Category Archives: Politics

 Suárez’s Bite and Zidane’s Headbutt

Last night Luis Suárez bit Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini in Uruguay’s important match. It seems clear already that it will be one of the events of this World Cup which will remain in cultural memory the longest, and the immediate reactions to the biting incident on social media were particularly extreme. The key reactions I observed were comparisons of this incident to Zidane’s famous headbutt in 2006 (see for example here), and a sense of deep disgust at the idea of biting someone (to take a prominent example, Alan Shearer described the action as ‘disgusting’, but the words ‘Suárez’ and ‘disgusting’ will bring up endless results on Twitter’s search function). I want here to suggest some reasons why these may have been the two main reactions and how they are linked. Before beginning though, it’s important to stress that these are not the most important issues surrounding the incident. Most importantly it confronts us with the question, ‘Why does Suárez biting someone affect his marketability as a club footballer, and status as a player of international stature, so much more than the fact that he has racially abused other players?’ This piece will attempt to answer why this incident had such an affective charge; sadly the answer to why its affective charge is more potent than that of racism is probably more simple – that our culture, and particularly the big business of club football and its consumers, is still marked by racism. But it will also suggest a way in which Suárez’s racism can be thought of in relationship to his biting.

Both Suárez’s bite and Zidane’s headbutt were particularly striking because they took place outside the normal parameters of play. This is probably true of all fouls – they are interruptions, singularities, events, which disrupt the smooth flow of time within the match. Nonetheless, there is scale of the extent to which foul play takes on the status of a singularity or event which stems not only from how violent the event is, but how far outside the parameters of normal play the event is. Bad tackles act more like temporal punctuation than interruptions to the smooth flow of time within the match. Both Zidane and Suárez’s events though wholly alter the temporal experience of the match, and take on a marked meaning outside the structure of the match as a whole. They are temporally and semiotically superfluous to the game itself. Both incidents involved the head, which though a perfectly legitimate tool in the game, is immediately semiotically marked by its distance from normal play the moment it is used outside normal play, since it is as far away from the foot as possible. * Zidane’s headbutt occurred outside of the current locus of play, whilst Suárez’s bite was superfluous to any immediate object required by the game, and seemingly unprovoked by circumstances in the game itself, in contrast to a punch thrown during a break in play, or in response to a particular situation. Suárez’s object could have been achieved just as easily by a shove or shoulder-barge.

Both incidents then take on a particularly remarkable appearance as events, points of occurrence which take place outside both the normal parameters of play and normal experience of temporality in the game. They can be extracted from the match in order to make and reflect on wider points about the psychology of the players involved, and it is these psychological aspects that I believe make the events particularly fascinating to us, and in both cases, these two are connected with a sense of untimeliness. In his now classic essay on the aesthetics of football, ‘Zidane’s Melancholy’ , the Belgian novelist Jean-Philippe Toussaint suggests that Zidane’s headbutt in response to a perception that ‘the hours seem leaden, longer, slow interminable’, and that the act was, ‘a final flight from the finished work’. The act, in Toussaint’s terms, becomes not only an untimely event in the context of the match, but an untimely event in the context of Zidane’s whole life, an act of radical rebellion against the slowing down of all lived experience: an escape route in a space with no exit.

There can be no similar admiration for Suárez’s act, though in some way it follows the same temporal logic. Perhaps, at first glance it seems to be similar, but lesser, since Suárez was nowhere near the end of his career, an act born of the frustration of a stalemate at a point that demands winning, an attempt to re-enliven dead time. But this was not what it was, the affect it invokes though is very different: disgust.

When Toussaint speaks of the ‘final flight from the finished work’, he is quoting from Freud’s essay on Leonardo da Vinci, and it is Freud who can provide one answer to why Suárez’s untimely act might be found disgusting. Zidane’s act was untimely because it filled empty homogenous time with an instant of excitement, at the end, somehow already beyond the end, in a melancholy space of the afterlife which was for a moment redeemed. On the other hand, Suárez’s act, and biting more generally, is atavistic. It strikes many with the experience of disgust because it reminds them of the orality of their childhood. In his study of the study of the ‘Rat Man’, ‘Notes upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis’, Freud relates that his patient was once beaten by his father ‘because he had bitten some one’, and that his patient was deeply shocked to learn this because he was ‘refus[ed] to believe that at some prehistoric period in his childhood he had been seized with fury’. It is in this particular instance that a more general cultural disgust towards biting is detectable: it reminds us both of our childhood orality, our erotic love of sucking (on our mother’s breast, or anything else to hand), and our childhood rages. In Dickens’s David Copperfield, that seems to have influenced the Rat Man study, David bites his step-father as he is being beaten, ‘I caught the hand with which he held me in my mouth, between my teeth, and bit it through. It sets my teeth on edge to think of it’.  When David relates this he is speaking as an upstanding bourgeois citizen (as is the Rat Man); as we consolidate our memories in adulthood, memories of this sort disgust us. That is part of our experience of becoming adult subjects in a bourgeois and patriarchal world.

