A selection of heads of states who, for better or worse, have dabbled in football
Sport and politics, the cliché goes, shouldn’t mix. But in reality the two have always been deeply intertwined and now as much as ever they are impossible to separate. It could be a dodgy regime hosting a major sports event to launder its image internationally or to consolidate power at home, a big sponsorship deal as a way to export soft power or an athlete taking a stand against injustice.
The path from footballer to politician, or at least political activist, is reasonably well trodden. Brazil’s Romário, who became an MP for his country’s Socialist Party in 2010, was elected to the Brazilian senate last October to represent Rio de Janeiro. The former Fifa World Player of the Year George Weah launched a bid for the presidency in his native Liberia in 2005, unsuccessfully, but he’s also now a senator and expected to run again for the top job in 2017. The former Chelsea striker Didier Drogba, meanwhile, famously fell to his knees on the dressing room floor after leading Côte d’Ivoire to qualification for the 2006 World Cup finals. On national TV he begged the warring factions in his country’s four-year civil war to lay down their arms, helping to secure a truce that led to peace talks.
Given the power modern-day footballers wield because of the billions of people watching their sport internationally and the titanic salaries players in Europe’s top leagues command, it’s not surprising that political leaders have been using football to boost their image – with varying degrees of success.
From Britain to Burundi to Bolivia, presidents and prime ministers have jumped through hoops to show their credentials as lovers of the game. Some have pulled on their boots for the TV cameras, others have signed for professional or semi-pro teams, fitting appearances around the requirements of public office, and not always to the praise of their nation. The rogues’ gallery opens close to home.
When David Cameron stepped up to the podium at an event in May, basking in the glory of his election win a few days earlier, he couldn’t have anticipated the storm of Twitter and football media mockery into which he was about to hurl himself. In a speech extolling the multi-cultural virtues of modern Britain, a nation where you can be “Welsh and Hindu and British...wear a hijab covered in poppies…and where you can support Man United, Team GB and the Windies all at the same time,” he was tripped up by football.
“Of course,” the PM added, seemingly going off script, looking up at the media gathering, “I would rather you supported West Ham.” Nothing wrong with that of course, except that he’s supposedly a die-hard Aston Villa fan.
Cameron may have got his fingers burned trying to use football to look normal, but one of his predecessors – a man he has been accused of trying to emulate – had a more successful foray into using the game to boost his street cred.
Remember Cool Britannia? The Spice Girls and Oasis? An attempt to rebrand the staid, dull image of an exhausted country sagging under 17 years of Tory government, when we were desperate for something to look forward to. Optimism was the name of the game. Step up a young, vibrant new prime ministerial hopeful on the campaign trail, someone who could, just maybe, shake us from our stupor and make us great, or at least cool, again. He went, of course, by the name of Tony Blair and he turned out to be quite good at headers.
Until that point – the 1995 Labour Party conference – a politician professing a passion for football could have kissed their political ambitions goodbye. But a changing football culture, emerging from the dark days of hooliganism and widespread acceptance of racism in and around the game, was ripe for exploitation. Blair’s spin doctor Alistair Campbell concocted a knockabout between the Labour leader and Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan, a media stunt that had every chance of turning into a PR disaster but that remarkably worked a treat.
The pair, both dressed in black suit trousers and crisp white shirts, famously engaged in a lengthy head-tennis rally in front of TV cameras and local school children, Blair showing that he was a dab hand, or head, at at least this aspect of football. It was a clever play on symbolism on Campbell’s part – just as football was modernising, Labour too was leaving much of its past behind to become New Labour. The Newcastle side of the 1994-95 season looked set to shake things up at the top of the Premier League, much as New Labour hoped to do in Westminster a couple of years down the line.
In the end, it went better for Blair than it did for Keegan, whose team, despite its best start to a top division season in its history, finished in sixth place. But the image of a young, fit, albeit posh, leader showing himself to be not too bad at the sport of the people, resonated with the Cool Britannia movement looking for a new image for a tired country.
Perhaps best known for his penchant for snazzy knitted jumpers while championing the rights of the majority indigenous population of his country – one of the poorest in South America – the Bolivian president Evo Morales puts Cameron and Blair to shame in the footballing stakes.
