Revolution #54, July 23, 2006
From A World to Win News Service
The World Cup: Does it have to be this way?
10 July 2006. A World to Win News Service. For four weeks football fever gripped the world, and now that the World Cup is over many millions have been left with a sour taste in their mouths. We saw victories and defeats, shared the joy and sadness of players and supporters, witnessed beautiful and ugly moments. We saw the tears of the players when they lost or were forced to leave the tournament. We saw ugly moments when the players pushed and injured each other. We have seen widespread racist insults against black players by supporters of the opposite team and even fans of their own team. All these and other ugly moments pose the question: Does this sports event really do what it’s supposed to do, further friendship, cooperation and the exchange of culture between the world’s peoples? Does it have to be the way it is?
For those who live in this time, it is clear that football is not an ordinary sport anymore, or it would not set off such a world-sweeping storm of contradictory feelings. Undoubtedly soccer is one of the most popular games in the world, and at the same time, football, or at least the World Cup, is fully politicized. It is a full-force political scene, with heads of state and prime ministers prominently presiding over the stadium while their country’s team is playing. The US, as usual, is especially shameless in displaying its reactionary politics. Its ill-starred team, ultimately dispatched by Ghana to the delight of many millions, chose the symbolic lodgings of an American military base, and its coach announced, “We’re here for war.” When the side was criticized for an especially brutal style of play in a match with Italy, a prominent American political columnist mocked this as the unmanly complaint of the same European “post-heroic and post-militaristic culture” that had failed to support the invasion of Iraq. (Roger Cohen, International Herald Tribune, 21 June) But when the Italian team beat France in an equally foul-studded final, Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi couldn’t help a little militaristic glorification himself as he praised his team for “fighting to the last drop of blood.”
In a world divided into nations and artificially-distinguished “races,” into haves and have-nots, oppressors and oppressed, many are looking for their trampled rights. They are looking to restore their oppressed identities. In a world marked by the exploitation of human beings by human beings, the domination of nations by other nations and the hideous concept of “racial supremacy,” anything, including football, can be used for confrontation and contest. Some people look to the success of their national team to achieve the self-confidence and self-satisfaction denied them in other areas of life. While the dominant powers, using public interest in football and racist organised gangs, are trying to strengthen reactionary and national supremacist ideologies in the oppressor countries, many people on the other side in the oppressed countries respond, on the basis of their own long rage and fury, by fervently wishing for the victory of their national team. They want to prove themselves at least in this sphere. Those sentiments are abused by the rulers of the oppressed countries.
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The ideological and political abuse of football is not the end of it. There is also a major economic aspect, in which this sport is used to boost the capitalist economy in general and especially to bring huge profits to investors.
It is beyond the scope to this article to analyse all the factors and complicated elements that make football so attractive, but some can be mentioned. Like other collective games, the rise of football is related to the development of capitalism that laid the bases for these kinds of sports. In its present form, football goes back to mid 19th century England, at the height of the industrial revolution (although some people say it was played in a more rudimentary form in ancient China). Its requirements are those characteristic of the modern world: speed, strength, confidence, hard work and especially collectivity and discipline. It consists of hundreds or even thousands of challenges between the players of the two opposing teams. While efforts are made to avoid direct engagement as much as possible, the game becomes most interesting when one team is advancing towards the heart of the other side’s ground. What makes football especially fabulous is the combination (and dialectical relationship) of collective work and the high degree of initiative and skills of individuals within that framework. Its rules are easy and nearly everyone can understand them—this is certainly one source of attraction. Football has the advantages of many other sports combined in one.
But because of this popularity, the ruling classes have entered into it in a big way, especially after the Second World War. This sport has come to embody serious ideological and political issues, and the national clubs are run accordingly. Further, the local football clubs on which the sport is based have become profit-driven economic units. These reactionary political and economic aims determine everything about how football is organized and played. It is now considered normal and even praiseworthy to think of nothing but winning. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the World Cup final. Especially when competition reaches this level, so much money and prestige is at stake, for the side and its members and the capitalists looking over their shoulders, that highly developed teams and enormously gifted and skilled players are forced—not only by owners and coaches but also by the logic of the situation itself—to play very conservatively, putting emphasis on preventing the other side from scoring, on blocking, psychologically destablizing and even injuring other key players, and “diving”, faking injuries themselves in hopes of being rewarded with a penalty shot. As Italian midfielder Gennaro Gatusso put it after Italy’s victory, “Maybe it wasn’t pretty, but we are hard to beat.” (Another Italian player said that if people want a beautiful experience, they should go to the cinema — football is about winning.) This is what destroys what was once known as “the beautiful game.”
