Soccer in Propaganda, War and Revolution: Author Ronny Blaschke on the wretched relation between sport and politics -- and a hopeful path forward

German author Ronny Blaschke  recently traveled around the world to explore how politics interferes in soccer in authoritarian countries such as China, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Egypt. The result is his new book Machtspieler, ("Power Players: Soccer in Propaganda, War and Revolution") an unsurprisingly depressing picture of the game's opportunistic exploitation by unscrupulous people in high places. Yet he also portrays a hopeful path forward, forged through resistance and activism among fan groups and civil society.

One of Blaschke's strengths is that he does not polemicize, but allows readers to draw their own conclusions. His interviewees speak for themselves, while the freelance writer and journalist carefully examines the cultural and socio-political environment in any given country. With Qatar's hosting of the 2022 World Cup venue still provoking contentious discussion a decade after its nomination, Blaschke's book is a timely examination of what can happen when clubs, leagues and administrators jump into bed with dubious regimes, or allow themselves to be controlled by violent and extremist supporter groups.

SA caught up with Berlin-based Blaschke to ask him more about his lucid, exhaustively researched, and thoroughly absorbing book.

SOCCER AMERICA: Despite all official claims to the contrary, soccer and politics have always been inextricably mixed. What motivated you to write this particular book at this particular time?

RONNY BLASCHKE: I wanted to avoid writing from the perspective of European fans who think that 'true' soccer has been stolen from them by autocrats. I rather wanted to describe the motivations of the various governments involved. For example, Qatar.

Since 2017 it's been subject to a boycott by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Without its close political and cultural connections in the west, and also to FIFA, Paris St. Germain and Bayern Munich, it's possible that the country would have been attacked by its neighbors by now. Qatar only has a population of 2.5 million people, but it's a geo-political giant. You can find that good or bad, but that's the reality. And so we should examine more precisely its motivation.

SA: In almost every country you visited, the relation between sport and politics is pretty wretched, or at least it has been at some point. Yet everywhere you go, you also find some - even if they're very small - signs of hope among fan groups or in civil society. Was it difficult to remain optimistic about the future of the game during your travels and research?

RONNY BLASCHKE: In western Europe we often reduce certain countries to their regimes. But whether in China, Russia or Qatar, everywhere that I went I found interesting, creative and courageous fans. As a journalist I try to take a backseat and objectively describe facts or situations. Readers then can make their own judgments.

SA: You describe China as one of soccer's future power centers. What exactly is going on there?

RONNY BLASCHKE: The Communist Party controls everything: the economy, the culture, and also soccer. Not just to win over Europeans, but for economic and geo-political reasons. The sale of jerseys and merchandise is intended to boost consumption in the country, while the big concerns are very alert to signals from President Xi Jinping. In the meantime, they're moving away from European professional clubs and investing in Chinese ones instead to gain political approval.

In addition, the Chinese are financing new stadiums in countries like Gabon and Angola as part of the 'New Silk Road.' As payoff, they're getting access to valuable raw materials in these countries. You can view this as neo-colonialism -- or as smart expansion.

SA: You write about several authoritarian countries, or states where democracy is unstable -- for example, the Balkan states, Russia, China, Rwanda, Qatar, Iran and Syria. Yet politics interferes in sport in almost every country. Did you consider writing about the relationship between politics and sport in democratic countries?

RONNY BLASCHKE: True, you could write about the relationship between soccer and politics in every country where the game is played. In Iran 100 years ago the Shah used soccer to try and impose western values. In Egypt, nationalists resisted British occupation through the club Al-Ahly. Globally, many soccer administrators were, and still are, politicians too.

In my last book 'Gesellschaftsspielchen' ('Little Parlor Games') I focused on the state of the game in Germany, and mentioned how Angela Merkel went into the locker room of the German team after they won the 2014 World Cup. People still get worked up about that even today. [Former Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak used to do that regularly. Though on the other hand, when the national team lost he'd impose a broadcast ban.

SA: You describe in your book how many soccer players get into trouble when they make political statements -- either with fans, or with authoritarian governments. Do we expect too much of these high-profile players? How do you view the political and social role of privileged, high-earning soccer players?

