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.]

As an Iranian translator of terry Eagleton (two books:"an introduction to literary theory" and" the meaning of life") follow the writings of terry Eagleton carefully. but i must confess that i agree with Mr. Dave zirin in this argument..Of course it is right that football is a powerful instrument in the hands of capitalism, but this does not say something about the nature of this instrument more than the nature of other arts and sciences. Besides that I believe that Eagleton also admires this " instrument” in the following sentences:
"Like a jazz band or drama company, football blends dazzling individual talent with selfless teamwork, thus solving a problem over which sociologists have long agonized. Co-operation and competition are cunningly balanced. Blind loyalty and internecine rivalry gratify some of our most powerful evolutionary instincts."
These brilliant inspections is absent in his conclusion.
abbas mokhber


"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 also has an unbelievable potential to bring us together."

This is so naive. Dave Zirin represents the primary reason why the Left has been dying for the past 40 years; cultural reductionism in a system structured and driven forward by a multi-dimensional co-evolutionary logical process, which can be changed only by 'metapolitics'. And Beckham does look more like a hedge-fund trader every day. Alienating oneself from today's culturalist left is the right thing to do.

except for his one unfortunate line about it needing to be abolished, eagelton was clear about the joys of the sport and critical only about its use as bread and circus distraction under the domain of capital...sports,
like work, can be wonderful...under profit and loss economics neither is hardly that...bread is the staff of life and the circus can be great fun but when the two are channeled for profit it is at the public should not be abolished but capitalism must be...



Sport is part of culture and always will be. The fact that it can be co-opted to further greed, domination, and deceit makes it like art, science, politics, education, religion etc. The Eagletonian conclusion is obvious: abolish everything.

An old article, but still relevant.

Argentina’s Soccer Passion
By Marie Trigona / / June 28, 2006 / original article

The world cup is here. Until July 9th, 32 national teams will play for the Word Cup title. It is estimated that the World cup will draw five billion viewers world wide. Argentina is no exception to the frenzy. South Americans are the wildest about their soccer, with the highest TV ratings. Argentina’s passion for soccer is a cultural mainstay and part of national identity regardless of class backgrounds.

This year’s World cup tournament has brought back a wave of fervor for Argentina’s national soccer team. Argentina is expected to have a good chance at the World Cup title with super stars like Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez, young soccer magicians leading the offense.

I just returned to Argentina in the height of this year’s World Cup fever. Fans’ passion for the sport has inspired even sports nerds like myself. During the recent matches, the streets of Buenos Aires have looked like a western ghost town with everyone shut in their homes or workplaces watching the game. International and national companies like Pepsi, Quilmes beer, Adidas have featured Messi and Tevez marketing their products. Local stores, bars and citizens have been plastered with Argentina’s national colors, sky blue and white. Every news broadcast (morning, noon, evening and nightly newscasts) feature special reports on the world cup. National politics and local events seem to have been frozen in time until the world cup ends and Argentina takes home the cup. With nothing else seemingly happening in the country, it seems logical to write about what Argentine’s know best, their soccer.

Soccer as socialism

At the turn of the 20th century, Anarchists and Socialists founded many of Argentina’s first soccer clubs. They sought the need to use soccer as a social and political tool for organizing. Anarchist historian Osvaldo Bayer has written extensively on anarchism and soccer. Argentina’s large Anarchist movements in the 20th century, influenced by the influx of European immigrants, were alarmed by the working class’ drive to go to the soccer stadium on weekends rather than ideological picnics or other cultural events. The movement’s daily anarchist newspaper La Protesta wrote in 1917 compared the effects of soccer with religion, writing “church and soccer balls: the worst drug for the people.” However, anarchists soccer ideology changed quickly.

One of the first teams Chacarita Juniors was founded on May 1, 1906 in an Anarchist library in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Chacarita. Anarchists had a clear vision. “Soccer is a socialist game. Everyone plays together with the objective of making it to the goal line, that is the triumph, that is the revolution. In soccer you learn how to act in solidarity. You can’t play alone, when someone is in a better position you have to pass them the ball.” They even discussed what would happen when the sport would become professionalized. When the anarchists would win a championship, all the prizes would go toward forming schools for children to learn the sport. Other clubs followed including the “Martyrs of Chicago,” a homage to the American workers hung for fighting for a 8 hour workday. In the 30's the clubs became appropriated by capitalist interests. The “Martyrs of Chicago” later became Argentinos Juniors: “We are Argentines, not anarchists” became the new nationalist slogan erasing the team’s proletariat history. Chacarita still sports red and black uniforms even though the club is run as a commercial team.