Last year, aged 54 and to much fanfare, the former coca growers’ union boss signed for Sports Boys Warnes, a first division club near the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra in the south-east of the country. After negotiating a transfer from the third division La Paz team Litoral, where he had been on the books since 2008, his 1480 boliviano (£135)-a-month contract stipulated that he would play when presidential duties allowed and only for a few minutes of his chosen games.
The club’s president acknowledged the signing was more a move to attract investment into the club – one of the smallest in Bolivia’s first division with only 900 fans – than a way to boost their chances of winning the league. But two months in the president changed his mind, not because of the demands of high office, but for supposedly altruistic reasons. “I’ve tried to improve my physical fitness,” he is reported to have said at the time. “But I haven’t quite got there and I would only hold the team back.”
This didn’t mark the end of his football career, though. Morales regularly plays in the government’s 5-a-side team and in June this year at a summit of EU and Latin American leaders, they took on an amateur team of Bolivian expats in Belgium – Bolivian Roots FC – with Morales scoring five of his side’s dozen goals. Two months before that, on a visit to Panama for another international meeting, Morales joined a team of representatives of indigenous groups against a side of trade unionists. Wearing the number 10 shirt, he scored four goals, making an incontestable mark on the final 12-2 score line.
Despite an outburst at a match against the La Paz mayoral team in which he is caught on camera kicking out at an opponent and the fact that he probably has quite a lot of other things to do, Bolivians seem to have taken their leader’s love of football to heart.
The same, however, can’t really be said of the president of the East African nation of…
When protests erupted in the capital Bujumbura in May in response to increased government repression after a failed coup attempt the previous month, the police response was brutal. At least 300 people were injured and 20 protestors were shot dead. Instead of taking to the airwaves to urge calm and doing all he could to end the unrest, President Nkurunziza – who stood for a third term in elections in July despite the constitution only allowing two – took to the football pitch and invited photographers to capture his ball skills on camera.
In one photo he’s mid-strike, right leg out behind him bent at the knee, arms outstretched for balance; in another he’s controlling the ball with his chest, a look of intense concentration on his face; in another he’s balancing the ball on his forehead, with streams of sweat staining his clean-shaven cheeks. He appears to have a degree of skill, but a less well-developed sense of priorities as critics say his actions off the pitch are threatening to take the country back into civil war.
A former rebel leader, Nkurunziza came to power after a 12-year conflict between Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups which finally ended in 2005. It claimed the lives of 300,000 people, including the father of the West Bromwich Albion and England striker Saido Berahino, forcing his family to flee to the UK for safety when Berahino was ten. The war also gave English football another bright hope, in the form of Newcastle’s Gaël Bigirimana. A former England Under-20s midfielder, he’ll be spending 2015-16 on loan to Rangers after failing to make the Magpies first team.
A former coach of Burundi’s army football team, and also of the first-division side Union Sporting in the 1990s, President Nkurunziza lists football and Christianity as his main interests outside of running the country. He has his own veterans’ team – Haleluya FC – and his own private 10,000-seater stadium, floodlit at night whenever required, in a country where only four per cent of the population have electricity.
In the early days of his presidency, there were hopes of a smooth transition to peace, boosted by new rules for ethnic quotas in the armed forces, police and in parliament, but that optimism is fading fast. More than 100,000 people have fled the country since the current conflict began earlier this year, as repression increased after the failed coup and ahead of the elections. The president’s youth wing, the Imbonerakure, has been accused of torturing, beating and killing opponents. Protests are not allowed and journalists are harassed and intimidated if they write anything perceived to be critical of the government.
For all his love of sport, in March Nkurunziza reportedly banned jogging, fearing groups of runners were plotting against him while pounding the hills. Meanwhile, every afternoon, the president’s cavalcade chugs through the streets of the capital to his training pitch for Haleluya FC’s daily practice session.