RONNY BLASCHKE: Many pros fan the flames of social expectation by giving themselves high profiles in both traditional and social media. We jump to celebrate soccer players just for reading a book, or making some vague statement against racism. Yet there are sportsmen out there who really risk a lot.

The Galatasaray legend Hakan Sükür fell out of favor in Turkey because he supposedly supports the Gülen movement [accused by Turkish President Reyep Erdogan of fomenting the attempted military coup in 2016]. Now he's trying to make a living as an Uber driver in the US. Mohamed Aboutrika, one of Egypt's all-time greats, can no longer enter his country because he reportedly supported the Muslim Brotherhood. Parviz Ghelichkhani led Iran to the 1968 Asian title but refused to kiss the Shah's hand and had to live in exile in Paris. For me, those are soccer's heroes.

SA: Speaking of social responsibility -- right now it seems that a consortium from Saudi Arabia is set to take over English Premier League club Newcastle United. To what extent must a club or a league take into account the human rights situation in any given land? And where, in your view, do we draw between morality and commerce?

RONNY BLASCHKE: I'm not keen on arguing with concepts such as morality because that way you suggest that soccer is fundamentally something different compared with politics and economics. But it's not. Soccer is a professional and globally connected industry, which at best is receptive to romanticization on a minor scale.

At the same time, we should use soccer more effectively for social projects. Not with free tickets, donations or vague messages, but with large, expertise-backed departments within a club that seriously question all of its dealings: in which country will we produce our jerseys? Which sponsors do we want to be associated with? Or take the issue of climate change -- on the one hand many clubs install solar panels on the stadium roof to generate eco-electricity, but on the other hand at home games they use millions of disposable plastic cups, and also use huge amounts of energy to get their grass to grow in winter. So that's a good example of an area where the approach is hypocritical and inconsistent.

SA: Resistance to political manipulation and exploitation often comes from supporters, but mainly from small groups that can be easily intimidated by the power of the state or the violent, extreme-right fan scene. Yet solidarity among fans of rival clubs does exist -- for example among Turkish fans of Besiktas, Fenerbahce and Galatasaray in Istanbul protesting against the Erdogan regime in 2013, as you describe in chapter five. Are mass, solidarity-oriented protests our only realistic chance to save soccer from the powerful, from 'sportswashing,' and from greedy commercial interests? Or are the erratic swings of the market economy more likely to have an effect on the future of the game?

RONNY BLASCHKE: Revolutionary Ultras have become a big thing especially in Egypt and Turkey. In Cairo the Ultras are strictly under the watch of the secret police. State security there has been violent and ruthless, dozens of Ultras were killed, many of them are in prison. I was in Cairo and I've rarely felt myself subject to such scrutiny. Almost nobody there wanted to talk to me. That's sad, because the Ultras are a symbol of freedom and of civil society.

And Turkey? The images of 2013 are still fresh, and there are a few films glorifying the role of Ultra culture -- but in the book I explain what happened after that. Many turned their backs on soccer. They'd love to keep on protesting and singing against Erdogan, but it's barely possible any more. Erdogan struck back with video surveillance and a ticketing system that stores a lot of personal data. That weakened the fan culture. Some have switched to other sports, some are living in exile or have just given up. That's a shame, and yet through soccer many young and creative people formed a bond. This potential's still there, and will be carried forward. For example to Algeria, where Ultras played a role in the 2019 overthrow of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who'd been in power for 20 years.

SA: In 2018 I personally boycotted the Russia World Cup and used my writing to try and persuade others to do likewise. The morning after England's quarterfinal game against Sweden I read that 22 million people watched the game on TV in Britain, and at that point I threw in the towel and ended up watching the last four matches. In the face of these super-powers (China, Russia etc.) and the fantastical sums of money involved in soccer through TV rights, sponsorship and so on, you feel pretty helpless. Do you think there is any point to boycotts? Can we watch the 2022 World Cup in Qatar with a clean conscience, despite the many deaths caused by the inhumane working conditions there during stadium construction?

RONNY BLASCHKE: That's something individuals must decide for themselves. I quit going to soccer as a hobby years ago. It was a wonderful and emotional time of my life watching my favorite team, Hansa Rostock, but at some point it was over. Everything has a time limit. Yet soccer has also politicized me. I met so many people seriously engaged in the fight against racism, sexism and homophobia. And on the sidelines of the huge World Cup stages there are tons of interesting soccer projects. An alternative soccer is a real possibility.

