While football may strive to be apolitical and unite people, it has become highly politicised. In Blood and Circuses, Robert O’Connor delves into the collective memory and experiences of football by people who are living in contested territories like Transnistria and Kosovo.
While most of the world remains focused on FIFA and League football, the last few years have seen several publications, both academic and non-academic, that focus on non-league Football played in and amongst isolated territories that have been excluded from the FIFA system. One such book is by Robert O’Connor who shares his experiences of exploring the power and role of football in Europe’s de facto states.
The journey begins in Kosovo, where O’Connor gathers a personal account of how Kosovan football evolved from a dangerous act of resistance against Serbian authorities to finally being recognized by FIFA and UEFA in 2016 and being able to play football internationally. Next he takes us to Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, which unlike Kosovo, have found it more difficult to gain a foothold in international football. One striking finding is how both the de facto states and the base states use football and football clubs as tools for historic claims to the contested territories. O’Connor does a great job in providing balanced insights from players, managers and (government) officials from both sides of the conflict’s divide.
In the next chapter, the realities of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh are contrasted with Transnistria. Transnistria is the only de facto state whose clubs play within the League system of a base state. What makes the Transnistrian football even more unique, is that FC Sheriff, a club based in the capital Tiraspol, has come out on top winning 18 of the last 20 Moldovan Divizia Națională cups. The last chapter takes us to the most recent conflict to emerge in Europe: Eastern Ukraine. O’Connor shares stories of how Donetsk went from a football powerhouse to having its football clubs and players go into self-exile, and thereby within a few months losing most of its footballing power.
Throughout the book there O’Connor touches upon several important themes. Firstly, this work is a great contribution to detailing the history of the conflict, through the lens of football. Furthermore, this book goes beyond the high politics; it delves into and records the collective memory and experiences of football by people who have and are living in Europe’s contested territories. Another contribution is the detailed discussion on the relationship between politics and football, including how de facto states use football as a diplomatic tool to achieve political goals. Indeed, one realises that while football may strive to be apolitical and unite people, it has become highly politicised. I highly recommend this book not only to football fans but also all those interested in the politics of de facto states.
*Blood and Circuses: A Football Journey Through Europe’s Rebel Republics (2020) by Robert O’Connor is published by Biteback Publishing.*