WE recently celebrated our 62nd Merdeka Day and 56th Malaysia Day anniversaries.
Unfortunately, these events were not celebrated in the true spirit of unity.
The long weekend breaks could not cool down the country’s rising political and racial temperature.
Amid the controversies, many believe that sports can serve as a platform for boosting unity. I would like to argue that such a view is oversimplified.
It seems that not even Harimau Malaya’s 3-2 dramatic win over its fierce rival, Indonesia, in the opening match of the 2022 Fifa World Cup and the 2023 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers was enough to ease the mounting tension.
If we look at things critically, sports such as football are not free from racism, discrimination and prejudice.
Even though Fifa, as football’s regulatory body, has implemented programmes like zero-tolerance for racism, the problem persists.
Last year, the football fraternity was shocked by news of the retirement of Germany’s star, Mesut Ozil, immediately after the end of Fifa World Cup 2018.
Ozil of Turkish descent was upset with the racial discrimination and disrespect he endured.
This is not surprising, considering that many foreign footballers have experienced similar situations.
They are often made scapegoats when their national teams lose matches.
I believe the Germans felt uneasy after seeing photos of Ozil with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
This occurred against a backdrop of tense Germany-Turkey relations as well as Ozil’s own status as a football icon in Germany.
As a professional footballer, Ozil should be more sensitive to the people’s feelings and not to fall into the trap of any interest group or political party.
However, in spite of the controversy, it is unfair to single out Ozil for Germany’s poor on-field performance, to racially discriminate him or question his loyalty to the country.
Ozil made significant contributions to Germany’s football, particularly during the country’s successful Fifa World Cup 2014 campaign.
As long as there are sections of society that are racially polarised and divided by greed and interest, unity cannot be achieved.
Sports cannot possibly unite a racially polarised society.
One should understand that sports are sometimes influenced by current events and politics.
In our country, participation in sports is in a way influenced by race and ethnicity.
According to the Malaysia Racial Discrimination Report 2017 by non-profit social organisation, Pusat Komas, there is racial imbalance of participation in sports.
For instance, football, basketball and table tennis are predominated by certain ethnic groups.
The strong support that we give our national athletes during competitions should not be construed as a sign of unity.
The intense and passionate cheer for Harimau Malaya would only last till the end of the match.
Whether we realise it or not, racism does rear its ugly head during sporting events.
Racial slurs directed at athletes of different races are a common thing among fans.
If the athletes are deemed to be not performing, they would be racially abused and humiliated. Such action is done without any feeling of guilt or remorse.
Recently, it was reported that Selangor football coach, B. Sathianathan, and former import, Antonio Germanm were racially abused by fans.
This is alarming.
Quoting Karl Marx, French academic Marc Perelman critically commented that, sports is like an “opium” to the people.
This because sports only provide society with temporary relief and gratification.
Perelman’s opinion might be too extreme to be accepted as a whole, considering that sports, if embraced in the true spirit, can help nurture good values.
Nevertheless, we should be more realistic in our expectations.
What’s more important is to instil the spirit of tolerance and moderation in our society. Knowledge and understanding of the nation’s history and sociocultural context are crucial in ensuring harmony in society.
The writer is Dean of the School of Communication, Universiti Sains Malaysia. He occasionally writes on sports communication