SA: The chapter about the 1978 Argentina World Cup is fascinating. It's clear in retrospect that a World Cup should never have been staged in a land ruled by a military dictatorship up to its neck in the murder and wholesale torture of political opponents. On the other hand, Argentina now has, in your words "possibly the most lively civil society in Latin America," in part as a result of so much activism that resisted oppression, while even those totally opposed to that regime and persecuted by it have fond memories of Argentina's victory. How can we reconcile these contradictions?

RONNY BLASCHKE: That will take a while, because the divergent culture of remembrance in Argentina has not yet really touched soccer. In contrast to Germany, Italy or Scandinavia, say, there's only a handful of fan groups that would decisively define themselves as political or socially critical. And most of the players from the 1978 team don't really seem to want to talk about the military dictatorship from that period. In Brazil, Socrates at one time stood up against military rule, in Chile it was Carlos Caszely. In Argentina they just didn't have any such icons of dissent. From [Lionel] Messi we've never heard a word on the subject. Maybe that will come when he retires.

SA: Finally, a less long-winded question. Will the book be published in English?

RONNY BLASCHKE: I would be very happy if that happened, but right now the Corona crisis is hampering the search for a suitable publisher.

5 comments about "Soccer in Propaganda, War and Revolution: Author Ronny Blaschke on the wretched relation between sport and politics -- and a hopeful path forward".
  1. Mike Lynch, April 26, 2020 at 11:37 a.m.

    You can't have politics without soccer involved in some way due to it large presence in culture. You can, however, choose to have soccer without politics. Soccer can bring people together sharing a common love for the great game and even often as a break from the daily polarized political hysteria. What we agree to disagree about politically should have no bearing how we play pick up games, watch our kids play in leagues, or even watch our favorite pro teams and international teams compete for silverware. Let the players compete and the sporting display be left just as it is intended, two teams competing, no extended endorsement on a government, a political agenda, etc. The focus should remain on the game being played, sportsmanship, fair play. If a player, team or fan chooses to inject politics into the game or if a player, team or fan directly violates fair treatment, human rights, etc, then the sport must intervene as it currently does (or should be doing if following their own rules, bylaws and code of ethics).   

  2. Peter Bechtold replied, April 26, 2020 at 1:25 p.m.

    I agree with Mike. There is much more to sports than the top leagues and superstars. Sports is a form of exercise for the masses, and it can be channeled in youth teams going up to amateur clubs in small towns and villages, something known to Ian and his interview guest especially in Germany where well over 90% of clubs are at the amateur level(down to the 11th/12th tier in all 16 provinces.)

    What struck me once again is Ian's undertone, apparently shared by Blaschke, to find and concentrate on the apple in the worm rather than the fruit itself.(This concept comes from none other than my former "boss" Henry Kissinger who,BTW , played for Spvgg Fuerth as a youth.) I am also reminded of the popularity of German tv programs in the 1980s and '90s which thrived on unmasking perceived irregularities and injustices wherever. This appealed to certain "leftist" strata in German society, particularly with those growing up in the post-industrial age. That is ok by me, but Ian seems to be attracted to these themes of "Kritikaster". Again, he has that right, but in pretty much every article about the "evil" people who run soccer?
    Ultras deserve to be studied in detail, but should they be expected to bring about revolutionary change ? The huge majority of fans are in the stadium just to enjoy the game and to cheer for their side, not to cogitate about the structure of sports. Ahem!

  3. Albert Harris, April 26, 2020 at 11:51 a.m.

    I hope Ronny does find and English language publisher. His book sounds fascinating.

  4. beautiful game, April 27, 2020 at 10:10 a.m.

     FIFA is a magnet for "evil" politics to use their power of the purse to stage tournaments at their venues for political gain. It's the FIFA worm in the core of the soccer apple. 

  5. Peter Bechtold replied, April 27, 2020 at 12:49 p.m.

    @bg: Hmm....Is that FIFA as an institution--in which case you/we need to come up with an alternative--or is it a particular leadership,e.g. Sepp Blatter or Jao Havelange(sp.?) before him ?
    If the latter, can we not apply this to our political system here,i.e. something/actually lots wrong with our democracy: is it Trump or is it the system?

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