A football nut and former amateur player for Felcsút FC in the country’s second division, Hungary’s president Viktor Orbán, as leader of the right-wing Fidesz party, first came to power in 1998, serving a four year term. Re-elected in 2010, he used his second mandate to rewrite the constitution without consultation, amend electoral rules to improve his party’s chances of re-election and turn the media into a mouthpiece of government. He has also offered tax breaks to companies – a number of them reportedly owned by his cronies – building football stadiums and opening academies in his quest to return the country to its football glory days of the 1950s.
This was the era, of course, of the Mighty Magyars, which gave birth to one of the greatest players of all time in Ferenc Puskás and saw the national team beat England 6-3 at Wembley in 1953. England fared even worse in the return match in Budapest the following year, conquered 7-1 by the hosts. From 1950, Hungary went on a four-year unbeaten run that ended only in the 1954 World Cup final. The team, eventually broke up following the Hungarian revolution of 1956 and its repression by Soviet tanks.
So far, Orbán’s footballing ambitions have failed to convert Hungarian players into international stars or even attract bigger crowds to league games and some have questioned spending on football when public services are so underfunded. A new 4,500-seater stadium in the president’s tiny home town of Felcsút – called the Pancho Arena after Puskás’s nickname from his days at Real Madrid and costing a reported £8.5 million – has drawn particular criticism.
The Bulgarian prime minister Boyko Borissov, an occasional forward for third division side FC Vitosha Bistritsa, is the oldest player ever to have played for a professional club in his country. He made an audacious return from injury in 2010 against a touring English amateur side, Nottingham United FC, with his team winning 6-0 (the English side also took on a CSKA Sofia veterans team while they were there, losing by more respectable 4-0). The prime minister was described by his opponents as “a tank” who “put himself about a bit”, the glamour of the occasion with the country’s media in attendance a far cry from muddy fields of the Midlands. “We have had more or less VIP treatment,” Nottingham United FC’s manager Mike Hartill told the Nottingham Evening Post. “It’s unbelievable. When you play for a Sunday team… and then turn up here and the TV cameramen want to interview you. It’s the best football experience we have ever had or are ever likely to have.”
Borissov is also probably the only prime minister to have won a national Footballer of the Year award. Not only did he take the accolade in 2011 with 44% of the vote in the survey of football fans, but he beat the then-Manchester United striker Dimitar Berbatov to do so. Details of Borissov’s footballing achievements that year are hard to come by, but they must have been pretty significant, given Berbatov polled just 24% of the vote, in the same season he was crowned joint Premier League top scorer – with Manchester City’s Carlos Tévez – after finding the net 20 times. Borissov then called for the award to be scrapped, saying it had been a protest against the poor condition of Bulgarian football and called on the organisers to “annul the vote or…hand the award to the best young player”.
Besides dodgy football votes, allegations of money laundering, corruption, physical attacks on journalists and racism have long swirled around him. None of this, however, could stop the Bulgarian prime minister from making sure Romário wouldn’t be remembered as the only member of Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona Dream Team to have embarked on a career in politics and diplomacy. In 2011, Borissov appointed the Brazilian’s one-time strike partner, the former Bulgaria captain Hristo Stoichkov, as his government’s consul in Barcelona. Stoichkov has since stood down from the role, but not before being forced to deny rumours that he would stand for PM or take up the position of sports minister in his home country.
Across Bulgaria’s Black Sea border, another leader with a footballing history and a questionable attitude towards power has been flexing his political muscle.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s prime minister from 2002 to 2014, played for the then semi-pro Istanbul side Kasımpaşa for 13 years from 1969. The team is now in Turkey’s Süper Lig, finishing 13th last season. During his time at the club, Erdoğan reportedly rejected an offer from the better-known Fenerbahçe, but his father apparently blocked the move.
His most recent public football outing was in July last year at an exhibition match to open Istanbul Başakşehir’s new 17,000-seater stadium. Erdoğan, despite being 60 years old and his long break from regular appearances on the pitch, proved old habits die hard and scored a hat-trick, making a significant contribution to the final score of 9-4. The following month he was elected president.
