Football is a sport, and is neither progressive nor reactionary

Submitted by SJW on 18 July, 2018 - 10:45 Author: Omar Raii
Macron supporting France in the World Cup

Knowing all the words to an aria by Puccini or being obsessed with the poems of Chaucer are much less likely to invite political analysis onto its possible progressive or reactionary implications than supporting a football team in the World Cup does.

And it would be silly to ignore the at least superficially progressive or inspiring things that come about every four years when a World Cup is on.

This time we saw countries whose football teams have historically been laughing stocks doing incredibly well thanks to their immigrant players — think Belgium or Switzerland.

We saw small countries like Iceland that are typically ignored on the world stage being seen as equals to the likes of Argentina. Their nation was so enthused a reported 10% of Iceland’s entire population was in Russia for the Cup.

We see schoolchildren learn where Senegal and Uruguay are, and perhaps a bit about those countries. (In fact, football is a great way to learn a bit of basic geography; I know plenty of football fans who care nothing for politics but know exactly where Östersund or Borisov are because they’ve been to away matches there, while plenty of my socialist friends would struggle to point to those cities on a map).

And of course when we see hundreds of thousands of often working-class football fans in a stadium, it’s hard not to think that the left could do more to reach out to such a huge potential audience.

But we shouldn’t ignore the nationalism that always pervades huge sporting events; and it is pretty much wholly reactionary.

No matter how many liberal commentators in the Guardian drone on about how uplifting it is to see sport unifying the country (invariably this comes from people who would never even dream of turning up on a November Saturday to see, say, Norwich City v. Ipswich Town), there is no progressive content to singing God Save the Queen and flag-waving.

It is very easy for nationalists to use football as a vehicle for their chauvinism and reactionary symbol and socialists can’t run away from criticising that.

But supporting a team, for whatever arbitrary reason, whether it’s because you happen to live in England, or because you hate that everyone else is supporting them you really support Croatia, is by no means something we should denounce.

While enjoying the sheer athleticism of great football is perfectly reasonable, it is not at all the same thing as being a football fan, where supporting a team is a crucial part of the “experience” (not the same thing as “joy” as every England or West Brom fan knows).

Most serious football fans in England will tell you straightforwardly that they’d prefer to a see a World Cup where England win outright with a series of utterly joyless one-nils and zero great tackles, than one where every game is a 7-goal thriller with amazing volleys and super corners but where England lose in the semi-final. That’s just the way it is.

Of course politicians themselves have a long and pathetic history of resorting to sport to stir up nationalist sentiments or even just for a bit of shameless self-promotion disguised as national pride.

Chirac, a man who knew nothing about football and cared about it even less, was extremely willing have his photo taken shaking hands with the 1998 World Cup winning Zinedine Zidane and it’s unlikely Macron will be any different.

Benjamin Netanyahu and other Likud politicians love to show their admiration for Beitar Jerusalem, a team with a large working-class but often very right-wing and racist following, as a proxy to show how patriotic they are.

Even more innocuous politicians in Britain will love to mention how they much their Everton or Burnley season ticket means to them. One can’t help feel a bit nauseous when politicians pretend to be so deeply invested in the success of a sports team when it’s clear to everyone they care about nothing but promoting themselves.

The fact that FIFA, an extraordinarily corrupt organisation, handed hosting duties to pretty vicious authoritarian states like Russia adds to the problem. All politically conscious football fans should be disgusted by the sight of Vladimir Putin holding the World Cup trophy.

So while the political uses of football and the political economy of the game are all manifestly interesting discussion points worthy of good political analyses, the joy of football need not itself be political. Nor is football itself a metaphor for life or wider society (I love him too but Gareth Southgate should not be Prime Minister).

There’s nothing progressive about football, but it’s not reactionary either. Nationalism is reactionary. Capitalism and corruption are appalling and so is machismo and drunken violence. But football needn’t be any of these things.

Football is a sport, just enjoy it. Or don’t.

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