Sportizenship: the complex links between citizenship, sports and national identity

Jelena Dzankic
Citizenship and sports

With the Olympic buzz in the air, I often come to think about states, and flags, and the feelings that the exercise of physical competition inspires. Over the thirty years of my Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav life those states, flags and feelings have changed. Many times. I remember when at the Olympics I cheered the country whose tricolour flag had a big red star in the middle. Soon, that star disappeared. So did the country. Or countries. And new countries came into being, with new flags, and new feelings. Ludens incipient… or … Let the Games begin!

We often think of sport only in competitive terms. Yet, with the coming of the Olympic Games, this competition also has a manifest national dimension. Sport becomes a catalyst of national identity and pride, of culture and symbols, of ideology and politics. Billings and Eastman (2003: 569) maintain that ‘the Olympics represent a mix of nationalism, internationalism, sport, and human drama unmatched by any other event’. National flags are displayed during the Olympic Games, anthems are played, while the potential difference between the formal and emotional allegiances of sports persons to their country and to their national group puts the country’s political life under a microscope. Therefore, sport has an important role, not only for understanding the construction of nations, but also for comprehending their changing citizenship regimes.

In the former Yugoslavia, as in other socialist countries, sport had a prominent role in society. Riordan (2007: 110) notes that ‘partly under the influence of Marxist philosophy that stressed the interdependence of the mental and physical states of human beings, many communist states emphasised the notion that the physical is as vital as mental culture in human development, and that it should be treated as such both for the all-round development of the individual and, ultimately, for the health of society’. Hence, sport was not only a manifestation of citizenship, but also an ideological channel, which in the former Yugoslavia contributed to the now-forgotten principle of ‘brotherhood and unity’.

For these reasons, a closer insight into the relationship between sport and national identity, politics, and nationality/citizenship in the post-Yugoslav states reveals the multiple aspects of the interactions between the state and individuals. It helps us to understand how sport encapsulates and transmits a particular national or political identity, which is central to the development of each of the post-Yugoslav states and their citizenship regimes.

Sport, identity and politics

Sport is not only a manifestation of a physical contest. It is also a manifestation of cultural and national elements of a society. National sporting contests are often said to instil a sense of community in a state. By attending and supporting different sporting events, people reinforce the identity dimension of citizenship. Supporting a team emphasises an individual’s link to his or her polity, be it a city, a sub-state entity or a country. Alison (2000) and Bairner (2003) noted the importance of sporting events for reinforcing Scottish and Irish national identities by creating a sense of a community distinct from the British one. Although the post-Yugoslav states are all independent, sporting events still have a major role in creating and maintaining the identity of these new communities. In particular, it should be stressed that in cases of new countries, where national identities are in flux and/or  unconsolidated, sport has a twofold function. First, at the domestic level, it creates a sense of belonging to the community of the state, which may or may not coincide with an individual’s ethnic/national identity. Second, at the international level, sporting events reinforce: 1) the differentiation of a certain country’s identity from other competitors, and 2) the unity of community internally, which is achieved through the symbols of the state; 3) the sense of national success at the international arena, which is domestically seen as a trade-off for poor political and economic performance.

This international dimension of sporting events is particularly relevant for the post-Yugoslav states. Inter-state competition has a deep symbolic meaning, which is manifested not only in the fact that states compete against each other, so that winning the contest is a catalyst of national pride. A further significant dimension of sport is the metaphor that is encapsulated in the competition between different states. In particular in team sports (basketball, football, water polo are the most popular team sports in the post-Yugoslav states), values of toughness and teamwork are central, which has also been a metaphor used to describe armed conflict. It has often been argued that team sports highlight territorial control, conquest and defence, while often using militaristic language. Hence in states that had recently been in war against each other, dominance in a sporting contest reinforces the sense of national pride. Even at the onset of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, sports were a catalyst for nationalism. The most famous example is the infamous 1990 match at the ‘Maksimir’ stadium in Zagreb between the Croatian ‘Dinamo’ from Zagreb and the Serbian ‘Crvena Zvezda’ from Belgrade, which ended in an unprecedented degree of violence between the nationalist supporters of the two teams, representing the former Yugoslav republics which would become fierce belligerents in the years to come.

