European Football and Populism: More than a Coincidental Connection? OP/ED #2

by Jacob Braun

Football and right-wing populism in Europe are irrefutably intertwined. Although FIFA ostensibly supports an apolitical stance at its games, spectators and players alike engage in right-wing sloganeering and nationalist displays. Attracting large numbers of predominantly white, male spectators who get riled up for their club’s victory, it’s no wonder there’s a problem in the pitches. Whether FIFA likes it or not, their football arenas are used as political tools by European populists to take advantage of the xenophobic and racist sentiments rife within them. If we want to deal with this issue, we really need to kick it out!

European football fans are notorious for being quite violent at times. With such an aggressively charged macho atmosphere surrounding the sport, it’s easy for passionate crowds to erupt into thuggish mobs. For star black players, football spectators channel their anger towards them for anything from missed goals to lost games. Take the 3 black players for England’s Euro 2020 team, who faced racist abuse after their loss to Italy in a shootout. When also taking into account the fierce nationalism which pervades the realm of football, populist rhetoric can effortlessly take root among amped-up spectators.

A defaced mural of Marcus Rashford is covered with supportive messages against his abuse following England’s 2020 Euro loss. Source

Populists love their dichotomies. The us versus them dynamic is integral to the populist ideology; denoting a clear enemy of the cause. It makes sense then why the “Donald Trump of Portuguese Football,” Bruno de Carvalho, used this binary rhetoric during his tenure (with the addition of some colourful language). De Carvalho rose to prominence thanks to his fiery personality and disdain for the old guard, echoing many other eminent populists. Thankfully the aggressive president-fan was ousted in June 2018, but his presence as the head of Sporting CP serves as an insight into how populists make names for themselves and take root in the football world. 

Bruno de Carvalho, the “Donald Trump of Portuguese Football.” Source

The purpose of football has evolved past solely kicking a ball around and scoring goals for amusement. In Hungary under the auspices of Viktor Orban, it has become a political tool. With every match that takes place on a Hungarian pitch, he pits his illiberal democratic values against the liberal democracies of western Europe. Because of his presence at matches in Hungary, football has become a meeting place for populist politicians and businessmen who are supportive of Orban. It has also become a place of populist rhetoric dissemination among the spectators, resulting in homophobic chants.

A fan runs on to the field protesting the Germany-Hungary Euro 2020 football match. This match took place in early June of 2021, shortly after Hungary’s legislation of anti-LGBTQ laws. Source

Football in Europe and right-wing populism go hand in hand. In the modern age football has evolved into a platform for political discourse, which has been co-opted by populist fans. As much as the governing agencies try to discourage its games from becoming political arenas, there is nothing that can be done other than actively recognizing and combating the issue. Holding an apolitical stance will do nothing! Overall, the need for the football to populism pipeline to be recognized is at an all time high while Europe is threatened by populist leaders. Maybe by shutting it, we can make a significant change down the line.

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