6.11.16

FIFA & UEFA's Position on Football & Political Messages


Over the last few months, there has been an increased press coverage of political messages in football, as a result of incidents occurring in and around the game, ranging from the flying of national flags, during fixtures, to national team shirts that bear what could be viewed as potentially contentious political logos/emblems.

FIFA and UEFA both take a strict stance when it comes to political statements in football with FIFA repeatedly stating that football should never be used for political messages and that the focus should be on the game itself and nothing else.

FIFA's position on political messages can be found in Law 4 of the Laws of the Game:

"Equipment must not have any political, religious or personal slogans, statements or images."

"Players must not reveal undergarments that show political, religious, personal slogans, statements or images, or advertising other than the manufacturer's logo."

"The team of a player whose basic compulsory equipment has political, religious or personal slogans, statements or images will be sanctioned by the competition organiser or by FIFA ... A player/team of a player who reveals undergarments that show political, religious, personal slogans, statements or images, or advertising other than the manufacturer's logo will be sanctioned by the competition organiser or by FIFA"

As you can see, Law 4 is wide in scope and does not only cover political messages but a whole range of potentially contentious issues. This position is seen necessary by FIFA as it cannot be held out to be taking one particular side over another when it comes to particularly contentious matters which could be damaging to existing relationships of the governing body.

FIFA, The FA, The Scottish FA & Poppies

The poppy, whether considered political or a sign of remembrance and respect, has always been a contentious matter which has seen a lot of debate as well as criticism between those who choose to wear one and those who don't - take James McClean for instance.

The poppy debate intensified this week, when the Football Association and Scottish Football Association were told by FIFA that their national team shirts could not bear the poppy emblem, in the upcoming England v Scotland World Cup Qualifier, on Armistice Day. Any defiance from either one of the Football Associations would result in a sanction.

This turn of events has caused widespread outrage from some pro-poppy camps whilst it was applauded by those on the other side of the poppy debate. In particular, it saw condemnation from Prime Minister, Theresa May, who described FIFA's decision as "utterly outrageous", whilst Damian Collins, Chair of the Commons' Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee wrote to FIFA, appealing for them to reverse their decision.

Any backtrack of the decision appears unlikely with FIFA taking a strict stance on political messages, as of late, and applying a blanket ban. This can be seen in their recent decision to open disciplinary proceedings against the Football Association of Ireland ... sending what may be a clear warning to the FA and SFA, who look set to defy FIFA by wearing the poppies regardless.

Football Association of Ireland and The Easter Rising

In the Republic of Ireland, 2016 marked the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, whereby during Easter Week in 1916, around 1,200 rebels took over key buildings and sites around Dublin, including the GPO, to end British Rule and establish an Independent Ireland. With much greater numbers and heavier artillery, the British Government was able to suppress the rising which led to the execution of many of the rising's leaders. Although unsuccessful, the event was the first significant step to an Independent Ireland, which finally came to fruition in 1922.

To mark the anniversary, the Republic's national team shirt bore the official centenary logo, on their shirts, during a match against Switzerland earlier this year.

FIFA opened disciplinary proceedings against the Football Association of Ireland on 04 November 2016, after it was brought to their attention following the poppy argument. Sanctions have yet to be determined.

UEFA and Political Messages - Fan Behaviour

It is not just equipment that club's have to worry about when it comes to political messages, as the governing bodies also take a strict view of fan displays of contentious issues. UEFA states that clubs must not allow any message that is not fit for a sports event, particularly messages that are of political, ideological, religious, offensive or provocative nature, to be displayed within the ground.

Rule 16.2 states that club's are responsible for fan behaviour and can be subject to disciplinary procedures, even if they can show that they were not negligent in the organisation of the game.

This year alone has seen football clubs, Barcelona and Celtic, both receive fines for displays of national flags that UEFA has deemed as sending a political message.

Barcelona

Barcelona were fined 150,000 Euros after fans displayed the Estelada flag during a Champions League game, an unofficial flag, typically flown by separatists in support of independence from Spain. The Spanish giants reacted to the fine calling the decision "totally unjust and ... opposed to the exercise of the freedom of expression"

Compare this to Barcelona rivals, Real Madrid, who could and do fly the Spanish flag, freely, to provoke their rivals for political aim instead of patriotic reasons - this would likely go unsanctioned by UEFA.


Celtic

The conflict between Israel and Palestine is one of the most hotly contested political debates in modern history and in September 2016 Scottish club, Celtic, were fined 10,000 Euros after a section of fans displayed Palestine flags during a Champions League, play-off, fixture against Israeli side Hapoel Be'er Sheva. There is little argument to support the notion that the waving of a Palestine flag is not a political message and therefore Celtic were in breach of UEFA provisions and fined, accordingly.

When it comes to political messages, the rule from FIFA and UEFA, is clear - keep it out of football or face a sanction. However, when it comes to national flags of countries, the legislation could be clearer as well as providing an indication as to whether the context in which a flag is waved, is taken into account when sanctioning, as the position is currently confusing - Dundalk and Palestine flags (charged despite not playing an Israeli team), is one example, as well as Ajax and Israel flags (waved regularly to no consequence due to their Jewish roots). As matters stand, it appears that UEFA cherry-picks it's contentious issues and the answer may be to either impose a blanket ban on national flags (which I am sure no-one wants to see) or perhaps, relax provisions in relation to flags providing more clarity on the context in which they can and cannot be waved.

IMPORTANT: This post is not intended to be a legal briefing, it is not intended to be a statement of the law and no action should be taken in reliance on it without specific legal advice.

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