Sports and geopolotics: A case study analysis


For the newly introduced UEFA Conference football league, Dutch football club Feyenoord from Rotterdam was drawn into the same group as Israelian club Maccabi Haifa. On the 14th of September, the first match between the two clubs was played in Israel. Feyenoord did not permit their Iranian player Alireza Jahanbakhsh to play in the matches against the Israelian club. The reason for this is an Iranian boycott against Israelian sports players, which is enforced with sanctions for those who do participate in sports events with Israelians. Said boycott is in place due to hostility between the two nations (NOS, 2021a).

At first sight, the situation seems quite simple and concerns only the athlete and the football club. However, a deeper study of the issue reveals that sports and geopolitics are interrelated. This essay will demonstrate a larger geopolitical topic hidden behind a minor case of a sports player not being able to participate in his matches. The paper demonstrates narratives on how politics affect sports, analyses the evolution of relations between countries involved in the conflict connected with Alireza Jahanbakhsh, and considers possible ways on how sports federations can handle political influence.

Main narratives on sport as a means for global politics 

In the modern world, we are eyewitnesses of the global phenomenon of sport. It integrates people of different ages, nationalities, views, religions, as well as it carries competitive, educational, and gaming functions. Moreover, today’s sport is an essential part of the country’s economy due to its rapid development and an influential part of the state’s image and brand. At the same time sport as a social phenomenon allows to make a strict division between “us” and “them”, and thus provides opportunities for the realization of two intertwined claims: internal homogeneity and external difference (Buffington, 2012, p.137). 

Sports became a part of big politics and international relations in the XX century. Sports victories were beginning to be considered a sign of strength and power of the state or political regime, while sports achievements were used for ideological and propaganda purposes. The processes of sport politicization and propaganda gained greater activity in the 1930s and continued in the 1980s in conditions of capitalist and communist block confrontation. Hence the Olympic movement twice faced a massive boycott caused by the aggravation of international relations between the USSR and the USA. Thus, the 1936 Olympic Games “provided the entire world a lesson on the danger of politicizing sports” (Cogliano, 2012) and became the instrument in strengthening ‘superiority’ of the Arian race and cleaning up of the German image in the international arena after adopting the Nuremberg Laws that deprived Jews of rights and citizenship. German Nazi regime was the first to use the sports event for political propaganda via television transmitting and documentary film ‘Olympia’ release. Modern sport doesn’t get behind. As Rofe noted (2018, p.23), “[n]owhere has the diffusion and redistribution of political and economic power in our globalising world had more visibility than in international sport and its coverage by globalised media”.

Football as the most popular team sport in the modern world is an evident example of existing dependence between political processes and sports world: according to Sugden and Tomlinson (as cited in Cooley, 2018, p. 50) “sport in general, and football in particular, have proven to be significant theatres for the working up and expression of national unity, and its mobilized form, nationalism”. The national identity in football matches is expressed in different forms (collective singing of the national anthem, wrapping in national flags, use of colors traditionally inherent in the nation, unofficial scoring country-by-country) and leads to a perception of war-like behavior. This idea was supported by Drezner (2006) who noted that football was just as likely to be the trigger for war as the trigger for peace. Lots of examples approve this assertion: ‘football war’ between Salvador and Honduras in 1969 caused by border clashes, or violent football conflict in 1990 between Serbian and Croatian teams who were still part of Yugoslavia at that time, and not taking into account less sizeable results of football matches at World Cup between Argentina and England in 1986, 1998 (considered in connection with the Falklands War) or USA and Iran in 1998.

‘Victims’ of geopolitical games 

If we delve deeper into the above-mentioned case of  Iranian football player Alireza Jahanbakhsh, it becomes clear that this was not the first time an Iranian sports player was influenced by politics in their work. Other instances of the same mechanism at work have been found in judo, where the international judo federation took a stance against the boycott, as opposed to the European football federation (UEFA). Judoists refrain from participating, consciously gain weight so they are not allowed to participate or deliberately lose because they are afraid of sanctions or they or their family are threatened (NOS, 2021b). The judo federation sanctions any kind of boycott behavior, like the examples given in the last sentence, with bans. Besides this, it makes sure the Israeli national anthem is played at tournaments held within countries that are hostile towards Israel.

At first hand, political interference is an issue for the sports players, as they are not free to participate in their sport the way they would like. Judoist Saaed Mollaei went as far as changing his nationality to Mongolian, in order to avoid barriers of the Iranian government (NOS, 2021b). For sports federations, it is an issue as they cannot host fair sports tournaments. For others, it is a non-issue to adhere to the boycott, which means avoiding competition against Israel. When one compares the articles of the Dutch and Iranian news agencies reporting on Jahanbakhsh’s absence in the matches against Maccabi Haifa, the difference in thinking becomes clear, just like Rofe (2018) described. The Dutch NOS speaks of the area that the club Maccabi Haifa is situated in as the nation Israel. Iranian Mehr news agency speaks of said area as the ‘Occupied Lands’ (Mehr, 2021). How did the countries in the area end up in this conflict? To understand the motives behind the affair, the geopolitical context of the area will be analyzed.