That approach has moulded the style of play and the training of the players and led to the prevalence of a certain kind of tactics. Italian supporters and other football fans were increasingly disgusted by the famous catenaccio (“the bolt”), a very defensive, rigid formation style of playing especially favoured by the Italians in the 1960s and ‘70s. It managed to get Italy to the 1970 World Cup final in Mexico, but in the final match Brazil’s crushing defeat of the Azzurri was also an overwhelming defeat for a tactic that makes results everything and kills the initiative of the players. When they came home the Italian team had to avoid angry crowds. Nevertheless, this vision of football became especially widespread among European teams.
Attempts to change these ugly features the game had acquired ran up against insurmountable obstacles rooted in the workings of capitalism. For example, the emergence of new style of play by the Dutch, who presented an offensive system at the 1974 World Cup, was hailed as the best hope of saving soccer’s attraction for the masses. However, this effort was short lived. The new style needed a different system, even in the most narrow sense of the organisation of this professional sport itself, not to mention the economic and social relations and values of the social system it is part of. It proved impossible to play football on this model and keep the old organisation, including the coaches, some of the old players, the plans for training, equipment and so on. More than that, clubs had to be ready to put at risk the stable situation that every team or club had at that time. To play matches where the score would not be the only thing that mattered, much preparation would have been required for the players—and the fans. Further, such a change would have required a tremendous amount of resources that football clubs could not or were not willing to spend. In any case, even to the degree that this new style was introduced, again the only criterion was results—winning at any cost, which inevitably reproduced other ugly tactics and moments inconsistent with the stated aims of this fundamental reorganisation of the system. One of the ugliest features of modern football remains its defensiveness—what is most prized is not a team’s speed and offensive abilities, but its ability to keep the other side from scoring. So the occasional appearance of good football, due to the injection of highly developed techniques and hard discipline, cannot compensate for the burden that the dominant politics has put on the back of this sport.
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How else could it work—how could there be any basic change in the gladiator nature of today’s soccer when teams play only for profit? When coaches train and organise their side to get the desired results or lose their job? When supporters are lured to promote national chauvinism and despise the opposite side, and even worse to strengthen openly fascistic reaction and racism? When the host country undertakes the games to promote tourism, including sex tourism, and give a boost to the profits of its ruling class? When players are under inhuman pressure not to make any mistakes, to use violence against players from the other side, and still look like actors or fashion models—and when many of them are alienated from the spirit of sport and miserable about being forced to violate what are hypocritically upheld as the norms of play? If players try to break with the real, ugly norms of play and somehow don’t “succeed,” or if they make a mistake, then a howl goes up from the tabloids and media, not to mention the coaches and owners and sports establishment and its authorities. These players end up with a profile that will never be wiped from their dossier. Their market value plummets and they may fall from the top to the depths. Whoever scores is the champion, with little consideration for the side’s collective work or the quality of the game. Despite the hard-won organisation of the team, the spirit of taking initiative is rare and what generally rules is conservatism and fear of breaking patterns.
This is why attempts to change at least the defensive and boring aspects of European football have failed. According to César Luís Menotti, “If you look at the last three rounds of the World Cup, all of them are, in a way, an insult to offensive football… In a way, all the teams have been more or less oriented in the tradition of catenaccio and were seeking to win in a defensive game.” (Interview in the German newsweekly Die Welt, 30 June 2006. Menotti was the Argentine football team coach between 1974-1982. He is famous for refusing to shake hands with Argentina’s ruling generals when the country won the World Cup in 1978.) These aspects have changed the features of football. Football is supposed to be a sport, but it is no exaggeration to say that what matters least in football is the game and the sporting spirit.
In a word, this sport is increasingly alienated from meeting the needs of the people. This includes the need for the masses of people (including women) to have the opportunity to take part in sports themselves as well as enjoy high-quality sports performances, and for a society and values based on cooperation and solidarity, as well as daring, individual initiative and seeking to create new and interesting things and advance through a break with the defined and normal patterns of already set boundaries. The basic selfish logic and brutal ethics that determine how football is now organized can only favour the proliferation of the hooliganism, alcoholism and racism that has cost the life of many and injured and terrorized many more. When everything is sacrificed for the profits of the rich clubs of the rich countries, and when a sport is organized in the service of the ideological and political aims of a reactionary ruling class, then the ugly moments we’ve witnessed in the past month are no surprise.
Obviously if competitive games aren’t played to win, the fun is lost, but when winning is made an absolute, or even the primary goal, it has a disastrous effect—including on the fun of the game for players and spectators alike. It spreads the seeds of conservatism, kills the initiative of the players and prevents the development of the game. Most importantly, instead of promoting friendship and solidarity, it gives rise to hostility among the masses, exactly the opposite of the role that an international sport and in fact any sport should play.
What makes football turn ugly is when all the corruption of capitalism—not just bribery and petty corruption, as in today’s football scandals, but far more deeply the rotten relations of class society—imposes itself forcibly on this beautiful game and poisons the people’s enjoyment.
Does it have to be this way? In a world dominated by imperialism and capitalist relations, it seems there will be no other way until we have won a new world where profit is not in command.
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