Proxy Soldiers of Soccer

Soccer Ball with Hammer and Sickle At the risk of alienating over half of the planet, I’d like to state my distaste for the wave of football fervor that has overtaken the small part of the world with which I am familiar, and most likely much of the rest of humanity as well.

Imagine my surprise to find that people with otherwise reasonable political analyses extolling the political significance of soccer. I want to emphasize that, despite my own personal dislike for sports, I do not believe there is anything wrong with people enjoying watching great athletes compete, or doing it themselves. But hearing that the political side to football extends beyond its corporate ownership is too much. (I urge readers to check out Daniel Gross’ “The Capitalism of Soccer” for an interesting analysis of how the business of European soccer is much more capitalist than US-style football.[1] )

Toronto-based Simon Black wrote “A Socialist’s Guide to the World Cup”[2] , in which he states that, “In many countries, soccer is a terrain of political and ideological struggle like the media or the education system.” He goes on to give examples of how current political issues in a given country or pair of countries make the soccer games more relevant. For example, Black mentions the powerful psychological boost a football victory against a colonizer can give the people of a colonized country:

[A]nytime a former colony goes up against its colonizer, far more than just a game is at stake.

Long independent, the nations of Togo, Trinidad and Angola will face their colonizers in the first round of World Cup 2006. Both soccer minnows, a victory for Togo or Trinidad will set off waves of celebration in the home country.

Yet the Angola versus Portugal match is arguably the most exciting and politically stimulating of the first round. Angola waged a brutal struggle for independence against Portuguese rule (and later against U.S. and South African influence) gaining independence in 1975. Angolans will be hoping their team rises above the favoured Portuguese in a game that will be charged with political symbolism.

Does this mean that, if the former colony loses the soccer game, the colonizer was somehow justified? Soccer players must be under a lot of pressure, having to live up to all the expectations of fans expecting them to fight for a socialist/fascist/anti-colonial cause. Why should a bunch of athletes playing a game be forced to represent anything but themselves and their teammates?

I guess I just don’t get it. There is always going to be something irrational and consciously inexplicable about enjoying games, or any form of “impractical” human activity like music, or surfing the web. There is no need to rationalize it politically. Not everything we do or enjoy has to be “politically positive,” does it? It seems like leftists who endorse the political interpretation of soccer are playing out their fantasies using other people as “cannon fodder” since they feel powerless against their political enemies under ordinary circumstances. The soccer team becomes a sort of proxy to fight one’s battles. Unfortunately the battle is not going to change anything. I hate to break it to football fans: after the soccer game, the world will still be the same as it was before the game.

Linknotes:

  1. Slate
  2. Rabble

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