When football bows its head

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When football bows its head.

It was 1988 and a politically-attuned sixth-former was arguing with a rugby-mad friend another over whether apartheid South Africa should be readmitted to international sport.

Exasperated with the ban on the Springboks, which he believed was ruining his favourite game at international level, the rugger-bugger insisted to me, "I think politics should keep out of sport!" Oh, if only.

Politics certainly has tampered with the Beautiful Game too often. Benito Mussolini made the Azzurri wear black shirts at the 1934 World Cup in honour of his fascist movement. Hitler assumed the more talented Austrian wunderteam into a greater German eleven, losing the talents of Matthias Sindelar and others.

Then there was the Argentine junta's manipulation of the 1978 World Cup, Silvio Berlusconi's use of A.C. Milan as a springboard for his political career and so on.

As football exerts such a strong emotional pull on so many people, it is a wonder more politicians do not ally themselves with a successful club or national team.

The players are often the victims, from the England eleven forced by the British ambassador to give Nazi salutes in Berlin in 1938 to the talented Yugoslavia team forced to exit Euro '92 before a ball had been kicked, to Israel's national team who, absurdly, play in UEFA competition instead of the AFC.

When football bows its head

This month the US axed a planned friendly in Cairo, leaving its players without a February friendly. The USSF had no option but to cancel. Try as we might, sometimes we cannot keep politics out of football.

"Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that."

So goes the famous quote of the former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, allegedly plagiarized from American football coach Henry Russell Sanders.

Well in reality it is not. And fandom is a bacchanalian dreamland, an escape from everyday truth.

Today we heard that Formula One had canceled the Grand Prix in Bahrain, one of the Arab nations suddenly in the grip of volatile government and civil unrest. Even as rich a sport as F1 must bow its head to the serious matter of an unfolding revolution.

More tragically, Monday also brought news that three Somalian footballers, including promising U20 star Abdi Salaan Mohamed Ali, had died in a suicide bombing attack on their way back from training.

Sport must know its place, and it usually does. Human tragedy has a silver lining in giving us a sense of perspective, if only temporarily.

In the aftermath of the Hillsborough tragedy Liverpool boss Kenny Dalglish was asked about re-playing the abandoned F.A. Cup semi-final with Nottingham Forest. His answer said it all:

"Football is irrelevant now."

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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