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Saudi Arabia’s decision to ban Barcelona shirts is another example of politics spilling on to the football pitch

Barcelona players celebrate

The simmering tension between Qatar and the other Gulf nations led by Saudi Arabia has claimed yet another victim – Football Club Barcelona. Yesterday, the Saudi government outlawed the official jersey of FC Barcelona as it bears the logo of its principal sponsor – Qatar Airways.

This dramatic decision comes in the backdrop of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Libya, Yemen and the Maldives snapping ties with Doha on account of its support for “ISIS and other extremist groups” in the Middle East region. As a result, these countries have banned all exports to the tiny Gulf nation including the supply of essential commodities such as food.

The Saudi-led alliance has also banned the broadcast of the Qatar-sponsored news agency Al Jazeera and denied airspace to its national air carrier Qatar Airways. The latter has particular implications for the beautiful game.

A day after the crisis erupted, Riyadh-based Al-Ahli Football Club terminated its sponsorship agreement with Qatar Airways.

According to Sky Italy, the Saudi government has threatened those wearing the Qatar-sponsored Barcelona jerseys with a fine of €135,000 (A$200,000) fine and up to 15 years in prison. It remains to be seen if other countries will follow in the footsteps of Saudi Arabia and ban the Barcelona jerseys. Qatar Airways has been the official sponsor of FC Barcelona for the past 4 seasons but is to be replaced by the Japanese electronic commerce and Internet company Rakuten for the next 4 years.

 

Qatar fans celebrate

 

History is fraught with instances of a political crisis spilling onto the football pitch.

FC Barcelona fans sing pro-Catalonia songs inside the Camp Nou on any given matchday. After 17 mins, 14 seconds of every match, the Camp Nou faithful erupt into chants of “Independencia! Independencia”, signifying their dream of an independent Catalonia. The Catalan faithful use FC Barcelona and the Camp Nou arena to protest against the repressive policies of Spain’s erstwhile dictator, General Franco.

 

Albania’s Euro 2016 qualifier in October 2014 against Serbia was abandoned after a massive fight broke out between players, officials and fans of both teams. The fighting erupted after Serbian player Stefan Mitrovic pulled down a flag bearing the insignia of Greater Albania which was lowered by a drone flying over the field of play. Greater Albania includes the region of Kosovo, which is still claimed by Serbia as a quintessential part of its national sovereignty. The ethnic faultlines of the sensitive Balkan region were laid bare by this incident.

These are just a few examples of the numerous instances throughout history wherein the boundaries between sports and politics were considerably blurred. The latest currents emanating from the Middle East region are relaying the signal that the Qatar crisis is nowhere close to being resolved.

Until then, football will be caught in the crossfire.

 

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