It’s no secret that FIFA’s ban against political demonstrations in football is unevenly applied even in the best of times. In recent years, though, the hypocritical imbalance in this rule’s enforcement has become too stark to ignore.
Take, for example, the recent match between Ukraine and Italy on November 10. Prominently displayed behind the goal in the bright yellow end of the stadium, as there had been throughout their Euro 2024 qualification campaign and much of the side’s history, were multiple flags adorned in nazi iconography.
Ukrainian ultras held up a banner reading “FREE AZOV,” flanked by multiple images of the neo-nazi militant group’s original badge, which combines Hitler’s ‘Wolfsangel’ symbol with the sonnenrad, or “black sun,” which is best known for being the design on the SS headquarters floor during the Third Reich. Almost exactly one year to the day that an Azov terrorist plot to bomb Italy was foiled, the Azzurri, including Moise Kean, an Italian striker of African descent with a long history of being racially abused by opposition fans, had to face these hate symbols the entire time they played.
— onagapnotsew (@westonpagano) November 20, 2023
Ukraine’s most infamous neo-nazi paramilitary, Azov has committed a litany of human rights abuses. Founded by Andriy Biletsky, a soldier-turned-politician better known as ‘The White Leader,’ he claims their mission “is to lead the White Races of the world in a final crusade… against the Semite-led Untermenschen.” ‘Untermenschen’ translates to ‘sub-humans’ – this was the nazi word used to refer to Jewish, Romani, Slavic, black, disabled, and LGBTQ+ people.
Clearly, this demonstration fits neither FIFA nor UEFA’s stated laws of the game, nor is it consistent with the upcoming tournament’s credo of diversity and inclusion. Yet neither football governing body ever made any move to remove these extreme far-right displays. This dereliction of duty from the authorities is all the more baffling when you consider that the match was held in Leverkusen, Germany, where such symbols are illegal on a national level.
Compare this to an incident earlier this season in which, just days after a Greek fan was murdered by members of an opposing neo-nazi hooligan group, supporters of Aris Thessaloniki held aloft banners reading “KICK NAZIS OUT OF FOOTBALL” and “SMASH AZOV NAZIS.” In contrast, these displays were no longer visible just 10 minutes into the match, presumably because they had been swiftly removed by security for violating policy.
Fans of the Greek football team “Aris” displayed banners with the words ‘Smash Azov Nazis’ at their match with “Dynamo” Kiev.
▪️Also, in the stands in Thessaloniki there was a banner with the words “Kick Nazis out of football”. pic.twitter.com/OiPZ0yekeO
— Dean O’Brien (@DeanoBeano1) August 11, 2023
This begs the question – Why are FIFA and UEFA allowing pro-Nazi messaging in the stands, but blocking anti-Nazi counter-messaging? Clearly, they are capable of taking banners down if they want to, so allowing the bad ones to stay up in full view for 90+ minutes can only be interpreted as willful complicity.
But while both organizations seem content to turn a blind eye to far-right extremists, they’re equally complicit in looking the other way as clubs from English giants Liverpool to NWSL’s Angel City depressingly crackdown on displays of solidarity with the Palestinian people under fire from the Israeli occupation’s ongoing genocide. Celtic even banned its own famously pro-Palestine supporters, purportedly due to pressure from FIFA and UEFA, who have already fined the club for such displays in the past.
How can football’s governing bodies stand idly by as some players are wrongfully terminated for social posts calling for freedom, while others are allowed to keep playing despite calling for the extermination of others? This double standard is even more egregious when you consider, amidst explicit demonstrations backing Ukraine, both FIFA and UEFA banned Russia’s national team and clubs from competing, while allowing the Israeli national team and clubs to continue participating, despite the fact that their government is currently committing war crimes of far greater magnitude and volume.
Despite the @UEFA ban on #Palestine flags, Celtic fans are flying dozens of them and singing Bella Ciao and You’ll Never Walk Alone at tonight’s @ChampionsLeague match against Atletico Madrid. pic.twitter.com/Qrbwtd61tK
— Quds News Network (@QudsNen) October 25, 2023
FIFA’s cowardice reached peak global attention as it failed to protect spectators sporting rainbow imagery at the men’s World Cup in 2022, and disappointingly continued to disallow team captains from wearing pro-LGBTQ+ armbands as recently as the women’s edition earlier this year.
No one serious is proposing either free speech absolutism or a blanket ban of any messaging whatsoever. In an ideal world, the governing bodies of the sport we love would fulfill their supposed zero-tolerance policy toward hate speech, while always uplifting signs of encouragement for the downtrodden and oppressed.
But it’s understood that, in a world propped up by risk-averse corporate sponsors, the powers that be will seek to avoid controversy. So if discerning principles are too much to ask for, at the very least, FIFA and UEFA should display even the slightest amount of backbone and enforce their no-politics law with consistency across the board, as opposed to the backward bias we see today.
We shouldn’t stand for our Beautiful Game being marred by any less.
By: Weston Pagano / @westonpagano
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Andrew Milligan – PA Images