Soccer as nationalism

Until the 60's South America’s soccer teams remained inferior to Western European teams. With the upsurge of military dictatorships in the region, Latin America also emerged as leaders in soccer. Argentina won its first World Cup championship in 1978, in the height of the military brutal dictatorship (1976-1983). The coup’s first dictator, Jorge Rafael Videla hosted the 1978 World Cup as a media stunt to show the world that the military had popular support.

The 1976-1983 military dictatorship ushered in unimaginable methods of terror–drugging dissidents and dropping them from planes into the Atlantic Ocean in the “vuelos del muerte,” using electric prods or “picana”on the genitals of men and women who entered the clandestine detention centers, raping women and forcing husbands, wives, parents, brothers, and companeros to listen tot he screams of their loved ones who were being tortured. The dictatorship disappeared 30,000 men and women to wipe out working class resistance and implement the neoliberal economic model.

By 1978, the international community had heard the accounts of the dictatorship’s human right’s violations. An international campaign gained steam thanks to the determination of groups like the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. In the midst of criticism, the dictatorship decided to host the World Cup. Anyone who opposed the dictatorship risked being disappeared themselves. The dictatorship justified the tortures, kidnaping and executions as a “dirty war” against anti-nationalist, communist opponents. The mothers of Plaza de Mayo suffered the most aggression leading up to the World Cup. Three of the founding members were disappeared and murdered following the infiltration by Adolfo Astiz, a military officer, in 1977.

The 1978 World Cup cost Videla several hundred million dollars. Business tycoons who benefitted from the dictatorship’s neoliberal policies joined in the World Cup frenzy. The BAUEN hotel (currently under worker self-management) was constructed in 1978 for the World Cup, with government loans and subsidies.

Many ex-detainees held at the ESMA (Navy Mechanics School), one of the 400 clandestine detention centers, said they could hear the cheers as Argentina won the world cup while being tortured. The River Plate Stadium is less than a kilometer away from Argentina’s infamous and largest clandestine detention center. Some detainees gave accounts that they too cheered for Argentina while tied and blindfolded.

Home players beat Holland 3-1 in the final. Holland along with many nations threatened to boycott Argentina’s World Cup, saying “you can’t play soccer a thousand meters from a torture center.” The Holland players said openly they would not accept the World Cup trophy from hands of dictator Videla. The military coup used the World Cup to launch its own counter-human rights campaign with the slogan “Argentineans are right and human.” The dictatorship’s national pride campaign overshadowed any international criticism of human rights violations.

Soccer and image

Diego Armando Maradona, by far the best soccer player in history, led Argentina in taking the title again in 1986 during the World Cup in Mexico. Maradona from the working class neighborhood Fiorito, a shanty town in a southern Buenos Aires suburb continues as a soccer god for many worldwide. During the 90's Maradona began to slip in the midst of the golden neoliberal era of former president Carlos Menem. Maradona left the soccer world in 1994 with a drug addiction and weight problem.

As part of Argentina’s image recovery from the 2001 financial and political crisis, Maradona cleaned up his act and had gastric bypass surgery to lose weight. Once again, Maradona is Argentina’s national pride. The best soccer player in history has a tattoo of Ernesto “Che” Guevara on his arm and another of Fidel Castro on his calve. Maradona hosted a weekly national talk show, which broke tv rating records in 2005. Fidel Castro gave Maradona an exclusive interview in which the best soccer player in history pridefully showed the ‘comandante’ his tattoo. During the interview Maradona also promised the ‘comandante’ that he would protest against George W. Bush’s visit to Argentina during last year’s Summit of the Americas.

In popular culture, almost noone makes reference to the 1978 World Cup victory. Fans generally cheer, “we’re going to win just like in 1986!” Soccer, like any sport can be used to uphold authoritarianism and nationalism. The political punk rock band, Las Manos de Fillippi, wrote a song about the 1978 World Cup “La Selecion Nazzional.” The lyrics go: “The World Cup is another state ministry, while the education ministry makes you stupid, the World Cup nationalizes you.” Universally, the state has coopted the World Cup for national interests.

However, sports can also bring people together. It’s no wonder that bosses often ban employees from forming sports clubs or other leisure activities. The workers from the Zanon ceramics factory, occupied and managed by its workers since 2001, launched an interesting campaign during the World Cup. They printed a special ceramics title with the slogan: “Together we are playing for the world cup, together we fight for the expropriation of Zanon.” When the former boss at Zanon prohibited the workers from talking in groups of three or more, the workers began to organize against exploitive conditions in the plant by getting together and playing soccer. Today, the Zanon workers have organized their own soccer tournament inside their factory to create a recreation space and to create unity among the workers.

Marie Trigona forms part of Grupo Alavío. She can be reached at For more information visit,