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Art of war, football and politics

Publication Date : 06-07-2012


The warriors march onto the battlefield. At the edges, two generals sit alongside their lieutenants, planning tactics and shouting commands. The air erupts with the chorus of battle cries, blare of trumpets and beating of drums from their fanatical followers.

In this battle, there can only be one victor. This is football, and football means war.

Every four years, a battle is waged across Europe. The dust had just settled in the latest edition of the European Championships in Ukraine and Poland with the swashbuckling Spaniards emerging victorious.

But football is more than just a sport. Football not only stirs strong emotions among the players and coaches on the field, but also its supporters in the stands and streets. Throughout history, many acts of hostilities and violence have been exacted in the name of football.

Hours before the match between Russia and Poland, fights broke out in the streets of Warsaw and 140 fans were arrested.

Their centuries-long bad blood can be traced back to the infamous Katyn massacre where 22,000 Polish prisoners of war were reportedly executed during Russia’s occupation of Poland in 1939-1945.

At the height of the Greek bailout crisis, Germany met Greece in the quarter-finals. Predictably, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was booed by Greek fans.

In Europe, the line between football and politics is blurred. Club football is notoriously tainted by political conflicts.

The high tension in the “El Classico” derby between Barcelona and Real Madrid is a spillover from the civil war between the freedom-fighting Catalonians and the Spanish federal government.

The stadiums hosting the “Eternal” derby between Roma and Lazio are eternally marred by fireworks, crowd violence and racist banners.

“Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play,” George Orwell once wrote. “It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.”

In Europe, it is a case of football imitating politics. Sadly, in Malaysia, it is more of a case of politics imitating football.

Ingrained in football is the spirit of tribalism. And ingrained in tribalism are colours and chants. Every football team has its distinct colour. Colours symbolise exclusiveness, and strengthens the “us against the world” siege mentality. The true die-hard supporters don’t just wear their team jersey; they cover themselves in body and face paint.

In Malaysia, political parties are fond of highlighting their colours, especially on flags. Even so-called independent NGOs feel the need to pick a colour. It’s almost as if political and social messages cannot stick in the minds of the average Malaysians, unless they are written down onto colourful post-it notes.

Yes, in Malaysia, important messages can fit into tiny post-it notes. Malaysian political chants are kept short and simple. Anjing and Israel are among the commonly used words, sometimes in the same sentence. A single word can even make a chant, like Reformasi.

The problem with colours and chants is how they are overused to overshadow serious political discourse.

In Malaysia, colours and chants are hollow, provocative and discriminative. They divide, rather than unite. We need to move away from such caveman politics.

Nowadays, much of football news is dominated by off-the-pitch scandals, like having affairs with your teammate’s ex-girlfriend or brother’s wife, or assaulting a DJ for refusing to play Phil Collins. Such external elements disrupt team preparations and harmony.

Malaysian politics are filled with such melodrama too. Much of parliamentary and state assembly time is wasted on personal attacks, and conspiracy theories about secret Israeli links. Such matters may be newsworthy in the entertainment section, but hardly helps to improve economic distribution, racial relations, education and prevention of crime.

We should keep our eyes on the ball, not the fireworks.

There’s always the good, the bad and the ugly. Manchester City’s recruitment policy of paying exorbitant transfer fees and wages is bad. Equally bad is the tendency of Malaysian politicians and voters to be tempted by money.

The serial dressing room bust-ups in the French and Dutch national teams are ugly. Equally ugly is the internal squabbling and power struggles within Malaysian political parties.

But fear not, for all is not gloom and doom in football. Football means war, but as in every war, there is hope and salvation. There is yet some good in European football and politics which we can draw positives from.

Consider the Germans and Italians, traditionally known for their conservative and cynical brand of football. Today, Germany has fully reinvented itself as a youthful attacking team which has attracted legions of fans worldwide.

After their disastrous Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 campaigns, a football reformation appears to be under way for the Italians, who surprised many in Euro 2012 with their free-flowing football.

This is somewhat reminiscent of how Germany and Italy both rose from the ashes of World War Two. Determined to put the ghost of fascism firmly behind, they have now rebuilt themselves as liberal democracies.

The revolution in European football and politics bears testament to how it is possible for people to change old perspectives and embrace new philosophies in life, for the better.

As the German sports brand Adidas puts it: “Impossible is nothing”.

The writer is a young lawyer.


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