The evolution of the stakeholders’ relations

The Middle East is one of the most complex regions of the world, starting from the last century several wars and conflicts afflicted the area. It is for this reason that it is first appropriate to identify the political actors involved in the Alireza Jahanbakhsh case. After careful analysis, four actors were identified in the current state of affairs: Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Palestine. These four actors interact, creating power links that in the last century have led to the creation of conflicts and wars. In the following section, the relationships and their historical evolution will be highlighted in order to understand the events our case describes.

First relation: Israel-Iran 

First of all, it should be said that Iran has refused to recognize Israel’s sovereignty as a state since the 1979 revolution. This is reflected both in the list of nations that recognize Israel and even more strongly in the words of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who has repeatedly reiterated his hard-line against considering Israel a state. In fact, for Iran, Israeli territory is considered ‘occupied Palestine’. The motivations behind this are strictly political and also concern ambitions for power. Before the 1979 revolution, the Iranian government was pro-US, and, consequently, its proximity to the culture and shared values led it to recognize Israel. But after 1979 the ambitions for power over the Arab world led Iran to withdraw its recognition of Israel in support of the Arab community in Palestine.

The two countries have never declared war on each other, but Iran has funded several groups that have clashed with Israel.  In support of this, as described by Sham (2014) it is estimated that Iran has been funding the Hamas group since its founding in 1987 with a budget of approximately $250 million per year. Not only has Iran funded the paramilitary group Hamas against Israel, but also the Hezbollah group in Lebanon during the clashes between Lebanon and Israel. This funding and support of these groups are not only motivated by a feeling of “solidarity” with the Arab community that they define as occupied but is also linked to geo-strategic and power reasons. If the state of Israel were to be destroyed and the whole area was to come under the control of extremist groups, their proximity to Iran would give this state more direct access to the Mediterranean, thus significantly expanding its influence over the whole area and beyond. Finally, there is one more reason for animosity between the two countries, and that is the issue of nuclear weapons.

Israel is not a party to the Nuclear Weapons Treaty (NPT), and although it has never officially declared its possession of nuclear weapons, it has been repeatedly suspected of possessing them, and unofficial information and statements have been leaked to the public. Iran, for its part, is a signatory to the NPT, even though it uses nuclear energy for civilian purposes. In 2002, however, information that the Iranian government was developing a nuclear weapons program was leaked, prompting an investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which revealed nothing and resulted only in economic sanctions by the United Nations (UN) Security Council against Iran for non-cooperation (as reported in the NTI library). 

The nuclear issue is not the main reason for the tension between Israel and Iran, nor the reason why Alierza Jahabakshsh could not take part in the match, but it certainly helps to further understand the tension in the area between these two states.

Second relation: Saudi Arabia – Iran

It is historically known that Saudi Arabia and Iran are challenging each other for control of the Middle East. As the two states have never declared war on each other, this rivalry is commonly known as the “cold war”.Therefore, instead of making war, opposing terrorist parties are supported in other countries and inciting single groups to act into paramilitary context; this type of conflict is called the proxy war (Crepy, 2018). 

As described by Miglietta J. (2002) the two countries arrived in the early 1970s in very similar conditions. Both had stable economies based on oil and are allied with the US. The Saudi government had the consent and control of its population. The same cannot be said of Iran at the time, as the Islamic revolution took place in 1979. It is from this moment that the tension between the two countries began to build, which was fuelled by the fear that Iranian revolutionary sentiment could also reach Saudi Arabia. This is closely linked to religious reasons Saudi Arabia has always defined itself as the center of the Islamic world because it is home to important religious sites (Mecca and Medina above all), but the Iranian revolution led by Khomeini has made Iran the legitimate Islamic state.

The religious factor also leads to a further division: Iran is mostly Shia while Saudi Arabia is mostly Sunni. Although historically Shia and Sunni groups have lived together peacefully, Iran’s Islamic revolution seems to change things. In fact, in a 1980 CIA report, one can read how Iran supported Shia groups ideologically and financially in various states, trying to overthrow the governments of the aforementioned states in the region such as Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. This led to a strengthening of the US-Saudi alliance, including the other Gulf states. In September 1980 Iraq, led by dictator Saddam Hussein, invaded Iran to put an end to the Islamic revolution, but above all to seize the country’s oil reserves. The war turns out to be in a state of stalemate, but as Iran begins to gain the upper hand and advance, Saudi Arabia begins to finance Iraq out of fear that Iran might subdue the country and expand its dominance.

In 2003 the US intervened to overthrow the government of Saddam Hussein. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia did not want this to happen, as Iraq was acting as a buffer between the two powers. The US meanwhile succeeded in overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s government but found it difficult to create a new one. This provoked opportunities for both Sunni and Shia religious extremist groups to seize power, and Iran and Saudi Arabia see opportunities to seize control through funding these groups. The two states are founding opposing groups, Saudi Arabia funds Sunni groups, while Iran funds opposition groups and Shia. This phenomenon can be seen throughout the Middle East.

