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Football, sport and capitalism: Terry Eagleton 1 -- Dave Zirin 1?

Argentina's Lionel Messi.

Terry Eagleton: `Football -- a dear friend to capitalism'

By Terry Eagleton

June 15, 2010 -- The Guardian (UK) -- If the [new British] government is bad news for those seeking radical change, the soccer World Cup is even worse. It reminds us of what is still likely to hold back such change long after the coalition is dead. If every rightwing thinktank came up with a scheme to distract the populace from political injustice and compensate them for lives of hard labour, the solution in each case would be the same: football. No finer way of resolving the problems of capitalism has been dreamed up, bar socialism. And in the tussle between them, football is several light years ahead.

Modern societies deny men and women the experience of solidarity, which football provides to the point of collective delirium. Most car mechanics and shop assistants feel shut out by high culture; but once a week they bear witness to displays of sublime artistry by men for whom the word genius is sometimes no mere hype. Like a jazz band or drama company, football blends dazzling individual talent with selfless teamwork, thus solving a problem over which sociologists have long agonised. Co-operation and competition are cunningly balanced. Blind loyalty and internecine rivalry gratify some of our most powerful evolutionary instincts.

The game also mixes glamour with ordinariness in subtle proportion: players are hero-worshipped, but one reason you revere them is because they are alter egos, who could easily be you. Only God combines intimacy and otherness like this, and he has long been overtaken in the celebrity stakes by that other indivisible One, José Mourinho.

In a social order denuded of ceremony and symbolism, football steps in to enrich the aesthetic lives of people for whom Rimbaud is a cinematic strongman. The sport is a matter of spectacle but, unlike trooping the colour, one that also invites the intense participation of its onlookers. Men and women whose jobs make no intellectual demands can display astonishing erudition when recalling the game's history or dissecting individual skills. Learned disputes worthy of the ancient Greek forum fill the stands and pubs. Like Bertolt Brecht's theatre, the game turns ordinary people into experts.

This vivid sense of tradition contrasts with the historical amnesia of postmodern culture, for which everything that happened up to 10 minutes ago is to be junked as antique. There is even a judicious spot of gender-bending, as players combine the power of a wrestler with the grace of a ballet dancer. Football offers its followers beauty, drama, conflict, liturgy, carnival and the odd spot of tragedy, not to mention a chance to travel to Africa and back while permanently legless. Like some austere religious faith, the game determines what you wear, whom you associate with, what anthems you sing and what shrine of transcendent truth you worship at. Along with television, it is the supreme solution to that age-old dilemma of our political masters: what should we do with them when they're not working?

Over the centuries, popular carnival throughout Europe, while providing the common people with a safety valve for subversive feelings – defiling religious images and mocking their lords and masters – could be a genuinely anarchic affair, a foretaste of a classless society.

With football, by contrast, there can be outbreaks of angry populism, as supporters revolt against the corporate fat cats who muscle in on their clubs; but for the most part football these days is the opium of the people, not to speak of their crack cocaine. Its icon is the impeccably Tory, slavishly conformist Beckham. The Reds are no longer the Bolsheviks. Nobody serious about political change can shirk the fact that the game has to be abolished. And any political outfit that tried it on would have about as much chance of power as the chief executive of BP has in taking over from Oprah Winfrey.

The USA's Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics. Photograph: AP.

Dave Zirin: `Football isn't just about capitalism'

June 21, 2010 -- The Guardian (UK) -- Terry Eagleton has been one of the great minds of the European left seemingly since Cromwell. But in his recent piece on the Guardian's Comment is free, "Football: a dear friend to capitalism" [above], his absence of understanding on the relationship between sport and modern society demands a response.

Eagleton writes: "If every rightwing thinktank came up with a scheme to distract the populace from political injustice and compensate them for lives of hard labour, the solution in each case would be the same: football."

He continues, that "for the most part football these days is the opium of the people, not to speak of their crack cocaine". And finally he hammers home: "Nobody serious about political change can shirk the fact that the game has to be abolished."

This message is an old trope for the left and so musty that reading Eagleton's column seemed to kick up dust from my computer screen. Those of us who love sport must also be hoodwinked. We must be bamboozled. Are we just addicts permanently distracted from what "really matters" as we engage in a pastime with no redeeming value? This is elitist hogwash.

We don't love sport because we are like babies suckling at the teat of constant distraction. We love it because it's exciting, interesting and at its best, rises to the level of art. Maybe Lionel Messi or Mia Hamm are actually brilliant artists who capture people's best instincts because they are inspired. By rejecting football, Eagleton also rejects what is both human and remarkable in physical feats of competition. We can stand in awe of the pyramids while understanding the slave labour and misery that comprised its construction. We can stir our soul with gospel music even while we understand that its existence owes itself to pain as much as hope. Similarly, amid the politics and pain that engulf and sometimes threaten to smother professional sport, there is also an art that can take your breath away.

But like all art, sport at its essence – what attracts us to it in the first place – holds within it a view of human potential unshackled, of what we could all be in a society that didn't grind us into dust. Yes, far too many of us watch instead of play. But that's not the fault of sport. For our current society is but a fleeting epoch in history. But sports spans ages, and to reject it is to reject our very history as a species.

We now know that as soon as human beings could clothe and feed themselves, they played. Sports is as human an act as music, dance, or organising resistance. While sports may in a vacuum have no "significance", the passion we invest transforms it. Sport morphs into something well beyond escape or a vessel for backward ideas and becomes a meaningful part in the fabric of our lives. Just as sports such as football reflect our society, they also reflects struggle.

Therefore, when we think about the black freedom struggle, our mind's eye sees Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali. The story of the modern women's movement is incomplete without mention of Billie Jean King's defeat of the male chauvinist Bobby Riggs. It explains why the Algerian football team was motivated to outplay England after watching Pontecorvo's anti-imperialist classic, The Battle of Algiers. And, of course, one of the most stirring sights of our sport in the last century: Tommie Smith and John Carlos's black-gloved podium salute at the 1968 Olympics.

Sport is, at the end of the day, like a hammer. And you can use a hammer to bash someone over the head or you could use it to construct something beautiful. It's in the way that you use it. It can be brutal. It can be ugly. But it also has an unbelievable potential to bring us together, to provide health, fun, enjoyment, and of course pulse-racing excitement.

Eagleton, who has written extensively about Marx, would do well to remember his maxim: "Nothing human is alien to me." This latest polemic is more about Eagleton's alienation than our own.

[Dave Zirin is author of The People's History of Sports. These articles first appeared at © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010. Reposted for fair use and non-commercial education purposes.]

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