Tuesday 13 December 2022

The 2022 FIFA World Cup: Morocco and the Question of Sports and Politics

There is no doubt that sports has often mixed with politics. The sportsman may choose to promote a cause or a military or civilian politician may choose to exploit the success of their sportsmen for political capital.

So far as the history of the World Cup is concerned, several countries expressed reservations about Argentina holding the 1978 World Cup because it was being ruled by a right-wing military junta which came to power in 1976. The junta, led by General Jorge Videla, was criticised for human rights abuses including carrying out assassinations and running a torture programme.

There were no national boycotts but the West German defender Paul Breitner refused to go to the tournament.  It was also rumoured that Johann Cruyff of Holland had boycotted the tournament for political reasons.

At the time, Breitner identified as a Maoist and the Argentine military junta was not only targeting violent Marxist guerrillas, it was also persecuting ordinary Argentines whose views spanned the spectrum of the political left. But Breitner was accused of a certain level of hypocrisy because in 1974, he had signed with Real Madrid of Spain, a team intimately associated with the Francoist government.

As for Cruyff, whose transfer from Ajax Amsterdam to FC Barcelona in 1973 began an emotional attachment to the region of Catalonia which because it had been a bastion of Spanish republicanism had been victimised and marginalised by the Francoist dictatorship after the Spanish Civil War, the long standing belief that his retirement from international football had a political motive came to be largely dispelled when it came to light that his family had faced serious kidnap threats.

Pelé was criticised by some for failing to use his status as the world's premier player to criticise the right-wing military junta which ruled Brazil from the 1960s to the 1980s. Although Diego Maradona, a player who expressed an admiration for left-wing figures such as Cuba's Fidel Castro and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, took Pele to task, he himself played for his country while under the rule of a junta which like that of Brazil was notorious for its use of state violence.

As Socrates the Brazilian star once noted: "Our players of the 60’s and 70’s were romantic with the ball at their feet, but away from the field absolutely silent. Imagine if at the time of the political coup in Brazil a single player like Pelé had spoken out against all excesses?"

The Brazilian military junta, as did its Argentinian counterpart in 1978, milked the achievement of the World Cup-winning team of 1970.

So with the world's attention fastened on the Moroccan national team which has broken the proverbial glass ceiling by becoming the first African team to reach the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup, the question is could a political gesture be made by a member of the squad or the team as a whole?

It is possible that such a gesture could be directed at Morocco's political past or to one enduring geopolitical phenomenon in the Middle East.

So far as the former is concerned, what if a Moroccan player chooses to rehabilitate the memories of reformist-minded military officers such as Colonel Mohamed Ababou and his brother Lt. Colonel M'hamed Ababou who attempted to overthrow King Hassan II through the "Skhirat coup" of July 1971? Or that of Lt. Colonel Mohamed Amekrane who led another abortive anti-Hassan coup in August 1972?

That, perhaps, is unlikely despite the sentiments of younger politically aware Moroccans who view the likes of Amekrane and the Ababou brothers as martyrs.

So far as gestures are concerned in the geopolitical sphere, it is unlikely that a Moroccan player could protest against Moroccan policy towards Western Sahara over which the Moroccan state claims sovereignty.  Most of its people support this claim.

However, the issue on which the national football team as a whole may find unity in promoting would be in relation to that of Palestine: The 2019-2020 Arab Opinion Index records that 88% of Moroccans oppose the recognition of the State of Israel by their government.

As is the case with a number of Arab states such as Egypt which has a peace treaty with Israel, the sentiments of the mass of people in Morocco markedly deviates from their leaders.

And with the World Cup being held in a Middle Eastern country, there is every reason to believe that the Moroccan national football team would in all likelihood dedicate a victory in the World Cup final to the Palestinian people presently living under military occupation.

(c) Adeyinka Makinde (2022).

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.

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