A further symbolic dimension of international competition that is related to national identity are the rituals involved in international competition. These rituals, which entail flying the national flags, playing national anthems, and teams wearing the national colours, all inspire the sense of national unity. In fact, the symbols of the state, such as the flag, the coat of arms, or the national anthem, have often been connected to the people’s histories. Hence sporting events where these symbols are reproduced also gain a political meaning. In the first Olympic Games following the disintegration of Yugoslavia, in Barcelona in 1992, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia participated as independent states, and used their new state symbols. While the flags of Croatia and Slovenia have remained unchanged since then, that of Bosnia and Herzegovina has changed in 1998 due to protests of Bosnian Croats and Serbs that the flag only represented the Bosniaks. The flag of Bosnia and Herzegovina used at the time had a white background with a blue shield with six golden fleur de lys adapted from the medieval coat of arms of the King of Bosnia. Macedonia and the then Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (composed of Serbia and Montenegro) did not participate as countries at the 1992 Olympics, but their athletes competed as individual participants under the Olympic rather than the national flag. Macedonia’s national Olympic committee was not recognised by the international Olympic committee at the time, which prevented the country from taking part in the 1992 summer Olympic Games. The situation was more complex for the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which was subject to international sanctions which also extended to sporting events. In fact the 1992 United Nations Security Council Resolution 757 made an explicit call upon states to ‘prevent the participation in sporting events on their territory of persons or groups representing the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro)’ (paragraph 8b). More recently, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided not to accept the Kosovan athletes who applied to participate in the London 2012 Olympic Games, citing Kosovo’s contested statehood as a rationale. This pushed many of these talented sports-people to compete under another flag.

Another event related to the symbolism of the Olympics shows the intricate link between sport, national identity, and politics in the post-Yugoslav space. During the 2004 summer Olympic Games in Athens, there was a deep contestation of the common state of Serbia and Montenegro through symbols. As the 2003 Constitutional Charter of Serbia and Montenegro did not provide clear guidelines on the text of the national anthem, the Parliament of the then common state held an extraordinary session in August 2004 in order to decide on the anthem in the wake of the Olympics. Yet, as no agreement was reached, the common state used the old Yugoslav anthem ‘Hej Sloveni!’ (Hey Slavs!), which was booed by young people in the two components of Serbia and Montenegro, each of which had its own state symbols at that time. This supports Wenner’s (1989) claim that ‘the symbiotic relationship between politics and sports has yielded both recurring sports themes in politics and political themes in sports’. The way in which these themes were manifested at the policy level in the post-Yugoslav space is best exemplified by the relationship between sport and the status of citizenship.

Stuck in the middle: states vs. sporting associations

Citizenship is the relationship between the individual and the state, and as such it includes the rights and duties stemming from an individual’s membership in the polity. Yet these rights and duties are preconditioned by the citizenship status, which is referred to as nationality in international law. The clearest link between the status of citizenship and sport is the requirement that sports people need to possess the nationality of the state in order to represent that state in international competitions. Some sportspeople possess the nationality of the state by virtue of the fact that they were born into it, or that they have blood or other ties with that state. However, naturalisation, or the admission of individuals into the polity, is a prerogative of the state and it is commonly based on the fulfilment of certain conditions. These conditions commonly entail the individual’s physical link with the state (residence), his or her knowledge of the socio-cultural norms of the polity (language and culture tests), moral standing (proof of non-conviction), and financial sustainability (proof of income). Yet, similar to the case of investor citizenship described in an earlier CITSEE.EU blog, states may in some cases decide to waive some or all of these criteria in order to naturalise people of exceptional merit, including talented sportspeople.

Very often, however, sportspeople follow the ordinary naturalisation procedure. The reason behind this practice is found in the eligibility rules of the international sports federations, rather than the citizenship legislation in the different countries. Effectively, in deciding on a sportsperson’s eligibility to compete for a national team, international bodies that govern sports competitions uphold the principle of ‘genuine ties’ to the state perhaps even more so than the states themselves. This means that, in order to compete for a national team, a sportsperson needs to prove that he or she is ‘more closely connected with the population of the State conferring nationality than that of any other State’, as noted in the 1955 Nottebohm ruling of the International Court of Justice. While the International Olympic Committee (IOC) stipulates a ‘waiting period’ of three years between competing for two national teams, the eligibility rules of the International Football Federation (FIFA) specify that participation in a national team is based on nationality. According to Article 15 of the FIFA Statute, a player who has played in an official professional match for one national team is ineligible to play for the national team of another state. In the case of professional football, holders of dual nationality are required to prove either descent in the state they opt to play for, or according to Article 16 of the FIFA statute, that they have lived continuously on the territory of that state for at least two years. Similarly, in cases when a player who has not played in an international football match acquires a new nationality, he or she is required to either prove 1) birth, or 2) ancestry (parental or grand-parental) or to 3) reside in the underlying state continuously for five years after the age of 18 before being allowed to play for that state’s national team. Having in mind FIFAs complex eligibility rules, one cannot help but wonder what happens to players originating from states that have come into being through disintegration, as has been the case with all of the post-Yugoslav states. In fact, the only exception to the eligibility rules regarding nationality that can be found in FIFA’s Statute refer to the permanent loss of nationality of a state without the individual’s consent, in which case the player is allowed to become a member of another country’s national team. Similar to FIFA, the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) also has restrictive eligibility rules, in terms of the players’ nationality. According to FIBA rules, a player who participated to an international FIBA match before the age of 17 is ineligible to play for a national team of another country, unless in exceptional circumstances. Moreover, FIBA does not allow national teams to have more than a single naturalised player on-board, provided that the naturalisation occurred after the player reached 16 years of age.

