afghan Cricket Board had told the media that Pakistani cricketers should learn from Afghan players. Retaliatory remarks by some former Pakistani cricket stars, about Afghan players once being refugees in Pakistan, fuelled the clashes between the fans. Most eyewitness reports suggest that the Afghan fans were more proactive in this respect.

Relations between India and Pakistan have been rockier and both countries have fought four wars against each other. Yet, interestingly, their matches at international cricket events have never witnessed any clashes between fans of the two cricket-crazy countries. However, in the fifth Test match in Karachi during the 1982-83 Pakistan-India series in Pakistan, youth belonging to a right-wing student group invaded the ground and attempted to attack the two Indian batsmen who were at the crease.

Then, in Ahmadabad, during the fourth Test match of the 1987 Pakistan-India series in India, the Pakistan team walked off the ground after it was pelted with stones by the crowd. During Pakistan’s 1999 tour of India, the Pakistan team often travelled with security guards and commandos after a right-wing Hindu nationalist group threatened to attack the players at their hotels and on the ground. The radical outfit had already destroyed the pitch at one venue and announced that it would release poisonous snakes into the stands if the Pakistan series was not called off.

But, surprisingly, despite the fact that Pakistan-India matches often attract fans from both the countries to watch the matches from the stands, there have never been incidents such as the one witnessed recently during the Pakistan-Afghanistan game.

Bangladesh’s relations with Pakistan have blown hot and cold ever since East Pakistan separated in 1971 to become Bangladesh. Thousands of Pakistani troops and a far larger number of ordinary Bengalis were killed during the civil war. Bengali separatists living in England threatened to attack the visiting Pakistan team during the 1971 England-Pakistan series. The Pakistani squad then refused to sign a bat that was to be auctioned to help the victims of a cyclone in East Pakistan. Some players claimed that the money would end up in the coffers of militant Bengali separatists.

In 1979, when the Pakistan team undertook a short tour of Bangladesh — which was still not an official Test playing nation — Pakistani players had to be escorted out of the ground during a match in Chittagong when a huge crowd invaded the field to attack them. The mob followed the team bus all the way to the team’s hotel, where the police dispersed the enraged crowd with batons and tear gas.

During a recent run of seminars by the University Of Chicago’s Institute Of Politics on the topic of ‘Power and Politics of Sports’, speakers were of the view that “The sports world is bigger and more powerful than ever, with athletes wielding more and more influence over culture and politics.”

In an essay for the Northeastern University Political Review, Meredith McClearly writes that such an influence has often been used by heads of state and governments ‘to assert their political dominance.’ This interrelationship between the two often boils over and impacts the behaviour of the crowds, even when the sports personnel or a government decides to downplay it. The underlying political tensions are not lost on the crowds.

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 7th, 2019