It may well be that Suárez’s act then is a sort of rebellion against the patriarchal authority of the football business that made him what he is, but nor is Suárez some sort of political hero. Yet there is a problematic side in desiring to repress orality altogether. The repression of oral pleasure has historically been part of a project of bourgeois, patriarchal, racism. In the Southern United States, for example, women slaves were punished for pica, for taking pleasure in eating dirt. Nothing like this could ever be said of Suárez’s orality, and perhaps, in this case we are right to condemn it. Here our disgust at his biting perhaps suggests a more general disgust at his behaviour. In the Rat Man study, the memory of biting his father reminds Freud’s patient of his affinity with rats that ‘he himself had been just such a nasty, dirty little wretch, who was apt to bite people when he was in a rage’. Rats, of course, are noble creatures, but the characterisation seems apt for the nastiness of Suárez’s rage, of his attitude towards those without white skin.

* It is incidentally striking that so many languages adopt the English word for football, or, when they do not, such as in the Italian calcio, adopt words explicitly connected to the feet.

Posted by Tristan Burke

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Notes on Fallout

So, despite my making the cavalier declaration that the combination of results needed for England to survive in the World Cup post-Uruguay did ‘not strike me as impossibly unlikely’, the inappropriately nicknamed Three Lions are mathematically out of the tournament. After a weekend of press coverage which was, at least in the broadsheets, largely sympathetic to Roy Hodgson and his players, the recriminations are beginning. Unsurprisingly, the catalyst of spite has been Harry Redknapp, a man incredibly popular with tabloid journalists because he’s a bit like Terry Venables in his bloke-selling-perfume-on-Dagenham-market charm and also because he tends to answer their calls. Redknapp’s take on the weird – both enervated and over-hasty – performances in Manaus and São Paulo was that perhaps some of the team didn’t want to be there, a notion he backed up by claiming that, during his tenure at Tottenham, a number of his English players asked their manager to withdraw them from the national squad. The consequent uproar has offered us yet another insight into the intersection of football’s small-p politics and ‘real’ political ideology.

To begin with, there’s the story of what is happening beneath the surface of Redknapp’s apparently ‘helpful’ disclosure. The relationship between the QPR boss and Roy Hodgson could not be more Shakespearean if it were staged on a balcony in Verona, written in iambic pentameter and grossly misunderstood by the National Curriculum. In one corner, you have the incumbent leader, a benign if occasionally gauche man who reads European literature in his spare time and cheers his young followers with legitimate space tales. In the other, you have the (alleged) popular choice, his route to the throne blocked by what he takes to be conspiracy, consumed by the rage of his embittered sense of entitlement. With Hodgson having his job guaranteed by the FA in the wake of the Uruguay game, it is hard not to suspect that Redknapp is attempting a Iagovian coup-by-insecurity.

Hodgson and Steven Gerrard have responded intelligently to what might well be an act of provocation. Gerrard in particular has found a skillful way of walking the line between humouring Redknapp and letting him know that, however annoying it is to have him pissing into the tent, he’s not going to be given an opportunity to micturate out of it. By asking for the names of those who attempted to avoid England ‘duty’, the captain is, I think, offering up the suggestion that the would-be deserters simply don’t exist other than as fabrications in a more pernicious agenda. I have it on pretty reliable authority that some players find playing for England in friendlies a bit of an inconvenience at times, but this in no way proves Redknapp’s allegations. Moreover, why shouldn’t players find international games – particularly the utterly meaningless trips to shit-at-football-but-very-wealthy countries that the FA send the squad to as part of their interminable branding campaign and the games scheduled for no reason other than to repay the cost of rebuilding Wembley – tedious?

The assumption that Redknapp’s stirring will live or die by is that all footballers are unquestioningly patriotic. I’d dispute this. When we see them belting out the national anthem or doing one of those ludicrous pride-and-passion pre-match space-fillers, I suspect that patriotism is something which is used as a focal point for team-mindedness, a node for professional success. One does find the occasional Siniša Mihajlović or Zvonimir Boban for whom nation-love is clearly a very real and visceral thing, but I’d hazard a guess that for the average international footballer patriotism is a way of rationalising responsibility to the footballing cause. There’s a ludicrous misrecognition on the part of the right-wingers doing their Queen-and-country act in the stands who think the men on the pitch share their blood-and-soil mentality: for the most part, footballers focus themselves out of any formal political identification (it’s rarely pointed out as it destroys the depiction of players as asininely nationalistic, but the Mihajlovićs are outliers on the right just as much as the Graeme le Sauxs and Pat Nevins are on the left). Presenting footballers as purely patriotically motivated is a form of fantasy about the politics of the working class from which they are almost unanimously drawn, which is to say that it suits certain agendas to treat the proles as borderline fascists (which would make socialism into an illegitimate bourgeois charade).