These strict rules draw on the logic of loyalty to the state, which in turn refers to the relationship between sports and national pride. Yet, the logic that the states employ in regulating the link between citizenship and sports is different from the one of international sports associations. In fact, many countries allow talented sportspeople to acquire their citizenship through facilitated naturalisation on grounds of national interest. States, unlike sports governing entities, do not see an individual’s citizenship of origin as a barrier to that person’s contribution to their national sporting teams. This is  because in naturalising individuals states act as ‘clubs’ and thus seek to maximize their utility. The maximisation of performance of their national team by the adjunction of a talented foreign player, for the states, can be beneficial for inspiring the sense of national pride among the general population. That is, the nationalist logic of states, which is often enshrined in ordinary naturalisation criteria, fades away in the light of contributing to what is considered to be ‘a greater public good’.

In practice, this logic has resulted in a number of facilitated naturalisations of talented sportspeople in the Western Balkans. In Croatia, the football player Eduardo da Silva is an example, who along with his Brazilian colleagues Carlos Santos de Jesus, Etto, and Sammir and the Cameroonian Matthias Chago, has received Croatian citizenship. Yet, out of all these players, only Eduardo plays for the Croatian national football team. The facilitated naturalisation of the other players has been contested in the Croatian press, who cited the economic benefits to the Croatian clubs where these footballers play, which thus benefits the state. In 2009, the Kosovan-born Fatos Beqiraj received Montenegrin citizenship and is a member of that country’s national football team. For Beqiraj, obtaining Montenegrin citizenship was a matter of convenience, given that his native Kosovo is not yet a full FIFA member and is thus unable to compete in international professional football matches (although from May 2012, Kosovo is allowed to play international friendly matches). As a consequence, many Kosovan-born athletes compete for Albania, Switzerland, Finland, Sweden etc. For Montenegro, naturalising Beqiraj was based on the logic similar to that of Croatia – benefits for the national team, and economic benefits from international transfers. Yet perhaps the most interesting example of a facilitated naturalisation on grounds of sporting contribution is to be found in the southernmost post-Yugoslav state Macedonia. While the Macedonian government on the one hand promotes an ethnic image of the nation that dates back to antiquity, on the other hand, the same government has decided to naturalise the American-born basketball players Lester ‘Bo’ McCalebb, Marques Green, Kennedy Winston, Jeremiah Massey and Darius Washington. The example of African-American players on the Macedonian national team is very indicative of the complex links between citizenship, sports, and national identity. Hence while countries may be resistant to relax their ordinary naturalisation procedures, the absorption into their citizenship of those whose talent may be of great benefit does not represent a problem, or a threat to their ethnic conception of the nation. Rather, the performance of these individuals at international sporting events is seen as a contribution to ‘national pride’, ‘national unity’ and the ‘national interest’ of the state, which overrides concerns over their ethnic/national origin.

The past and the present

Once upon a time, during the Ancient Olympic Games, when only free adult Geek males were allowed to compete, an athlete named Sodates decided to change his allegiance. Born Cretan, he competed in the long run for his city-state of origin at the ninety-ninth Olympic Games. Yet by the hundredth Olympic competition, Sodates was lured to become Ephesian. He competed for his new city-state, which resulted in Cretans banishing him. 

Far from being just a historical curiosity, Sodates’s story is also a metaphor for the present-day relationship between citizenship and sport. International competitions are a sui generis manifestation of the state’s power. Yet taking part in these competitions depends both on the player’s nationality and the rules of international sporting associations. The examples presented above have shown that, very often, states have a more relaxed approach to citizenship than the sport-governing entities. Yet, when it comes to individuals, especially  those who change their citizenship to one of a state considered a political adversary, they are often antagonised in their state of origin and worshiped in their new state. This has also happened in the post-Yugoslav states, and manifestly in water polo matches between Serbia and Montenegro. On online forums, water polo fans have shown their discontent over players changing their citizenship to play for the competing team, which is illustrative of the tense political relations between Serbia and Montenegro.

With the 2012 Olympic flame shortly to reach London, the links between sports, citizenship, politics, and national identity in the post-Yugoslav states becomes as tangible as ever. Ludens incipient… or … Let the Games begin!



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Bairner, A. (2003). ‘Political Unionism and Sporting Nationalism: An Examination of the Relationship Between Sport and National Identity Within the Ulster Unionist Tradition’. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power, 10: 517-535.

Billings, A. C., & Eastman, S. T. (2003). ‘Framing identities: Gender, ethnic, and national parity in network announcing of the 2002 Winter Olympics’. Journal of Communication, 53: 569–586.

Riordan, J. (2007). ‘The Impact of Communism on Sport’. Historical Social Research, 32: 110-115.

Wenner, L. A. (1989). Media, sports, & society. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.