By Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (February 1st 2021)
The Federation of International Football Associations (FIFA) insists that governments are not permitted to interfere in football affairs, especially with FAs. But history tells a very different story. Many, many years ago FIFA failed its first test miserably.
The Kingdom of Bohemia was an independent nation long before FIFA was founded. At one point it was the most important component of the Hapsburg Empire. In time Austria and Hungary took control. Bohemia became part of the Hapsburg Empire but not through conquest.
The name of one of the Czech Republic’s top-flight teams tells a story, Bohemians 1905. Bohemia joined FIFA in 1907 – where was the objection then as they played international matches, including while tuning up for the 1908 Olympic Games Football Tournament. Their opponents included England as well as Hungary. There should have been little doubt that Bohemia was a legitimate member of FIFA1.
Instead, political interference reigned. Austria objected, claiming that Bohemia was not a country and that it had no right to FIFA membership. Disgracefully, Bohemia’s membership of FIFA was rescinded as football’s governing body caved in shamefully to political interference in 1908 – Bohemia was never allowed to compete in Olympic Games Football Tournaments. This disgraces FIFA.
Ironically, having blocked Bohemia, Austria did not compete in the football either and nor did Hungary. Interestingly, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had no problem with Bohemia which competed in other sports along with competitors from Austria and Hungary.
It was an abject failing by FIFA of its first major test – one that shames it. At the time FIFA was a comparatively young organisation and the future of football’s governing body was far from assured.
Unlike Bohemia, the Russian Empire was rushed into membership of FIFA so it could compete in the 1912 Olympic Games Football Tournament. It had played Bohemia – unofficial matches. The Russian Empire lacked Bohemia’s football history and received vastly different treatment from FIFA. Political interference in sport became more blatant after World War I ended.
Following the war to end all wars as the First World War was once called political interference in sport reached unprecedented levels. The defeated nations were banned from the first post-war Olympic Games, which included football. Among the banned nations were Austria and Hungary – the Hapsburg Empire had collapsed after the war. New independent
nations emerged from the defeated empires – the Ottoman (Turkish Empire) had also collapsed. The newly independent nations were welcomed to the Olympic movement. Football too welcomed them. Included in these nations was Bohemia essentially by a new name – Czechoslovakia. Meanwhile, FIFA expanded, but the IOC acquiesced with blatant political interference in sport.
The victorious nations in the First World War were not content with the debilitating terms of the Versailles Peace Treaty (1919). Nor were they sated by dismantling their empires and the independence of countries that had been governed by those empires.
Significantly, they did not recognise the independence of countries they had colonised even if they fought alongside them in the war – something rapidly given to their white governed colonies. They greedily gobbled up Germany’s African colonies without a second thought for independence.
But all this was not enough. Germany and its other defeated allies wre banned from Antwerp’s Olympiad – the first after the war. That happened because the victors demanded it. In Germany’s case it became even worse. The next Olympiad was scheduled for Paris. It took place after France and allies occupied the industrial heartland of Germany, the Ruhr, over reparations. Germany’s currency was worthless. The hardship already suffered by ordinary Germans was appalling.
The IOC responded to this flagrant breach of its beliefs and original Olympic ideals by punishing the victim. Far from stripping France of its Olympiad, it banned Germany again. So, Germany missed the 1924 Olympic Games Football Tournament. FIFA cannot be blamed for this as that tournament was organised by it for the IOC.
Nevertheless, it is a clear example of political interference in sport, but if FIFA deserves a pass over that there were other issues as well, which contributed to the need for a FIFA World Cup. Football at that stage was organised under Olympic rules of amateurism. This led to a dispute between England and FIFA and the IOC.
Amateurism made football a sport for those who could afford to play. It made it elitist. Also, the growing popularity of football was not benefiting the sport. A separation of the Olympic Games and football was becoming inevitable. And there was racism question too.