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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.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos
Tommie Smith and John Carlos

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 tomorrow, 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
22 June 2010

Your Say

Darrall says:

We are bombarded daily by the World Cup. The organisers of the event claim that it is non-political, yet it is dominated by large multinatonal corporations.

Below you can see a photograph of the Argentine football team holding a banner. THIS PHOTO WAS CENSURED BY THE INTERNATIONAL PRESS AND YOUTUBE HAS ALSO BLOCKED IT TODAY. Why?

The banner simply states that the members of the football team support the call for the for the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Who are these mothers? They are the mothers of young men and women who "disappeared" during the Dirty War carried out by the Argentine Military Junta between 1976 and 1983. An estimated 30,000 "disappeared", that is were killed, because they were socialists, communists, trade unionists, community organisers, students, activists and so on who opposed the military dictatorship. Some of these young women had babies, about 500 in total, who were not returned to their natural families to live with their grandparents as their own parents had been killed. The babies were given to military families who supported the dictatorship.

One day a week between 1977 and 2006 the Mothers, now grandmothers, would walk around the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires demanding to know what had happened to their children. They even did this during the dictatorship and for their bravery three of the mothers also disappeared, that is were killed, for daring to question the military dictatorship.

The present football team now supports the call for these mothers to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. Yet the photo has been censured and blocked.

That is not the only thing that has happened in the World Cup. Police have fired stun grenades and rubber bullets against striking stewards in Cape Town and tear gas in Durban. The stewards were only paid 190 Rand (£17) per game when they had been promised much more. Four out of the ten stadiums are now stewarded by the police.


Jonathan says:

Along with the leather handed salute, the unbelievable long jump of that year: when Qualitative change is brought into ones life by those that dedicate their life to these endeavours and in the case of the ‘power salute’ bring disparate parts of life together, such, also,  as Mohammed Ali and his speeches against war, with those other lives, fans, lives struggling to grasp change and yet taking time out to watch sport, and seeing a blast-breach made to see through  a wall that the political organisations they saw every day with dry reformist policies: well, yes I saw that.

Of course personal experience is a bit like Russian roulette, just because you survive doesn’t make the approach valid. But in learning thes things, forms, we learn our mind, our relations, the objects themselves, and those that become spectators bring this to those who have driven on through. But these people, these dedicated sportspersons, or singers, or whatever, concentrated issues and transferred them. In the case of Barcelona FC, victims of the fascist regime of Franco, common ownership comes with responsibilities not to magnates but to African school children.

As to the ‘purely theoretical side’, one should read Spinoza, not only the shape of things, of thought simultaneously of the mind by the individual, say in gymnastics, but organised in say football or even ‘Dodgeball’ (the true underdog story), the shape in the mind is expressed in the action of the object. Who can doubt that with seeing such as George Best or Eusébio ? With an integrated team this was magic; defined by pulling rabbits out of a hat where the rabbits were ten times bigger than the hats. And I saw these people, in fact Eusebio kick a ball at me once, it stopped in mid-air, waived, and turned right – his right. And the human story is in its infancy. Free of corporate control what expressions in the future?  But let us note George Best, born in the staunch protestant estate of the Cragagh Estate in a really isolated area, isolated from ‘integrated’ areas, he called for a United Irish team, something for some reason (actually the reason –s aren’t to hard to fathom)  not included in the Good Friday Agreement. With such a team this small country would be in the world cup now. Serbia beating Germany!

Politics is also a part  of all this, it really shouldn’t be – that is the challenge sportspeople are faced with, how to create sport – in its essence. I would be critical of one comment made, and then reflected on: there is nothing better than saving a goal. The team organises defences, but when the rest fails there is individualism left: the goalkeeper. But then that’s personal memory. Especially with the rise of penalty shoot-outs. But a few inches wider, a few higher, this would change the international game. I listened to the Robin island item, I thought some years ago they would need more years to bring on the youth, this year is not enough to get housing, and proper estates, without that youth teams can’t develop.


Bruce says:

Training film for AWTW F.C.

Last broadcast on Friday, 23:50 on BBC Two (except Northern Ireland (Analogue), Wales (Analogue)).
Synopsis: South African docudrama chronicling the true life story of the Makana Football Association. Imprisoned on the notorious Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was also held, a group of political activists rise above incarceration by creating their own fully functioning football league.

good luck,


Ray says:

Children like ALL animal species have an essential play and sporting element in acquiring both a beneficial physical health and an environmental awareness activity as part of their world understanding and cooperative relationships. Team games like football make for teamwork with a goal. As joint endeavour, which for those either playing, coaching or simply viewing, avails for infinite possibilities of movements within the strictures of time, space, and reasonable, agreed upon rules. Recall the agreed desire of German and British soldiers to call 'mutual peace' so they could play football against (and with) one another during the horrors toward the end of the 1914-18 imperialist war. Football can be un-choreographed ballet or defensive battlefield with luck, fortitude and stamina all mixing those elements in movement. Those things must endure and progress naturally, as will the fully rounded human being along with other arts, which today are unnaturally 'fenced in' by the corporate and nationalist interests of elites who seek to contain the field of play within their limited rules of economic and political fields of play.


Dulwich Daisy says:

Very good blog. We need to celebrate sport - and other fun and positive human activities. They don't belong to capitalism - they belong to us. We can rescue them from the clutch of the corporations. They'll give pleasure, fun and good health long after global capitalism is a nasty memory! Watching Federer's fight back in yesterday's opening game at Wimbledon was a good lesson about the combination of physical with mental strength. The stupid adverts round the court didn't alter that.


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