The Beautiful Game: Football, Politics and Social Struggle

There have been few if any cultures in the history of humanity, from the prehistoric to the (post)-modern, which have not engaged in the production and consumption of fun and entertainment. “Fun” has come in many different forms: toys, music, dance, literature, storytelling, sex, games and sports to name just a few. Anthropological records show that almost immediately after the basic necessities of life were met in even their most elementary form(s) (like a particularly fertile patch of berries and accompanying hole to poop in) humans began enjoying themselves.

But fun is more than just, well, fun and games. Fun is a deeply human experience. And the struggle for fun, for pleasure and for the “right to play,” to quote a certain humanitarian campaign banned by our one-time benevolent Olympic overlords, is a contested ideal. Indeed, many an authoritarian regime has correctly understood that the right to play, the right to freely enjoy oneself can be the basis of deeply subversive process of liberation.  It is the often the basis for communities to come together, and as we all know, the people united, will never be defeated.

The Beautiful Game

As I write this, the most watched sporting tournament in the world is drawing to a close: the FIFA World Cup. 32 teams, representing all the Earth’s continents, with at least one or two solid sides from each, have made the World Cup a far more representative and far more watched sporting event than the Olympics could ever hope to be. From Paraguay to Ghana, the United States to North Korea, the Netherlands to Australia—the World Cup melds together a diversity of cultures rarely meeting on as level a playing field, both literally and metaphorically. Eleven players a side, one ball, ninety minutes: poetry in motion.

It is known as “the beautiful game” as much for the finesse and agility demonstrated by its top talents as for the simplicity with which it is played. Consider that to play a game of football all that is required is a relatively even surface, makeshift goals that can be made out of anything from walls, curbs, fences, rocks and trash and a ball. And even the term “ball” is used loosely in most of the world. Rolled up clothes, fruits, even plastic bottles melted into shape can substitute for a “regulation” ball used in professional competition. Generations of children have perfected this simple craft.

It is for this reason that football is the world’s game; the vast majority of the Earth’s people are overwhelmingly afflicted with that lingering capitalist disease known as poverty. Living in squalor, bats, pads, basketball rims and hockey sticks are a luxury most people will never experience to say nothing of clean drinking water. Football, on the other hand, is a game literally anyone of any economic status can play. Thus, football is often times one of the few outlets, one of the few luxuries, one of the few instances of fun for the world’s desperate majority. It has inspired generations of children in particular, regardless of stature, that this one game can lift them to better things. It is to this end that football has given us events such as The Homeless World Cup and the increasing popularity of women’s football.

It also explains why, increasingly, the world’s best players are emerging from the once “dark” and forgotten corners of the Earth. While we will likely never want for Wayne Rooneys and Cristiano Ronaldos, more and more the likes of Essien, Drogba, Messi, Ji-Sung and Honda are becoming household names. What other sport or even institution can claim to have such a true diversity of representation? Even the celebrated United Nations is dominated by the Security Council which is in turn dominated by a handful of veto-holding states, most of them Western states. As the game has become increasingly international, beamed to the homes and plazas of billions, the level of competition has elevated a once almost exclusively European and South American sport into a global phenomenon.

Socializing Entertainment

While the World Cup occurs only once every four years, much as with the respective continental tournaments (Euro, Africa Cup, Asia Cup etc) the period in between major international gatherings is an almost uninterrupted series of club fixtures. So much so that it has become something of a joke.

Nonetheless, football fans (read as “hooligans” in the American press) have garnered something of a reputation for a crazed obsession with their respective clubs. While it is easy enough to dismiss this as the idle, hollow pursuits of the unwashed masses (bread and circuses, as they say) there is actually a pronounced political dimension to this.

In most of the world, sport is anything but apolitical. For instance, it makes a difference whether one cheers for Celtic or the Rangers. The former were the team of Irish Republicans while the latter those of Protestant Unionists.  A.C. Milan, one of Italy’s best known clubs, has had a long history of working class, left-wing support. Hamburg’s FC St. Pauli is a club which has been embraced by the neighbourhood’s working class and counter-culture scene and embodies perhaps the best a “political club” has to offer; “[the] organisation has adopted an outspoken stance against racism, fascism, sexism, and homophobia and has embodied this position in its constitution. Team supporters traditionally participate in demonstrations in the Hamburg district of St. Pauli, including those over squatting or low-income housing, such as the Hafenstraße and Bambule.” Moreover, “the club prides itself on having the largest number of female fans in all of German football. In 2002, advertisements for the men’s magazine Maxim were removed from the team’s stadium, in response to fans’ protests over the adverts’ sexist depictions of women.”

The Politics of FC St. Pauli (Video)

Even major clubs FC Barcelona, for instance, have continued to foster their social roots. “Barca” has had a long-standing policy of not wearing any corporate advertising on their jerseys, having only ever accepted the “sponsorship” of UNICEF. The fact has its origins in the history of the club, which had been composed of supporters of the Second Spanish Republic during the 1930s. On a tour of the US and Mexico during the Civil War in Spain, the players were treated as official ambassadors of the Republican side. Later, during the Francoist regime, Barcelona’s players and supporters earned a often dangerous reputation for being an organization that was willing to speak out and stand up for civil liberties and freedoms in spite of repression on the part of the fascist regime. These were no mere millionaire playboys.

