Despite claims that they are independent of one another sports and politics are intricately intertwined, argues our columnist Taye Negussie (PhD). More often than not, politics manifests itself through sports, and the occasions of sporting events serve as apt moments to communicate about one’s political linings. This is possible because of the ways both national and local identities become associated with sports teams. This is particularly true in the realm of what has become the world’s sport: football. Since both governments and ordinary citizens have become so physically, emotionally and mentally involved in that particular game, it has become another branch of political expression, identity and propaganda.
For example, in Europe, during the era of the dictatorships that plagued the continent from 1930s through 1950s, the link between football and politics was extremely visible when the dictatorial regimes often used the victories of their national football teams as vindicating their rather crazy policies, whereas, the ordinary masses seized the occasions of football matches to demonstrate either their loyalty and alignment with or dissatisfaction and resistances to the ideologies of the incumbent regimes.
Last month, the Ethiopian national football team played against its Nigerian counterpart in the first African qualifying round for the 2014 FIFA World Cup here in Addis Ababa. By and large, it was a game which captured the heart and imagination of each and every Ethiopian fan. The weeks and days leading up to the match rather looked like a carnival-with a bustling market of the tri-color national team attire and every other conceivable artifact symbolizing the national team; people wearing and marking faces and bodies with the bright green, yellow and red national colors singing and chanting nationalistic songs on streets; even some government-owned FM radios – in uncharacteristic move – playing the long-shelved nationalistic and patriotic music; some exuberant fans travelling on foot to the capital from far-off places like Adamma as a gesture of their deep and heart-felt commitment and support to the national team.
The moment of the match brought the capital and many other major cities and towns to stand-still when crowds of supporters anxiously watched the game from inside the stadium, in large venues and halls, their homes, bars, and cafeterias. Though at the end of the match in which Ethiopia lost 2 – 1 against Nigeria the whole country was engulfed into deeply subdued mood, many supporters shone a remarkable spirit of hope and encouragement at the amazing football skills of the national team-‘the Walias’. On the whole, the infectious nationalistic fervor and exuberance of the Ethiopian national team fans was beyond expression, to say the least.
Now the question arises as to what may possibly explain the enthusiastic and near-hysteria support of the Ethiopian fans to their national team. Is it out of mere passion for football? Does it emanate from the long-tradition of football as a national sport? Or, is it because of a track record of past successes by the national team in continental or world football cups, in the likes of Brazil?
To be sure, none of these can help to explain the issue at hand. As suggested earlier, there will be no doubt about the close interplay between sports (more particularly football) and politics. Especially, in hard and trying moments, football transcends sport and takes on a wide-reaching political or symbolic relevance.
In the contemporary Ethiopian case, I suppose, the issue might be comprehended better when examined within the context of contrasting dimensions of football-politics nexus as unfolded in the post-2005 election period – football serving, paradoxically enough, both as a means of disengagement from as well as engagement in politics concurrently.
Football as disengagement from politics
Though Ethiopia doesn’t have any strong tradition of football, as of recent it has become almost a national passion. One grim consequence of the tragic 2005 national election which claimed the lives of as many as 200 civilians was to drastically change the attitudes and lifestyles of a significant number of Ethiopian youth. Given the draconian laws and measures (following the election turmoil), the democratic space in the country has substantively been curtailed; and it comes as no surprise to see afterwards many youth being politically apathetic.
By way of escaping the bloody politics, many youngsters have since then resorted to an acquisitive and self-absorbed lifestyle where the burgeoning popular culture such as the European football loomed large. Meanwhile, the life and stories of football players in the Premier League, Bundesliga, and La Liga have become the only agenda that the youth in Ethiopia can freely and safely discuss about.
This move on the part of the youth appeared to be a welcome measure tacitly facilitated by the government as it distracts them from engagement in opposition politics and grass-root civil movement – a respite for a government which no longer has the stomach for any dissenting views.
Football as engagement in politics
Paradoxically, the same politically-disengaging football, at times, has served as a facet of ideological battle as witnessed in the recently held Ethiopian national football team qualifier playoffs for 2013African Cup of Nations and the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
A close observation of the cheering symbols, narrations, actions undertaken on the occasions of the aforementioned matches quite well reveal some tacit contest of symbolic political discourse underway between the government and the larger football fans.
For instance, much of the government-owned media programs attempted to depict the unprecedented recent successes of the Ethiopian national football team presumably as a showcase of the fruits of the government’s economic and social “renaissance” program vindicating the ruling party’s “triumphant” leadership.
Whereas, on the other hand, the cheering symbols, mood and emotions of the larger national team fans speak otherwise. Witness the incident that though the government mandated the hoisting of the new tri-color national flag that has the coat of arms in the middle in all public occasions by law, several enthusiastic fans were trying to manipulate every opportunity that would lend them a hand to wave the tri-color national flag without the coat of arms as an embodiment of the Ethiopian nationalistic sentiment.
All in all, against the dismal record of the present government on the agenda of national unity and solidarity for the past two decades, the nationalistic fervor among people nearly across the whole country and beyond in the wake of the recent occasions of the national team matches evidently suggests the still intact Ethiopian spirit, unity and collective consciousness that has not changed or been diminished as might be expected otherwise. Moreover, the apparent resistant symbolic display by the larger football fans during such moments may also testify a defiant and protesting gesture against the repressive, divisive and polarizing hegemonic ethnic-politics that has been imposed by the current ruling regime.