Football: ‘The sun which never sets over the empire of modern passivity’

Guy Debord, dead French drinker and theorist of the spectacular nature of contemporary capitalist society, never wrote about football, at least to any significant extent. He liked games, play and war, but it’s a pretty safe bet that, if he hadn’t shot himself in 1994, he wouldn’t be settling down in front of the TV with a multipack of Budweiser, a bagful of McDonalds, whistling Jennifer Lopez and Pitbull under his breath while readying himself for a month-long fiesta of sexy branded football. Debord, in fact, saw such high-profile competitive sport, even before the brand takeover, as merely propagating a meagre, but deeply addictive, distraction from the incessant march of the capitalist spectacle in which all relationships have been superseded, nay completely replaced, by their simulacra. In Debord’s slipstream, the World Cup can only ever be an insidious distraction or a false opposition, one that prevents radical play, critical thought and, ultimately, the possibility of real, practical change through revolution.

Maybe, though, we can lazily (drunkenly, even) extend Debord’s critique in La Société du spectacle, his distain for the spectacular nature of enormo-sport as an ‘interminable série des affrontements dérisoires’ [‘endless series of trivial confrontations’] to help us describe the state of commercial, international football as it exists today. What could be more appropriate as a description of the global football machine than his conception of the spectacle as ‘le mauvais rêve de la société modern enchainée, qui n’exprime finalement que son désir de dormir’ [‘the nightmare of imprisoned modern society which ultimately expresses nothing more than its desire to sleep’]? We are consistently reminded that football is a ‘way of life’, one that ‘brings people together’ and, in particular that ‘the world celebrates as one at the World Cup’. This may well be the case, but the World Cup as an institution, or as a process, is also a clear assertion of football carnival as an acute symptom of the broader alienating contemporary spectacle.

Consider, for example, Debord’s famous aphorism that ‘Le spectacle est le capital à un tel degré d’accumulation qu’il devient image’ [‘The spectacle is capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image’]. The glitzy, mediatised entertainment showcase of grinning, family-friendly, expensive replica shirts, Lopez-jigging, exorbitant ticket prices and multi-millionaires in shorts running around after a ball is surely a perfect illustration of such compressed capital. I’m reminded of Daisy Buchanan in Fitzgerald’s Gatsby: just like her, football is purely distilled dosh. But, while it presents the collaborative participation of the rainbow nations of global peoples, just like the over-arching spectacle noted by Debord, it also engenders silent submission, it can again be pertinently described as ‘le soleil qui ne se couche jamais sur l’empire de la passivité moderne. Il recouvre toute la surface du monde et baigne indéfiniment dans sa proper gloire’ [‘the sun which never sets over the empire of modern passivity. It covers the entire surface of the world and bathes endlessly in its own glory’], a system that could only produce a figure as hopelessly unironic and glitzily banal as Christiano Ronaldo.

Rather than uniting people, the World Cup as televised spectacle leaves us slumbering alone in our armchairs, or hunched over our computers in our alienated loneliness, scrabbling for shitty Internet streams. In turn, Sepp Blatter hunches over a succession of spreadsheets and marketing guidelines, litigiously threatening the big and the small who dare to even mention the hallowed words ‘World Cup’ without coughing up the wonga. There will be no free rides.

Can there be any hope in this age of immersive football spectacle where total submission to the paternalistic tyranny of Blatter and his drones is commanded, is there any alternative other than depressed, Debordian suicide, or at least nihilistically-hard drinking? The answer, gloriously, exhuberantly and brilliantly is a resounding ‘YES’ and it comes from deep within football itself. The way is pointed by writers and translators Jethro Soutar and Tim Girven, founders of the newly-launched not-for-profit publishers Ragpicker Press. Soutar and Girven’s first project has been to edit and publish The Football Crónicas, birthed via crowdfunding, a collection of writing about football from South America, bringing together both creative long form non-fiction (crónicas) and a gilding of short stories. It is a collection that rejects the tropical clichés imposed from abroad on football in the continent. As Soutar has suggested:

When foreigners write about Latin America, they typically succumb to cliché and hyperbole: ‘the whole country came to a standstill’, ‘kids playing with oranges in backstreets’ etc… Latin American writers don’t do this, though they are acutely aware of the power football holds over their continent; that football often throws up the best stories and that by writing about football they can tap into the good, the bad and the ugly of life where they live

Soutar is underselling his project a little here. As a collection, The Football Crónicas is about more than using football as a tool or to tell us about life in Chile, Bolivia or, say, Peru from where some if it writers hail. It is also a celebration of the capacity of football itself to do just that. Soutar and Girven have been careful to eschew explicit reference to the World Cup, perhaps through fear of being S.Blattered, but the collection is an intelligent and engaging riposte to what I have read above as Debord’s bad football dream.

What the most successful pieces here have in common is their insistence on some kind of community, one that challenges Debord’s idea of an ‘empire de la passivité moderne’. In ‘The Goal in the Back of Beyond’, a piece that recounts a crucial league match for Club Bolívar in the Bolivian league from the sidelines, Mario Murillo stresses the pseudo-spiritual togetherness of the players and speculates, ‘If I’m ever to find God, doubtless it will be in a football dressing room before a match’. In a similar, but very different manner, Alberto Salcedo Ramos, in ‘Queens Football’, brings to life Las Regias, a Columbian transexual football team whose members soccer brings together with an alternative to the preordained ghettoisation of prostitution and hairdessing, in doing so posing profound questions about queer rights in  Cali, the country’s third most important city. ‘The Goal-Begetting Women of the Andes’ sees Marco Avilés explores both women’s football, and the crucial societal role of the sport in a remote village in the Peruvian Andes, wondering if it is ‘the sport that best allows us to understand our world? Is the game capable of bridging the extremes of human experience, ironing out disparities and turning them into goal tallies?’. I also particularly enjoyed ‘Congressman Romário: Big Fish in the Aquarium’, Clara Becker’s consideration of Romário de Souza Faria’s unlikely trajectory from international striker to socialist politicition with a particular commitment to securing the societal inclusion of disabled people. Equally, Juan Pablo Meneses’s ‘A Grenade for River Plate’ (available here at The White Review), an insider account of a trip by bus with the Los de Abajo, the worst hooligans in Chile, to see their team take on the loathed Argentinian neighbours in Buenos Aries is a hell of a read. Tension is added, as the title suggests by the presence of a live hand-grenade on the bus.

There are three engaging short stories here as well, but these might have been better served in a stand-alone volume, and hopefully we will see a fiction-centric follow-up. As its name suggests, this collection is really about the crónicas. The crónica is a subversive genre, an implicitly rebellious one in the age of official World Cup tweets, santised soundbites and snappy, approved content. This collection is a reminder than football itself can be empowering, rebellious and life-affirmingly inclusive – recalling Debord’s beloved ‘play’ – and that we can use football against the overarching football spectacle as managed by Fifa. The way through football is football. Sepp Blatter doesn’t want you to read this book. Guy Debord, on the other hand, positively demands it.

Posted by Russell Williams

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

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One thought on “Football: ‘The sun which never sets over the empire of modern passivity’

  1. […] contribute. It’s not just a way of reflecting on life. Russell Williams is right when, in a post on Straight off the Beach a while ago, he suggested that “The Football Crónicas is about more […]

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