There is a further point worth making, however. Like its arch-rivals, Real Madrid, Barcelona is owned, in part, by its fans. They have representation on the board of the club and no major decision regarding the club’s future is made without their approval. In Germany, all clubs are at least 51% community owned, preventing corporate domination of the game. Similar arrangements are found all over the globe, with communities embracing and defending their treasured sports teams. F.C. United of Manchester, for instance, was founded in 2005 by former supporters of Manchester United in specific opposition to the gross commercialization and corporatization of their team, as well as an increasing sense of alienation from the operation of the club as a result of the new, American, ownership.

There is an implicit recognition in these communities that while football may “only” be a game, it is also an organic part of the greater, social whole. Entertainment is an integral part of the human experience. And in so much as all members of the community are understood to have a right to entertainment and fun, and fan support is viewed as being integral to a club’s overall success, these groups have rightly understood themselves being part of the club itself and the club as part of themselves. These are their teams, and keeping them theirs means ensuring that rich and poor alike have an opportunity catch a live game once in a while. And moreover, to ensure that the club will play a function in the community beyond merely the weekly matches; politics is wedded to sport, not segregated from it.

Reclaiming Fun

As of yesterday, the former “GM Place” is set to become the “Rogers Arena.” We have swapped one corporate slogan for another. The overall state of the Canucks and most every other major professional sports side and league in North America is dreary at best. An ordinary, working family simply cannot afford to attend even a single session of “Canada’s game” in this country. At least not of the professional sort, to which all Canadian youngsters are said to aspire anyway. “We are all Canucks”—bullshit.

The People’s Game.

Worse still, these franchises have little actual integration in the communities which they nominally represent. They contribute little and stand for nothing. Which is precisely why North American teams, like the Jets and Grizzlies and Sonics, have no real issue with moving from city to city. The dollar determines whether it will be the Utah or the New Orleans Jazz, Mormon propensity for black music be damned. Nothing else matters: the fan support is cosmetic as the real power is private and corporatized. Communities are merely expected to build multi-million dollar arenas, preferably at the expense of social housing, and like it.

In the grander scheme of things, the fate of professional sports in the world is essentially irrelevant, many would aptly argue. No one is suggesting we shed any tears for those who make millions chasing rubber discs and the like. Yet the fate of our “fun” is a telling reflection of the fate of our overall well being in these societies. Is it any accident in the countries where sports teams are considered community institutions, publically owned and politically active, that their general social welfare situation is in much better shape? Is it not entirely fitting that in a country like Canada where even basic services like education and healthcare are increasingly becoming unaffordable and inaccessible to the majority of people, that things like pro sporting events have likewise become obscene luxuries? The connection seems clear.

I thank you for indulging me in this somewhat banal commentary but I repeat only that all of it has been to say simply that the struggle for a better world is not merely the about “the conquest of bread.” We are no mere machines, requiring only food and sleep to return to the daily grind of exploitation and wage slavery. We require beauty, art, song and dance. We require community and opportunities for common, collective, joyous experience. For much of the world, football provides just this and it is why they fight for it and defend it. Much as we ought to.

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Jasmin Mujanović

Jasmin is a PhD candidate in Political Science from York University in Toronto. Originally from Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, he regularly blogs about the Balkans, international affairs and social movements in Canada and abroad. His commentary has appeared in the New York Times, Al Jazeera, openDemocracy, Balkanist Magazine, Balkan Insight and TransConflict among other platforms. You can contact him through Twitter or through his personal website.

10 thoughts on “The Beautiful Game: Football, Politics and Social Struggle”

  1. thanks for this!

    seinfeld had a routine once talking about how professional sports teams are just laundry. players come and go, teams move towns, no one from the town is ever really on the team. fans just cheer for laundry.

    now we just cheer for branding, yes, like how we are all canucks. shrewd.

    ever since i heard the seinfeld bit, i’ve felt let down.

    since then it’s easier to enjoy the 10 year olds in the local park playing baseball, even if i know none of them. same with the 6 aside 8 year old girls games.

    THAT is what sport is supposed to be about. and with the abomination the olympics has become, i’m going to enjoy watching the final football games this weekend with my family and community.

    i will proudly wear my venezuela jersey even though they may never qualify in my lifetime.

    i will cheer for…i don’t even know yet. does it matter?

    it’s about community.

  2. Agreed, Stephen. I think certain communities understand that still, certainly far more so than many places in North American with large sports franchises to “brag” about.

  3. Interesting article but Inter Milan was traditionally supported by the bourgeoisie who were generally right-leaning. AC Milan had traditionally working-class support, particularly migrants from Southern Italy, who by and large embraced left-wing politics.

  4. good read, thanks for posting it. one small thing though.

    “For instance, it makes a difference whether one cheers for Celtic or the Rangers. The former were the team of Irish Republicans while the latter those of Protestant Unionists.”

    Celtic were not the team of Irish Republicans specifically though they were the team founded by, though not exclusively for, Catholic Irish immigrants to Scotland. The Republican tradition is there within elements of Celtic’s support but as Republicanism has been a description of those who were willing to consider armed struggle against Unionist and British rule, many Celtic fans would disagree with that description of their team as being inaccurate historically and limiting culturally.

    apologies for the pedantry though!

    1. I was not aware of those details behind Celtic’s founding, cheers for that! And by all means, we welcome pedantry here! 😉

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