It was observed by eagle-eye viewers, the display of the flag of Biafra by some fans of Nigerian nationality who attended the international friendly match between Nigeria and Czech Republic on June 6, 2018. Could the display of those flags which was used to pass a message amount to a breach of the Regulations of FIFA by Nigeria?
Firstly, It is important to give a brief background for the benefit of any reader (especially a non-Nigerian) who may not be aware of what Biafra is/stands for. According to Wikipedia, “Biafra (officially known as “The Republic of Biafra”) was a secessionist state in West Africa which existed from 30 May 1967 to January 1970; it was made up of the states in the Eastern Region of Nigeria.”
Despite the fact that that event occurred more than 50 years ago, there have been renewed clamour for the re-creation of the Republic of Biafra in Nigeria; hence the flags displayed by some of the spectators in attendance.
It is not a secret that the world football governing body maintains the stance that football matches should not be used for political messages because of their contentious nature which can damage its existing relationships with nations and corporate bodies. This same stance is maintained by continental football governing bodies as well as national football associations; hence it is usually entrenched in their respective Regulations.
However, i wonder if the Regulations pursuant to which teams are charged and sanctioned for the improper conduct of their fans are critically appraised per case by those football teams.
In this instant case which is an international match between two teams who are different Association members of FIFA, the relevant statute to consider is the FIFA Disciplinary Code 2017.
Article 67 of the Code which provides for the liability of teams for the conduct of their spectators provides thus:
“1. The home association or home club is liable for improper conduct among spectators, regardless of the question of culpable conduct or culpable oversight, and depending on the situation, may be fined. Further sanctions may be imposed in the case of serious disturbances.
2. The visiting association or visiting club is liable for improper conduct among its own group of spectators, regardless of the question of culpable conduct or culpable oversight, and, depending on the situation, may be fined.
Further sanctions may be imposed in the case of serious disturbances. Supporters occupying the away sector of a stadium are regarded as the visiting association’s supporters, unless proven to the contrary.
3. Improper conduct includes violence towards persons or objects, letting off incendiary devices, throwing missiles, displaying insulting or political slogans in any form, uttering insulting words or sounds, or invading the pitch.
4. The liability described in par. 1 and 2 also includes matches played on neutral ground, especially during final competitions.”
Flowing from the above provision, It is my opinion that the key phrase to note is “…displaying insulting or political slogans in any form”. It is hardly debatable that the display of the Biafran flag is not political. However, the real question is; can the flag really pass for a “slogan” as contained in the above provision?
It is worthy to note that Wikipedia defines a slogan as:
“a memorable motto or phrase used in a clan, political, commercial, religious, and other context as a repetitive expression of an idea or purpose, with the goal of persuading members of the public or a more defined target group”
The Oxford Dictionary of English also defines a slogan as “a short and striking or memorable phrase used in advertising”.
It is my view that based on the above definitions, a flag does not qualify as a slogan. Even a mischief argument that the concluding part of Article 67(3) which says “…in any form” could include flags, would not hold water. It is my view that “in any form” cannot & should not be read independently, but as a whole. If read conjunctively (as it should be), it would mean “any form of SLOGAN” (which a flag still does not fall under).
I therefore conclude that although teams have previously been punished for the display of flags by their fans even though they do not qualify as slogans (such as Celtic who were fined £10,000 in September 2016 because their fans displayed a Palestinian flag during an away Champions League match in Israel), a strict interpretation of the provision of the FIFA Disciplinary Code would mean that the Biafran flag (even if it was displayed as a political message) does not qualify as a slogan since same is not a motto or a phrase, nor does it have any inscription on it.
If the world football governing body wishes to discipline teams in the future for similar displays, then it would need to amend that portion of the Disciplinary Code.