Reclaim the game

A festival of sporting genius, or an incitement to chauvinism? James Turley looks at the contradictions of the football extravaganza

The world’s eyes are on South Africa - and not because of Aids epidemics or the legacy of apartheid. The French nation is locked in mutual recrimination, the English narrowly avoiding the same fate by hanging on for a long-awaited victory against Slovenia, and the Americans euphoric after scoring a last-kick winner.

It can only be the latest FIFA football World Cup, which, as ever, has had far greater impact on mass consciousness than one would necessarily expect; it is, after all, only 22 grown men kicking a modern analogue for an inflated pig’s bladder around the field. The front pages and the back pages of British newspapers now look awfully similar.

Millions around the world are glued to the television; they follow their own national teams with the pallor of high anxiety, and they watch the other major teams in the hope of seeing something ‘magical’ from the game’s current crop of superstars - Fernando Torres and David Villa, the Spanish striking partnership; Lionel Messi, the young Argentine widely touted as the best player in the world; and others.

The general response of the left has been predictable - which is to say, woefully myopic. Typical in this regard is the Socialist Workers Party, whose regular ‘What do socialists say?’ (nothing of note, it often seems) last week turned its attention to the World Cup. Except that it was not the football it was mainly interested in: - the appearance of the St George’s cross all over the country (showing more loyalty than England’s mediocre performances strictly warrant) is the phenomenon of most concern to the comrades.

“Many people simply don’t care about the event,” writes the unnamed author. “For others, the sudden explosion of the England flag on cars, houses and in pubs is intimidating - because of the history of violence and racism associated with it.” Well, excuse me, but I know and have heard of no-one making that association. Everyone in the real world seems to think it is connected to support for a national sports team.

Do not the many ‘ordinary people’ implicated in this ‘intimidation’ realise that it is a ploy to enlist their support for the nation-state? “Our rulers encourage nationalism in sport to foster a sense of national unity. They created international sporting competitions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to do just this.” “Nationalism, however it is dressed up” - presumably inclusive of football strips - “draws us closer to our rulers and divides us from other workers” (Socialist Worker June 19).

It is worth reminding ourselves that Socialist Worker is nominally pitched at the broad masses; that its articles are written in the childish argot of The Sun or the Mirror (albeit without the latter’s sense of humour). Ever more incomprehensible is the SWP’s schoolma’amish finger-wagging over sporting events, which is presumably a turn-off not just for England supporters, but the many foreign nationals living and working here.

In cities like London, with substantial migrant communities, the English flag is far from the only one bedecking cars and homes. These others are at least not accused of ‘intimidation’ - only the cross of St George is bloodstained enough for that - but they fall under a critique of nationalism so cumbersome and broad-brushed (not to say hypocritical) that nothing escapes.

It cannot be denied that the manufacturers and purveyors of national flags reliably make a killing every four years, and this competition is no exception. Regular as clockwork, the mainstream press laments the far-right associations of the English flag, and urges readers to fly it to show support to our sporting heroes, as well as showing two fingers to fascist versions of the national myth. What the SW piece misses is the small matter of, well, football.

It is easy enough to put the flag-waving in the context of national chauvinism. The issue is that international sporting competitions are not the only sporting competitions; the World Cup is timed so it does not clash with the majority of national club leagues, for a start, and, however many otherwise uninterested people are swept into football fever by current events in South Africa, the hundreds of thousands of regular football fans are mostly characterised by their attachment to a particular club. Club football dominates the sport’s calendar, and indeed generates the bulk of its income.

If supporting England at football has certain things in common with supporting the plucky Brits in Afghanistan, then it also has a lot in common with the gleefully irrational loyalty that people feel towards their chosen clubs. To use an SWP-friendly example, an old BBC documentary on the rise of the British National Party featured an activist describing his friend’s explanation of football support to his young son:

“Do we hate Pakis?” asked the father.
“Yeah!”, replied the child.
“Do we know why?”
“Well, it’s the same with Blackburn Rovers.”

That says an awful lot about racism, of course - but it also tells us a thing or two about football support. It presents itself as immutable - a voluntary but permanent commitment. It is openly irrational - and it interacts with political commitments without being in charge of them. It is also self-aware - nobody really thinks that their connection to the Manchester United starting 11 is in any way substantial, but that just cements the relationship with other fans.

