Tuesday, June 22, 2010

In defence of football

The dramas playing out in South Africa over the England team have concentrated the minds of millions of fans around the world. The excitement being generated, the feelings of elation and despair offer an opportunity to think about the true meaning of sport.

Philosopher and literary theorist Terry Eagleton, recently threw down a challenge to football lovers. In a provocative article, he claims that the game is “the opium of the people, not to speak of their crack cocaine”.

Whilst acknowledging the “sublime artistry” sometimes displayed in football and the way it “blends dazzling individual talent with selfless teamwork”, Eagleton says that the World Cup is worse news than the Cameron government “for those seeking radical change”. He concludes that the game should be abolished.

Of course it is true that football, like other sports, and indeed like many aspects of culture, has been integrated into the money-spinning structures of global capitalism. Locals in South Africa cannot afford to buy tickets for the World Cup, not to mention the unemployed or supporters in other parts of Africa. England fans have shelled out £600 each for tickets plus another £3,000 to make the trip to Cape Town.

But is Eagleton right to say that the ruling classes can use football to “hold back change” by reinforcing their control over the minds of the masses? Is today’s game just a case of bread and circuses as in the days of ancient Rome, when emperors held sway over the common people by providing them with food and entertainment? That would mean that all forms of sport, art and entertainment are simply pre-packaged forms of propaganda which have no intrinsic value and no liberating qualities – and that human beings can never, ever break out of the prison of capitalist relations.

In reality the history of sport is one of open, unexpected moments - including some thrilling political events. Athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ “Power to the People” salute at the Mexican Olympics in 1968 before global audiences of millions was just one unforgettable example. And, in the US today, the Major League Baseball Players Association has denounced Arizona’s racist new law which gives police draconian powers to stop any “authorised alien”.

Today, when communications involve millions of people who had hitherto been excluded, sport provides an example of how people can come together in ways that are both peaceful and thrilling. The rise and rise of talented football players from some of the poorest and smallest nations of the world are examples of what talent, training and the desire to succeed can do. In the US, 28% of Major League baseballers were born outside the US, for example. Eleven of Germany’s World Cup squad have foreign backgrounds. The world of athletics also provides inspiring examples, like the legendary Kenyan long-distance runners.

As one fan wrote in response to Eagleton’s rant:
“Nonsense. International cooperation is the only hope of the world; and while I find the various corporate attempts to highjack the world cup extremely boring, there can be no doubt that the world cup and football itself embody that prospect. It helps troubled kids and local communities; it gets kids learning about the value of team work - and few things in life feel as wonderful as scoring a goal. More importantly, it's just a bit of fun. Life is not always particularly easy - an hour and a half of drama is a welcome solace from the usual rubbish you have to put up with in life.”

The crisis of the England squad, symbolised by rows of empty seats at the match against Slovenia today, can ignite a debate about the future not only of football, but how sport can be freed from the prison of capitalist relations. Meanwhile, you can support A World to Win’s team playing in this Saturday’s Ctrl.Alt.Strike alternative World Cup.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win Secretary

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