Sports Law Blog
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Monday, October 15, 2007
What role for Politics in Sport?
Ashkan Dejagah is a German soccer player, born in Teheran, Iran. Even though his facts & figures speak of a highly promising youngster (he scored 7 goals in 15 international games for the U-19's and at the tender age of 21 he has already netted twice in the Bundesliga), his name came to the forefront after he refused to travel to Israel with the U-21 German team, citing "very personal reasons". His decision opened up a debate that has already surpassed the boundaries of his native Germany and has placed the German Soccer team at the center of the much wider struggle between Israel and Iran.
Reportedly, the German Interior Minister "is of the opinion that each player who is nominated for the national team must be willing to play in any country with which the German Football Association has sporting ties" and that "political reasons must not play a role". National team manager Oliver Bierhoff was sympathetic with the player, but underlined the nature of the responsibilities that come with representing Germany: "We want our players to identify with the team and our country", adding that "if they can't then I don't think the player should have a role on the team". Finally, Joachim Loew, the coach of the senior German team said he regretted the player's decision to refuse to play in Israel. "I know the political problems. Basically I hoped and expected that for sporting reasons, a German Under-21 player would have made a different decision. I have to be quite clear on that point".
There are obvious and contradictory concerns revolving around this episode. In a country where the Holocaust is still a daunting issue, such a decision can trigger all sorts of negative comments. It is not unreasonable to assume that with his decision Dejagah is in fact supporting Iran's position regarding Israel and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's outrageous statements on the topic, a stance which is totally incompatible with representing his country. In this sense, the Interior Minister's bold claim that "Politics must not play a role" is a far cry from reality. Is it unreasonable to expect politics to play a role when national interest is at stake? Can we really blame Germans and the German Jewish community for its indignation and fury?
But the public scrutiny over the young Dejagah's decision must take notice of the "other side of the story". The player's family live in Teheran and his brother plays in the Iranian premier league. Had he decided otherwise thereby deliberately breaching Iranian rule, he risked never entering Iran again (where he was born) and his family could have been put under severe distress. So can we really blame Dejagah for the decision? Is he not victim rather than culprit?
The German Association has gone about this business in dreadful fashion. Although the public statements fall short of effectively casting Dejagah from the German national side, the player is being asked to choose his allegiance (he can still play for Iran at the senior level). But from a sporting perspective, there is no choice to be made. Germany are a world-class team, vying for top honors in European and World Cups. Iran struggle to make the finals. By playing in the German side, Dejagah would in fact be plying his trade amongst and against some of the best in the World, with all the technical benefits arising therefrom, while Iran play in relatively obscure competitions, against virtually unknown names. And there is no comparison in terms of exposure, with all marketing implications. Can Dejagah be lawfully impeded from representing the National German side on the basis of a personal choice? Admittedly, this is not my area of expertise, but has he no right to freely profess a religion, to speak freely without censorship, to hold a personal view? Individual rights, religious and political freedoms are pervasively upheld as the pillars of democracy. By denying such rights to Dejagah, the German Association and the German Nation are effectively guilty of disregarding some of the most elementary rights of the player, and in the process they are restricting his ability to play at the level he probably belongs to, with severe economic effects.
And even if we were to consider that the circumstances merited the restriction of Dejagah’s personal and economic rights, could we truly say there was no more proportionate way to undertake such restriction? In any event, a messy affair with no perfect end to be met. A few years ago, Iranian ex-Bayern Munich striker Vahid Hashemian became "injured" in both UEFA Champions League matches against Israeli club Maccabi Tel Aviv to avoid legal trouble. Alternatively, the German Association could have kept things under the radar and avoid any future embarrassment by simply not selecting the player on form. The foregoing suggestions are not legally satisfactory but at least would have avoided a very distasteful (and dangerous) topic. It seems politics have a way of playing themselves into Sports…
Thanks to Tiago Martins da Cruz for bringing this story to my attention.