This is not another article about kneeling, that equally iconic and hotly contested image of the past year: the athletic figure, low to the ground, as the rest of the team stands for the singing of the anthem. And the subsequent debate: what role, and what right, do our sports stars have to enmesh themselves in the political climate? Shouldn’t sports be, well, sports? And shouldn’t our beloved sports stars stick to what they do best, what we are comfortable seeing them do best—just play sports?
This is not that article, but it does start with that debate, which spilled over onto the soccer pitch in 2016 when American international and Seattle Reign star Megan Rapinoe began “taking a knee” during the singing of the national anthem in response to and support of American football player Colin Kaepernick. Rapinoe explained her choice as, among other things, “I have chosen to kneel because I simply cannot stand for the kind of oppression this country is allowing against its own people. I have chosen to kneel because, in the words of Emma Lazarus, ‘Until we are all free, we are none of us free.’”
The soccer community was up in arms, taking mostly to that bastion of free speech and forum for universal disgruntlement, Twitter, to express their views. “I still do not understand what national anthem [sic] has to do with sports,” one Twitter user wrote in response to Rapinoe’s protest, while another applauded, “I support her with my whole heart. What she did took courage and bravery most don’t have. She’s a hero.” During the height of the brouhaha, the United States Men’s National Team players were inadvertently swept into the conversation, and veteran goalie and sometime captain Tim Howard was asked about the political conversation surrounding the results of the United States’ election and its potential effects on the Mexican-American soccer relationship. Howard’s thoughts echoed those of many who believed that soccer should stay within the boundaries of the ninety-minute match,“This is football…It’s got nothing to do with politics.”
Ultimately, the decision was taken out of the hands of the players and given to those with power, who believed that focus should remain on the game. Minutes before players of Rapinoe’s Seattle Reign and Washington Spirit took the field, Spirit owner Bill Lynch signaled that the anthem be played across an empty pitch, stating later that the team believed, “it was the best option to avoid taking focus away from the game on such an important night for our franchise.” Months later, the NWSL passed “New Policy 604-1,” requiring all players to stand during the performance of the anthem. It seemed as if Lynch and the powers that be had drawn a hard line in the sand (or grass, or turf) with sport on one side and politics quite firmly on the other.
What the league’s new policy and those talking about individual players standing up (or kneeling) for political positions or ideals have failed to take into account is that the precedent had already been set, decades before ‘Pinoe set social media users ablaze. In fact, the history of leagues, teams, and legions of players forming, joining, or being forced to take part in acts of resistance or politics is one that traverses continents, ideologies, and even officially sanctioned football associations.
World War I swept across Europe with a ruthlessness that had barely subsided before a second World War began its brutal march. As entire generations of young men signed up for what seemed like almost certain death, the spotlight was shone on European football in a way that its stars had heretofore been unused to. At the height of fighting during the first World War, as King George V and his fellow Football Association patrons debated keeping the professional leagues playing in order to maintain the morale of a country in benumbed chaos, one young soldier stationed in France wrote home to an English newspaper about his feelings on this separation between the young men on the football fields and those on the battlefields. “Hundreds of thousands of able-bodied young roughs were watching hirelings playing football,” this soldier wrote, echoing the sentiments of none other than one of the most famous notables of the era, author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who made a very public and personal appeal that, “if a footballer has strength of limb, let them serve and march in the field of battle.”
As the need for more able-bodied soldiers grew, it was footballers who stepped up to very publicly fill the demand, forming two Pals battalions, regiments created of groups of friends, or, in this case, teammates who would fight as the 17th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment and the 23rd Battalion, Middlesex Regiment, but would be known to most as the the First and Second Football Battalions. Among the players who became soldiers were Tottenham Hotspur forward and Second Lieutenant Walter Tull, the first Black Infantry Officer to serve in the British Army, who served courageously in the battles of the Somme and Ypres and was killed in action over France. The memorials to Lieutenant Tull manifest the inescapable overlap between sport and politics; both of his former teams, Spurs and Northampton FC, have named sections of their stadiums after Tull, commemorating both his footballing prowess and his wartime legacy.