Third relation: Israel-Palestine 

After that the Holocaust took place the international community supported the establishment of a Jewish state. The United Nations divide Palestine into two separate states: one for the Jews (Israel) and one for the Arabs (Palestine), locating Jerusalem as a special international zone because it is sacred to three religious communities (Islam, Jews, and Christians). The idea of this project was to: give the Jews a state, the Arabs their independence, and remove England from managing a situation it no longer controlled. As reported in Sachar (1976) if the Jews accepted the project by declaring their independence, the Arab community of the Middle East saw the UN plan only as a new kind of European colonization in which the intention was to take their land away from them. This situation resulted in the Arab-Israeli war (1948-1949), in which Israel won, which led to an enlargement of its borders within the Palestinian territory, which in the process led to a massive amount of refugees from Palestine. From this moment on, other series of conflicts emerged in the following years.

The PLO (Palestine Liberation Movement) was created, which proposed the liberation of Palestine through armed struggle. The world of sport was also involved with the famous Munich massacre (1972), in which Palestinian bombers killed two Israeli athletes during the Olympic Games and held nine others hostage. In the following years, Palestinian independence groups repeatedly attacked Israeli areas, mainly through terrorist actions. For their part, as Israel had taken military control of Palestinian territory, its population began to settle. Israel on the other part started to take military confìtrol of Palestinian territory, its population began to settle (Eldar A., 2012). The settlements that were created were presided over by the army and had the effect of dividing the communities and Palestinian territory in which they were established. The resulted in a destabilization of the Palestinian population created in 1987 the first “Intifada”(BBC, 2005). What followed were violent protest clashes that resulted in numerous victims on both sides.

At the same time, in the Palestinian part of Gaza, the Hamas group was founded, consisting of militias armed to destroy Israel. To resolve the situation, international mediation was attempted, but extremist groups on both sides used violence to divide and hijack the peace. International negotiations throughout the 1990s ended in nothing, which led to a second Intifada by the Palestinians (2000-2005). This second intifada changed the fate of the conflict, as on the Israeli side it was no longer a question of resolving the conflict but rather of controlling it, and for this reason, walls and checkpoints were built in all Palestinian areas to control the movement of people (United Nations, 2013). Gaza is being isolated because the Hamas group is trying to provoke a civil war in the inner territories. To date, these events have raised the level of unemployment in the region to 40% (Altraeconomia, 2018), while extremist groups such as Hamas periodically have clashes with Israel (the most recent in May this year). While in the innermost areas, Israeli settlements increasingly suffocate the Palestinian community, which response with protests and riots, which occasionally escalate into violence.

The role of non-state actors in the conflict

The peculiarity of international sport is contingent on the substantial role of non-governmental actors such as sports organizations (for example, FIFA, IOC) and even more private persons as athletes, sports teams/clubs, or media. The significance of international sports organizations is based on their “implicitly diplomatic missions: to find commonalities so that the sporting encounter can take place; to seek consensus, however idealistic and transient, between deeply entrenched political entities; and to find a shared language of communication and interaction in the reciprocally recognized rituals of sport” (Tomlinson, 2018, p.116). For example, IOC is a non-profit independent and entirely privately funded international organization, collaborates with NOC and International Federations: while the firsts virtually represent the interests of separate countries, the latter try to conserve their autonomy for sports integration on the international level.

Modern football competitions are not neutral or innocent; hence the rivalry with the ‘other’ legitimises the reality and perpetual upgrading of the ‘own’ nation” (van Houtum & van Dam, 2002). Meanwhile, to continue its functioning, sport tries to adapt and survive in ever-changing political and historical conditions. In these circumstances, the role of non-state actors is growing, where the example of judo is evident. The International Judo Federation’s steps on suspending Iran from international competition due to Iran repeatedly influencing the sport politically are strict. Although this action does not solve the issue of Iranian judo sportsmen’s participation in world championships in a just manner, it can be considered as a turning point to alter politicians’ behavior. Whereas the judo federation tries to ensure equal and fair conditions for all athletes, football associations follow the path of conflict avoidance (the case of Alireza Jahanbakhsh demonstrates it). At the same time, it is impossible to ignore the importance of the athletes’ actions in the situation: while Saeid Mollaei announced the problem publicly and finally changed his nationality, there is no similar action from the football players.


Due to its attractiveness, states and international organizations use sport as a soft power in international relations, regardless of the level of competition or athletic disciplines.  The cases mentioned in the paper show that football is influenced by political, interethnic, and/or military conflicts which have grounds and reasons that are not connected to the sport. Boniface (2006) argued that hostility on the football pitch merely reflects the existing tense relations between two countries, which carry the weight of a painful history. Sport remains an integral part of geopolitics and international relations, it neither starts a war nor makes peace. But, in the current conditions, non-state actors (international sports organizations and associations) should play a more active role in making sure sports competitions are fair and athletes are treated equally.  An example of how this can be done was shown by the International Judo Federation.   


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