The politics of sport: when does the 'good game' go bad?

Lester Kiewit speaks to political analyst and author Richard Calland on the politics of sport and the complexities that come with it for its devout supporters.

The 2022 FIFA World Cup is around the corner and just like the 2018 FIFA World Cup, it has not come without its controversy because of where it's being held.

This year's World Cup will be taking place in Qatar, a country known for its mistreatment of women and people in the queer community, with homosexual acts punishable by death.

As someone not that into sport, skipping this year's World Cup was pretty much going to happen regardless, anyway. However, football fans are some of the most impassioned fans of anything you could possible be a fan for, so, it makes sense that the decision to abstain from supporting and viewing the sporting event of the year might be a tough one.

This brings up an interesting conversation around fanship and how much responsibility do us, as super devote fans (hereon referred to as stans) , have on the things we support with our whole chest.

It is especially interesting with sport because sport has historically been thought of as free from social and economic politics, and yet those in power never thought "you know what? Maybe Qatar is not a good choice," and there's literally the entire world to choose from.

I mean, football is referred to as "the good game," despite the history of dodgy politics and players that have plagued the sport - one of the most recent being exceptionally popular footballer Christiano Ronaldo's sexual assault allegations.

Sport is innately political, something that has never been clearer with sports clubs either supporting causes such as Black Lives Matter or firing players who are in support of causes like these, but the joy of sport cannot be ignored when discussing this.

Like many things we consume, sport provides its stans with a constant form of escapism from the absurdity of their daily lives, instilling a sense of loyalty in them unlike any other.

The passion of sport ... makes us lose our senses sometimes and I'm happy to plead guilty to that. I would rather live a life with those moments of passion, and sense of belonging that my association. Fifty years now with Arsenal Football Club, it's the one constant in my life.

Richard Calland, Political analyst and author

So, then, how do they separate their unbridled love for the good game from the good game's bad side? Is this even possible? At what point does blind support turn into moralistic hypocrisy?

On the one hand, the argument can be made that football stans, especially those who will be tuning into the human rights disaster that is Qatar, are complacent with the injustices lowkey subtextually endorsed by their favourite teams and players.

On the other hand, an equivalently valid argument can be made that everything one can stan for has some dodgy vibes somewhere.

These monolithic, very large institutions, like companies... none of them are ever going to be perfect. They're all going to have imperfections. I think we have to weigh in the balance if we're serious about trying to extend our political principles into our private lives, our sporting obsessions, then we have to do a full contextual review an not kind of fall into the trap and say 'well, there's this one blemish, therefore, I'm gonna walk away'.

Richard Calland, Political analyst and author

The questions, then, become: at what point does support for a product, person, or activity become support for the very injustices and problematic behaviour that could come from the entity supported?

At what point do we call out stans, of anything, really, for continuing to support something that blatantly goes against the ethical and moralistic values we (are supposed to) uphold in society?

Can someone support women's rights but at the same time support an event in an area that is infamous for the lack of the basic human rights these women may not have?

At what point does "cancel culture" move from slacktivism to activism?

There are no right or wrong ways to answer these questions, but it is something to think about the next time we blindly stan for something we know is, at the very least, unethical.

For all of us Qatar is going to be a challenge. I doubt many will be able to withstand the pressure to watch the games. The World Cup is just too big a thing in our lives, I suspect.

Richard Calland, Political analyst and author

Listen to the full interview above.

More in Multimedia