World War II led to a similar call to action in a nation already depleted of much of its Finest Generation by the previous war’s death toll. This time, it didn’t take long for the country’s most popular sport to take the lead. Bolton Wanderers’ captain Harry Goslin mixed—gasp!—politics and religion when he made an ardent speech urging the 23,000 spectators at Burnden Park on Easter 1939 to do their patriotic duty and enlist. “We are facing a national emergency. But this danger can be met, if everybody keeps a cool head, and knows what to do. This is something you can’t leave to the other fellow, everybody has a share to do.” Goslin backed these heartfelt words with action, leading the entirety of his Bolton team to the war office to sign up. Between fighting, Goslin was called up for Bolton and for national team duty. His Bolton Field Regiment, coined the Wartime Wanderers, fought at Dunkirk, North Africa, and Italy. Goslin was the only member of his Bolton team not to survive the war, hit by shrapnel in December 1943. His hometown newspaper, the Bolton Evening News, eulogized him with a fitting tribute to both of his professions: “Harry Goslin was one of the finest types of professional football breeds. Not only in the personal sense, but for the club’s sake, and the game’s sake. I regret his life has had to be sacrificed in the cause of war.”
No statue or commemorative banner marks the sporting prowess or wartime heroics of Austrian football star Mattias Sindelar. He was considered the greatest sportsman of his era, lionized by the London Times as “one of the greatest players in the world,” with a salary and endorsement deals to match. He was his generation’s Pelé, its Messi, its insert-here-another-player that people who enjoy making comparisons would leap to make. But today, his name and his actions have been virtually erased from Austria’s landscape. His acts of resistance, however, as seemingly simple as scoring goals and speaking to his former colleagues, did not go unnoticed by the Nazi regime.
Sindelar was the heart of Austria’s Wunderteam of the 1930s, a striker so elusive on the pitch his nickname was der Papierne, the Paper Man, in (somewhat confusing) tribute to the deft twists and graceful turns he took on the pitch. Off of the football field, however, Sindelar was a man of the people, spending his time in coffee houses with fans, gambling his earnings with Viennese folk delighted to play with their “Sindi,” their hero and their friend.
When Hitler’s Third Reich steamrolled into Austria, bringing its Final Solution with it, Sindelar’s star was at its peak. In keeping with the changes the Nazis had been enforcing throughout their takeover, they immediately expelled any Jewish players or members of Austria’s football clubs, including Sindelar’s FK Austria, which consequently lost half of its players and almost the entirety of its officials. This action would trigger the start of Sindelar’s quiet but deadly resistance. Ordered not to “mix” with former Jewish colleagues, or those suspected of having Jewish ancestry, Sindelar went straight to his former club president, Dr. Michl Schwarz, to reassure him. “The new president has forbidden us to talk to you, but I will always talk to you, Herr Doktor.”
Anschluss—political union—meant that any occupied territory was now considered part of Nazi Germany, and so teams playing in occupied lands played under Hitler’s swastika. The Nazi propaganda machine began plans to absorb Austria’s best players into a new, “reunified” Austro-German side, and a final match between the stars of “old Austria” and this new, unified team was heavily promoted, with Sindelar as the captain and center of the former squad. Sindelar, a Social Democrat to the core, continued to put his ethics over football, over stardom, over his very safety. Invited to public Reich training session in advance of the match, Sindelar cried off, citing previous engagements, injury—a sport star’s version of having to stay home to wash his hair, and a deliberate insult to the Nazi regime. He did agree to play in the match, countering the demand from the Nazi officials that it end in a low draw with his own request; Sindelar’s “old Austria” squad would play in their traditional Austrian kits, rather than the non-national kits emblazoned with the swastika of the Third Reich. Both sides agreed to the demands, and the match between Austria’s Wunderteam and Hitler’s football regime kicked off to a placid, orderly first half. Around the seventieth minute mark of the 0-0 game, however, der Papierne came back to life. Whether because of his footballing instincts or his political leanings, Sindelar had finished with kicking around the ball with collaborators, and danced a rebound from the German keeper into the back of the net. As the spectators roared their approval, Sindelar continued to dance, right in front of the box where glowering Nazi officials were watching. Sindelar was unbowed, passing the ball to his teammate Karl Sesta for a second goal, finishing the game 2-0.
