Sports Law Blog
All things legal relating
to the sports world...
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.


Very interesting article and an excellent overview on the possible implications of a case where politics and sports seem to be stepping in each others’ toes. I would like to fuel the discussion by bringing to this topic similar (yet different) cases occurred a few years ago in Italian soccer: the first one relates to the fascist-like salute made by Italian international Paolo Di Canio. Upon his substitution during a Serie A (Italian Soccer League) match, he greeted his fans in the stand by raising his right arm and hand opened to the sky. The second case, also in the Serie A, revolves around Sinisa Mihajlovic. The former Yugoslavian international, with a track record of violent play and racism attitudes towards other players, publicly supported the Serbian military Arkan after a match thanking his fans for sharing his view on the Yugoslavian war. In either case, the players were penalised for their attitudes.
In my opinion, the underlying issue in these cases and in the one presented by the author of the news item, Luís Cassiano Neves, is whether such actions/conducts are within each person’s freedom of speech and right to hold an opinion. And if so, whether they are violated or restrained when and if the players are penalised.


Anonymous Anonymous -- 10/15/2007 10:01 AM  

Dejagah as I understand FIFA rules is eligible to play for either the German or Iranian national team. He is lucky in that he can elect to play for a national team that will not travel to Israel or he can play for a national team that will not.

The fact that he can choose playing for a national team that is compatible with his belief or his practicality (and we do not know which is driving his situation) shifts the situation.

Dejagah has a choice, he can play for a national team that is likely to have great success and improve his skills at a personal cost of either his political belief or practical concern or he can choose to play for an inferior national team that may not raise his skill level without violating conscience or comfort.

It is a dilemma faced before by many other athletes. Former world record pole valuter Earl Bell was born in the Panama Canal Zone and could claim Panamanian citizenship and toyed with the idea of claiming it when the United States boycotted the Moscow Olympics. In the end he opted to honor the ban and picked up a bronze in the boycotted LA Olympics four years later.

The more troubling intersection of sports and politics is for the athlete who does not have such options.

Blogger Mark -- 10/15/2007 10:34 AM  

Well, to paraphrase Justice Holmes: While he has a "right to freely profess a religion, to speak freely without censorship, to hold a personal view," he does not have a right to play for his country's national soccer team. While this no longer is the prevailing formal rule, government still has substantial leeway in deciding who can work and speak on its behalf.

The national team (and other sports teams and leagues) may have some leeway in two respects:

1) When a player's beliefs conflict with the formal beliefs that the team espouses as a speaker, such that having the player espouse those views *in the team context* interferes with the team's message.

2) When the team has to put forward the best unit on the field (or pitch or whatever), avoiding a player that it knows has beliefs that will cause the player to miss important matches.

# 2 is a stronger argument than # 1. But # 2 as a rationale also allows the team to make some accommodation--e.g., allow him to avoid one particular game, so long as it is not too many games. But, in doing so, does the team give the impression that it is condoning/endorsing those political views? And does that, in turn, interfere with the message that the German national team (and the German government) want to espouse as to Israel and the Holocaust? In other words, in trying to be flexible with its power under # 2, does the team undermine its rights under # 1?

And take it into other contexts. Should an Iranian tennis player have the right to demand that the organizer of the U.S. Open not schedule her to play Shahar Pe'er of Israel in the first round? Should a liberal running back (if there were one) have the right to demand that he not be required to play a game in Texas because of the state's policies with respect to the death penalty? Should a devout Christian NBA player demand that he not be required to play in Salt Lake City because of the presence of the LDS Church (which many Christians regard as a cult)?

This case is ironic in light of the constant demands (at least in the U.S.) that athletes take stands on social and political issues. Something like this is Exhibit A in why players don't.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 10/15/2007 11:21 AM  

What about FIFA's Kick Racism out of Football campaign? Where will FIFA come down on this issue? I understand that it is just a U-21 match but fairly similar issues like this have been coming up in the UK for some time. Players having dual citizenship in Ireland, England, and North Ireland has in the past led to issues.

Excellent blog and a great topic today.

Blogger Jeff -- 10/15/2007 3:36 PM  


Excellent point and I agree with you. I basically tried to raise the issue of the extent to which issues of conscience can actually limit participation, especially if such participation has a very real economic effect. It should be accepted that representing a national team is primarily about national interest, but has an increasing economic element to it. Therefore, participation in national teams has the potential to be more closely scrutinized by rules on freedom of movement and antitrust (especially EU rules). I guess it comes down to proportionality. And Howard addresses this issue brilliantly.

Blogger Luis Cassiano Neves -- 10/16/2007 5:28 AM  

I don't see why the case of a dual citizen of Iran and Germany and his half-cooked ideas of allegiance to any of them is "a very distasteful (and dangerous) topic". Unless you consider any discussion about recent German history, the Holocaust and the relationship of Germany with Israel distasteful and dangerous.

Since this is a law blog with readers who might not be familiar legal standards abroad, I like to point out article 130 of the German penal code, which states in its third paragraph that people who publicly deny or belittle war crimes and crimes against humanity crimes committed by the Nazis can be punished with prison sentences of up to five years. The article was enacted for a reason: to make sure that Germans will not flirt with revisionist ideas and question - under the guise of free speech or because of personal concerns regarding their family members or what have you - the findings of the Nuremberg trial and other war crime tribunals.

While the soccer player does not violate the letter of the law, the official position of his home country Iran regarding the Holocaust (and Israel) clearly has no respect for it. Dejagah may not know and understand this. But as a German citizen he is not free to ignore it and play dumb.

On most days nobody is forced to take sides on an issue of that importance. It is a quandary, for sure. But as a German who grew up in the post-war years and has visited concentration camps and other places where Germans committed atrocities, I don't find it hard to demand clarity. Because as a member of a German (or any national) soccer team you represent more than your own personal quest for money and fame.

Blogger Jürgen Kalwa -- 10/17/2007 12:51 AM  

Post a Comment