It is sustained, rather, through a whole cultural apparatus - from official kits to fanzines, from match-day attendance to the chants on the terraces. There is nothing about kicking a ball which in and of itself demands attention. It is given a significance in its presentation - in the form both of an industrial machine and an aesthetic spectacle.

This whole process is politically ambiguous. A simple survey of football clubs in Europe reveals many with openly rightwing cultures - Lazio in Italy, for instance - and others whose fans tend to be zealously leftwing - Livorno in Italy, St Pauli in Germany and so on. Football violence, on the continent in particular, often has an underlying political charge - the St Pauli ultras are militantly anti-fascist, in drastic contrast to some of their opponents.

That pattern is not so obvious at international level, barring certain tense regional clashes. But the problem remains: supporting England involves the same basic rituals as supporting Livorno - buying the kit, chanting in the stands ... Football nationalism is not a simple reflection of ‘normal nationalism’, but is tied up with football as a sport, and its whole associated culture - something supported by the fan in its own right, before any particular club or nation. (Indeed, the reactionary tendencies here alone are hardly limited to nationalism - sexism is equally obvious, for a start.)

So, as it happens, is the somewhat angsty opening round of games in the World Cup. While major contenders like Argentina and Brazil found their form, most of the first-round matches were marked by a dearth of goals, or much excitement of any kind. One of the teams most obviously paralysed on the big stage was England - as ever, the club form of individual players has failed to translate into international success. The United States’ draw with England, gifted to them by a cringe-worthy goalkeeping error, was ironically reported as a victory by Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post; Algerians also celebrated their own nil-all draw with the three lions.

The background to this is the state of English football as a whole. The last few decades have seen the gentrification of the national leagues, especially the top-flight Premier League. The total dominance of Manchester United in the 1990s slowly called forth an elite layer of super-wealthy clubs; gate prices soared, and ever more space in the ground leased permanently to sponsors and investors.

Those clubs, and aspirant challengers, became outlets for the vast amount of excess cash generated by the financial boom that so spectacularly ended with the collapse or near collapse of major banks in the USA. Now that the financial system is in crisis, so are the contingent outlets for its fictional values. Manchester United are in debt up to their eyeballs; Liverpool, the previous alpha-male in the top flight, is in an even worse situation, with every major team in Europe keeping an eye on players they may be forced to sell. At both have the club’s owners come to be widely despised among supporters at large.

Fans feel alienated from owners that increasingly run their clubs to please corporate vultures, taking mass support for granted. They feel alienated from grotesquely wealthy players treated as generic celebrities, and spoilt multi-billionaires who act like they own the place - because they do. The discontent is obvious - in contrast to the overmoneyed premiership, the English Football League recorded its best total gate figures in years for the 2009-10 season, with refugees from the top-flight teams no doubt widely in evidence. The Championship, directly below the Premier League and above the Football League in the hierarchy, is the fourth most watched football division in Europe (at the ground, that is, rather than on TV). There too, however, football fans will find sadly familiar tales of financial stupidity and bureaucratic decay. Even the Labour Party caught wind of it: its election manifesto pledged to allow fan buyouts of football clubs.

As for the World Cup, the story is widely reported on the left - hosting the tournament is an enormous white elephant, taking billions from the public purse in a country noted for its monumental inequality. The stadia were constructed in many cases by evicting shanty dwellers in discomfortingly apartheid-like fashion. Even now, the population does not seem to get a look in. Again and again, viewers tune in to see empty seats framing the action - tickets are out of the financial reach of South African workers and unemployed, and even the travelling fan contingents are smaller than expected. Net tourism in South Africa, incredibly, is down compared to the same period last year.

What should socialists have to say about the World Cup? Only that it, and the bloated football industry at large, is a clear example of how the rule of capital ruins everything. Even in the boom-times of the 1990s, capitalism only delivered harassment and price hikes to supporters. Now, a financial albatross hangs over everyone, and attention inevitably drifts from the pitch to the boardrooms, where the mundane matters of success and failure are increasingly decided.

Football is a folk tradition, above all - no matter how many millions of other people’s pounds go into buying Fernando Torres, it is a game that at its most basic level requires two goal markers, two players and a ball. It is low culture in the strict sense - a form deeply rooted in the popular masses; firstly peasants in medieval Europe, and today large sections of all classes. The game - all its clubs, leagues and competitions - needs to be in the hands of the players and the supporters, not philistine chairmen and faceless bureaucrats.