Many in Turkey credit Erdoğan with bringing stability and progress to a country with a history of military coups and high levels of poverty. However, critics say a crackdown on free speech will undermine this. Opposition to his increasingly authoritarian approach came to a head with the 2013 Gezi Park demonstrations and the violent response of the police, who used water cannon and tear gas to disperse protestors. Thousands were injured and 11 people died. In December last year, a 16 year old was arrested for insulting Erdoğan, and a former Miss Turkey was arrested in January for sharing a poem critical of the president. That month, threatened with being barred from operating in the country after a Turkish court ruling, Facebook agreed to block pages showing images of the Prophet Muhammad. Twitter was temporarily banned in April last year and Turkey is the country that has made the highest number of requests for posts to be removed from the social networking site.
Lying 200 miles off the north coast of Scotland, halfway between Norway and Iceland, and with a population that could fit into Manchester City’s Etihad stadium, the Faroe Islands are one of world football’s smallest – and perhaps therefore easiest to overlook – nations. They joined Fifa in 1988, Uefa in 1990, and quickly gained credibility by beating Austria 1-0 in their first competitive game. Played in September 1990, the game took place in Sweden due to the lack of suitable pitches at home. A handful of international victories followed but none that caused the same kind of stir, until last year when they beat Greece 1-0 away in a Euro 2016 qualifier. The win over a team 169 places above them in Fifa’s rankings pushed the Faroes up 82 places to 105th in the world. And then they did it again. June this year saw the return match and a 2-1 victory for the islanders, bumping them up another 28 places in the rankings. The upset also triggered the dismissal of the Greece manager Claudio Ranieri.
The prime minister of the Faroe Islands, Kaj Leo Johannesen, is a former goalkeeper with the islands’ top flight club HB Tórshavn – with whom he won three league titles – and has won four international caps. Making his debut as a half-time substitute in a Euro 92 qualifier against Denmark – who went on to win the tournament – he also played in the first competitive match played on Faroese soil, a 1994 World Cup qualifier against Belgium which they lost 0-3. He was a substitute in a number of international games between 1989 and 1995, but was mostly overlooked for first choice goalie Jens Martin Knudsen, known for his white bobble hat and heroics in the Austria game. Not content with making his mark on football, Johannesen also played for the Faroes’ top handball team, Kyndil, scoring an average of almost four goals a match.
Ten years after hanging up his boots, Johannesen became prime minister in 2008 after the existing coalition broke down, led his centre-right Union Party to victory in the 2011 general election and was sworn in as prime minister in a three-party coalition government. He’s made a couple of football comebacks since then, the most recent – aged 50 – for his former club’s reserve team in August last year.
It is April 2014 and President Obama is on a visit to Japan. On his itinerary, a robot factory. The TV cameras capture proceedings – the usual handshakes and pleasantries are exchanged, fixed smiles, some awkward standing around.
Then suddenly a shiny white robot with a round helmet and black visor for a head – think of a benign-looking Stormtrooper – comes tearing across the smooth concrete floor with a bouncy gait, knees bent and making a clanging noise, towards President Obama. “Whoa,” says the president off-camera, sounding slightly petrified. “He’s moving.”
“I can kick a soccer ball too,” says the robot to the president, when it has come to a standstill.
“OK, come on then.”
The robot approaches a ball that has appeared on the factory floor and stands behind it for six long seconds, giving the impression of thinking about whether to curl it left or right. It then takes three slow steps back.
“Watch carefully please,” its minder/creator tells the president.
“I’m watching,” he replies. “This is going to be pretty hard, huh?” he adds nervously.
The robot extends its right arm. It opens, then closes its fist and replaces its arm at its side, like a mechanical Ronaldo lining up a free kick. “Here I go,” it says, steeling itself.
The robot strides purposefully forward, tucks its foot under the ball and scoops it with impressive precision and not insignificant force towards the suited president. Obama does his best to control it, but – betraying the fact that for all the success of the MLS and the women’s national team, US commanders-in-chief remain more at home with basketball – lets the ball bounce off his shin.
“Hey, good job,” says the most important man in the world as he retrieves the ball and uneasy laughter fills the hall. The robot starts to jump up and down on one leg. It’s not clear whether this is a pre-programmed toddler-style tantrum at not having the ball passed back to it or a celebration at making an accurate pass. Either way, this was Robot 1 - President 0.