It would be Sindelar’s last football match, but not his last act of resistance. He refused all requests to play for the new Austro-German side, and, by accounts, didn’t consider leaving Europe, though his connections and his talent would have made leaving both easy and understandable. Instead, he used some of his considerable earnings to buy a coffee shop from a Jewish friend, defying Nazi rules that stated that Jewish-owned business be turned over to the new regime. Though the cafe, and presumably his every move, was being surveilled by the Gestapo, Sindelar welcomed any and all customers, regardless of religion, in yet another direct opposition to the law. It would be the irrevocable blow, the insult that pushed Hitler’s minions past return. On January 23, 1939, ten months after Matthias Sindelar danced in front of Nazi officials on the football pitch, he and his girlfriend were found dead in his apartment from carbon monoxide poisoning. A blocked chimney flue was given as the cause of the buildup, though that remains suspect to this day. 20,000 mourners attended Sindelar’s funeral, flouting Gestapo presence to pay their respects to der Papierne, Sindi, their superstar and friend, who thwarted the Nazis with graceful skill and fearless strength.
The 1960’s brought an end to wartime scarcities and a rise throughout the globe of a new kind of protest; nonviolent but loud, proudly political and unapologetically stubborn, the resistance movements of the decade were communal and action-oriented. It also marked the death knell for British colonialism, as the nation was still recovering economically from two World Wars and finally beginning to examine its long history of imperialism. The eighth iteration of the World Cup, held in England in 1966, is remembered for England’s victory on home soil, for the inclusion of the North Korean team—and for being the first time an entire continent boycotted the tournament. The Confederation of African Football (CAF) had already waded into political waters when, in 1958, it became the world’s first sporting association to ban South Africa based on that nation’s policy of apartheid. Though FIFA had initially followed suit, suspending South Africa for discriminatory policies in 1961, it changed its tune and temporarily readmitted South Africa due to the South African Football Association’s (ridiculous) promise to stagger its teams and send an all-white team to the 1966 World Cup followed by an all-Black team to the 1970 World Cup. On top of the indignities of this back-and-forth racial politicking, when FIFA decided on the lineups for the World Cup, it designated just one spot to be awarded to a qualifying team from Africa, Asia, or Oceania (this was seen as an improvement on previous qualifying policy, under which African and Asian teams were forced to play a qualifier against a European team to be considered worthy of a World Cup spot).
Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah had long seen football as a unifying force, and he lobbied the CAF to take a public stand against what he saw as obviously discriminatory policy. Ghanaian Director of Sport Ohene Djan fired off a telegram to FIFA: “Afro-Asian countries struggling through painful expensive qualifying series for one ultimate one finalist representation is pathetic and unsound STOP at the worst, Africa should have one finalist Stop Urgent — reconsider.” FIFA did not reconsider; in fact, it responded by fining CAF 5,000 Swiss francs. CAF did not back down, making the unparalleled decision to boycott the World Cup, from qualifiers to tournament, unless Africa was considered distinct, rather than lumped in with two other continents. It was organization against organization, as CAF and FIFA stood head to head, waiting to see who would break first, both on the racially-tinged division of wealth in sport, as well as the racially-charged global stage, where South Africa’s apartheid was the focus of many an international rights group.
Ultimately, neither organization caved. FIFA upheld their original ban on South Africa, which would remain in effect until 1992, when the national policy of apartheid ended. CAF engineered a boycott of an entire continent’s worth of teams; of Asia and Oceania, only North Korea and Australia chose to participate, and it was the former that took the lone slot. The empathic statement made by Africa’s teams led to a vote two years after England lifted the Jules Rimet trophy. The vote was unanimous; Africa was awarded its own place in World Cup qualifiers. Its boycott had worked.
One decade, a continent, and three World Cups later, it would come down to another boycott, this time with a more anti-climactic ending. The 1970s saw the ravages of brutal military dictatorships in much of South America, and the implications of that political brutality on international football. A playoff match between the former Soviet Union and Chile, the deciding factor towards who would play in the 1974 West Germany World Cup, was scheduled to be played in the Estadio Nacionál in Santiago on November 21, 1973. Two months prior to this match, however, Chile’s democratically elected president, Salvador Allende, had been overthrown in a bloody coup by dictator Augusto Pinochet, whose regime then rounded up tens of thousands of “undesirables,” among their ranks, students, artists, and leftists, and imprisoned them in the Estadio Nacionál where they were summarily tortured and executed. The Soviet Union had cut diplomatic ties with Chile immediately the socialist Allende was deposed, and requested that FIFA schedule the match on less politically fraught territory. To show that it took the matter seriously, but not subjectively, FIFA sent officials to inspect the Estadio Nacionál for any hint of impropriety. The officials walked the grounds, inspected the pitch, and left, satisfied that the stadium was match-friendly, unaware that thousands of political prisoners were hidden at gunpoint under the stands and inside the bowels of the stadium. The Soviets, incensed, refused to travel for the match, but the FIFA and the Chilean Football Association pressed on, sold tickets, and Pinochet’s army herded the prisoners to the desert so that the game could take place. Which it did. For a little under thirty seconds, as Chilean captain Francisco “Chamaco” Váldes scored into an empty net. The game was declared a victory to Chile, and the very first politically motivated boycott of a scheduled World Cup qualifier ended 1-0.
