The fight for football: Is the `world game’ the people’s game?

Argentina's 2010 World Cup football team call for the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

By Duroyan Fertl

June 27, 2010 -- Green Left Weekly -- The 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa began its final round of 16 on June 26. It came amid the unrelenting drone of vuvuzela horns, the knockout of big teams such as Italy and France, and street protests by local residents angry at the 40 billion rand the government has spent on the corporatised event. Meanwhile, South Africa’s poor suffer substandard housing and access to basic services.

Football, or “soccer”, is the “world game”, played by millions of people around the world and watched by hundreds of millions more. But is it truly the “people’s game”?

On its own terms, football is an often thrilling exhibition of human skill. A high-quality football match commands comparisons with art. Little wonder, then, that it is so popular worldwide.

However, the game is also accompanied by a series of undeniably ugly aspects. The issue of football hooliganism, especially in Europe, is well known. Many clubs, with their tight-knit fan groups, provide a fertile breeding ground for neo-Nazi and extreme right-wing groups, such as the English Defence League.

On an international level, support for national teams all too easily finds expression in crude racism.

A Dutch “supporters' costume” designed for the World Cup in South Africa depicts a Dutch supporter riding on the shoulders of a black South African. The accompanying advertising includes instructions to “steer” the “African” around by pulling his ears.

Many players in the French national team are of African and Arab descent. When France won the 1998 World Cup, this diversity was widely celebrated as evidence of France’s healthy multiculturalism and tolerant society.

Yet when France were bundled out of the 2010 World Cup in the first round, after conflict between players and the coach, there was a chorus of barely disguised racism. Media headlines in France declared members of the team “un-French” due to their ethnic background and upbringing in the largely immigrant, impoverished Parisian suburbs that were the scene of violent protests several years ago.

Corporate domination

The corporate domination of the sport can also leave a bad aftertaste. The huge growth in club debts in English football since the Premier League was established in 1992 — worsened by the global financial crisis — has sent a number of clubs to the wall. Even England’s two biggest clubs — Liverpool FC and Manchester United — are exposed to dangerously large debts.

South Africa has handed over part of its legal system to FIFA — football’s world governing body — for the duration of the World Cup. Special “World Cup courts” have been charged with hunting down merchandise counterfeiters and petty criminals at the event.

Few charges have been laid, however, and many of them are highly questionable. Among those facing charges are two Dutch women, arrested for wearing clothes designed by a company that isn’t an official sponsor of the World Cup.

South African workers have also tried to use the World Cup to highlight their grievances. After the group match between Germany and Australia, ground staff held a protest march to demand promised pay and conditions. They were violently attacked by riot police with teargas and batons.

Leading up to the World Cup, the South African government cleared the streets and township slums to “clean up” the country’s image for the media and tourists. Tens of thousands of poor South Africans have been forced to live temporary camps.

In some ways, football continues the old colonial relationships too. Across Africa, hundreds of thousands of young boys dream of escaping poverty by being selected for a wealthy European club. Few make it, but thousands of families are duped into handing over their savings to fraudsters who promise the world.

Bread and circuses?

In the face of all this, it would be easy to write football off as nothing more than a modern-day “bread and circuses” that distracts people from fighting for a better society.

This view ignores the fact that people have always sought enjoyment through a wide range of cultural forms. Rather than an argument against the game itself, football’s ugly side is a threat to this basic right.

It also ignores another, lesser-known, progressive side to the game. Teams such as German club FC St Pauli and English club Aston Villa, for example, have well-organised anti-fascist and anti-racist supporters’ groups, regularly organising protests against racism and far-right groups.

Spanish club FC Barcelona is run as a public cooperative, and regularly gives money to UNICEF for the right to wear its logo on its jerseys — the direct opposite of most sponsorship deals. Aston Villa does the same for children’s hospice Acorns.

Thousands of Liverpool FC supporters, outraged at the mismanagement of their club, have set up a registered “supporters’ union” with the aim of putting the club under fan ownership. The union — called the Spirit of Shankly — features a quote by the legendary Liverpool coach Bill Shankly on its website: “The socialism I believe in is everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards. It’s the way I see football, the way I see life.”

Left-wing influence

This left-wing influence in football is nothing new. In the 1930s, the German club Unterhaching — based in Munich’s working class fringe — was disbanded by the Nazis for being “politically unreliable”.

Football has also played an important role in national liberation and anti-racist struggles, especially in Africa.

During its anti-colonial war against France, the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) formed a clandestine national team from some of the best Algerian players in the French league. FIFA refused to recognise it, but the team was a huge propaganda victory for Algerian liberation struggle. The team won 65 out of the 91 matches it played against teams from Africa, Asia and the Soviet bloc between 1958 and 1962, when Algeria won its independence.

At the 2010 World Cup, the Algerian team prepared (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) for their match against England by watching the classic film about the anti-colonial struggle, The Battle of Algiers.

Football also played a vital role in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Anti-apartheid activists imprisoned on the infamous Robben Island used the game as a means of maintaining political organisation and overcoming internal divisions.

In 2005, the Italian club Inter Milan — once associated with right-wing politics — accepted a challenge to play a solidarity match with the left-wing Zapatista rebels from Mexico. The club also provided funds for sports, water and health projects in the Chiapas region of Mexico run by the Zapatistas.

In the lead-up to the World Cup, Argentina's football team were photographed holding a banner calling for the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo — the mothers of the 30,000 young men and women “disappeared” under the Argentine dictatorship between 1976-1983 — to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Coach Diego Maradona is an outspoken supporter of the revolutionary governments of Cuba and Venezuela.

Like club sides, national teams are no longer as homogenous as they once were due to the effects of immigration. The English, Dutch, Swiss national sides all include players from a range of backgrounds. In the German squad, one was born in Brazil, two key strikers are from Poland and another player is of Turkish descent. The Boateng brothers, Gerome and Kevin–Prince, hold dual German-Ghanan citizenship, but are playing in this World Cup on opposing sides — one for Germany, the other for Ghana.

Football — and all sport — is as much a battleground for social justice as any other arena.

When watching the World Cup, remember the victimised South African township dwellers, the ground staff who make the games possible and the sweatshop workers who made those stupid balls. And remember there is more to football than flags, anthems and cups.

[Duroyan Fertl is an activist with the Socialist Alliance in Australia. This article first appeared in Green Left Weekly, Australia's leading socialist newspaper.]