Today’s renovated Estadio Nacionál is one of the most popular stadiums in Latin America, its tribunal seats having played host both to the barra bravas of the Primera División and to roaring crowds at U2 concerts. However, in the midst of the stadium’s modern glory there is a seemingly antiquated patch of crumbling history: a section of unrenovated wooden and concrete benches remains, where no one will ever sit again, dedicated to the memory of the political prisoners who watched Chile’s farcical win from their enforced hiding spots, dedicated to ensuring that no will be able to forget that time when sport could not be untangled from its dirty legacy.
Major League Soccer’s Orlando City took a similar tack when dedicating its new stadium in January of 2017. With the city reeling from a devastating attack on gay club Pulse that left 49 people dead and the LGBTQ community and its allies across the nation in a state of fear and grief, Orlando City’s leaders took what some could say was a bold stance in painting 49 seats in bright rainbow colors, and stating at the stadium’s official opening that the rainbow reflects the club’s mission to be an “inclusive, diverse and welcoming community.” The response this time from the online community was largely positive; in the words of one fan on Twitter, the colorful tribute “shows soccer can unite people.”
Orlando showed that unity is a matter as much of life or death as it is of inclusivity. Rapinoe, a staunch advocate for the LGBTQ community who has written about her experiences as a gay American and player, stated that part of her disquietude over standing for the anthem stemmed from feelings that, as a lesbian, her liberties haven’t been as protected as those of heterosexual Americans. For South Africans, announcing or insinuating homosexuality goes past a loss of liberties to a loss of bodily autonomy, even life. The case of South African women’s team midfielder Eudy Simelane rocked her communities of football players and LGBTQ South Africans. Simelane was 31 years old and a leader in the women’s sporting world, playing for the Banyana Banyana, as the women’s national team is known, and, after retiring from international competition, continuing to compete with local club Springs Home Sweepers, F.C. She was South Africa’s first female referee and coached youth squads. She was also a lesbian, and, rather than keep that facet of herself quiet due to fear of homophobic retribution, she used her sporting status to advocate for the gay community, leading by example and campaigning for equal rights. In April of 2008, homophobia caught up with Simelane. She was stabbed more than 25 times, raped, and her body dumped in a creek in her home township. While brutal, the manner of Simelane’s murder likely would not have shocked her, as she had been raising awareness of a pattern of “corrective rapes” and killings of lesbians in South Africa.
None felt the reverberations of Simelane’s murder more than South Africa’s lesbian footballers, who faced a daily struggle between living and loving as their authentic selves and fearing for their very lives. Some felt unsafe even in their own homes, where families threatened disownment if they came out. Once again, sport became a haven. The Chosen Few is a football team founded by the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW) for lesbian players. A small thing for some, but enormous for Chosen Few players, many of whom have been assaulted, kicked out of their homes, or experienced corrective rapes because of their sexual orientation. Chosen Few striker Tumi Mkhuma was kidnapped, beaten to unconsciousness, and raped by a man who believed that would “cure” her of being a lesbian. “Now I have to go carefully, I always worry when I’m walking the streets. I have to open my eyes and look left and right,” she says, “But when I am with Few I feel I am with my family. It always puts a smile on my face.” Few provides exactly what its players need: a place where they can be themselves both on and off the playing field.
As we head back into World Cup qualifiers for 2018 and then 2022, fans, players, and associations are beginning to unite under the banner of political action, realizing that not only is it our right to question football’s legacy in the socio-political arena, but our obligation as well. Already, cases of human rights abuses in Russia and Qatar are drawing criticism, with calls to boycott from human rights groups and football luminaries like Yaya Touré, who, noting the racism faced by Black players in the Russian leagues, called on them to spurn the World Cup in protest. The predictable counter arguments sprung up, most notably from the president of the German Football Association Reinhard Grindel, who made a plea for sport to act “beyond all political and religious borders.”
Perhaps someone should have told him that the time for sport to act beyond politics has long since passed.