This links tellingly to the stories society tells itself about the army. While the majority who join are motivated by the route military service offers out of poverty – hence the similarities in geographical origin between infantry soldiers and international footballers – the narrative is that they do so for the patria. In one fell swoop, the shame of Britain’s socio-economic inequality is masked and its ridiculous, disastrous post-imperial wars touched up with affective ‘credibility’. The logic is that war can’t be a crime against the poor because the poor like going to war, as if patriotism in the Forces isn’t largely a case of having to locate some structure for coping (this is implicitly shown to be the case in various works by reporters embedded in the US military during the War on Terror, notably Evan Wright’s Generation Kill and Sebastian Junger’s War. Geoff Dyer’s recent account of time spent on an American aircraft carrier drops heavy hints in the same direction. Clearly, you don’t have to be a Marxist hardliner to believe expediency is the basis for a significant proportion of enlistments.)

And so, having drawn my own analogy between football and the military, it’s time to turn to the terminally nonsensical – and that’s putting it politely – Ian Wright. If there’s a league table of footballers making inappropriate interventions in affairs, Wright would vie at the top with Paul Gascogine turning up at a siege with a can of lager and a fishing rod for ‘Moaty’. The former Arsenal striker and present-day useful idiot declared in today’s Sun that players who tried to dodge an international call-up should be forced to ring the grieving parents of a soldier killed in Afghanistan to explain their decision to shirk. There’s plenty of grimly funny imaginings of this doing the rounds on Twitter at the moment, so I’ll decline the opportunity to add my own and simply point to the fact that this is yet more evidence of how football is being used as one vector in the increasing militarisation of British society. Most recent tournaments (those that have supplied a victory) have found their UK TV coverage adorned with cutaways to Our Boys enjoying the game with non-alcoholic beers at Camp Bastion as a respite from ‘holding off the Taliban’, and then there’s the way that the FA Cup draw seems no longer the preserve of a monotone Graham Kelly but of serving Forces personnel. You’re more likely to find discounted tickets being offered to soldiers than to the unemployed nowadays, which is pretty instructive if you want to think about how the Tories have capitalised on Blair’s wars to cloak their vicious-as-fuck austerity drive in a miasma of nationalistic sentiment. Remember the poppies-on-shirts debate and the EDL’s protest on a Zurich rooftop? It’s all that all over again.

As I’ve said above, I think Gerrard and Hodgson have played pretty cutely so far. There does, however, need to be a louder voice asking why a player should be asked to feel a certain way about representative sport and what it means ideologically that they so frequently are. For my part, I’m much more comfortable with a player taking pride in turning out for their childhood team than with them pontificating about the moral obligation to want to play for one’s country. Last year, my team Darlington won the regional Northern League, the first step – I hope – on the road back to the Conference, from which bankruptcy had exiled them. Forced to rely on cheap local talent, the Quakers fielded a Darlo fan, Steve Johnson, in a crucial top-of-the-table away match against Spennymoor. After a 3-1 victory, Johnson headed to the travelling fans to reveal a t-shirt which read, in an homage to and bettering of Mario Balotelli’s, ‘Why Always Us?’ That‘s solidarity.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

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The Doublethink of England

Change the manager, change the personnel. Change the training centre, change the conditioning. Hire a psychologist, phone Dave Brailsford or Clive Woodward. Hire their psychologists. Change the manager. Change the personnel again: make them younger, more humble. Change the mentality. Change the conditioning. In a darkened room in the Midlands, watch six years of Spanish, and Catalan, success in a silence broken only by gentle tapping on the Ipad touchscreen. Change the style. Be assiduous, like Shankly. Sweat the details. Brailsford tells you that the decimal percentages make a difference. Hire a media consultant, another psychologist, someone who’s worked with Andy Murray, someone from ‘Obama’s Camp’. Everything’s interdiscplinary, intertextual. Change the conditioning. Fly your men out eighteen months early to pick the hotel. Hire a colour therapist. Hire a music therapist. Hire a feng shui therapist. Change the style. Change the conditioning. The decimal percentages. The decimals. Your captain understands the project. The style, the conditioning, the mentality.

And yet: England stand, at the time of writing, on the edge of elimination from the World Cup Finals at the group stage, a fate they have not succumbed to since Walter Winterbottom unwisely left Brian Clough at home and took his Munich-wrecked squad to Sweden in 1958. Perhaps results will combine in England’s favour – and that combination does not strike me as impossibly unlikely – but there’s little doubt that the inquest has already begun.

I have no real interest in picking over the tactics or the team, save to give a brief account of what it feels like to watch England at this tournament, but not only at this tournament, as it has felt the same – with a couple of irreverent overturnings of the trend – since the 2004 European Championships. There is an embodied experience of watching an England international which I am sure is shared by many, and it’s one I can liken only to that of sitting on a bus in traffic, urging it to accelerate in the full knowledge that to do so in the space available is impossible. You’re grasped by a visceral perception of the chasm between the will and the reality principle; even the occasional surge forward, provided this year by Raheem Sterling, presents itself as an exception which adds to the weight of the general rule. The team look as if they’re playing it quicksand: this inertia metastasises from the game to the audience, a very real sense of deadweightedness.

What I think is interesting here is the way that this lethargy, which exists regardless of who is in the team and how they are set up to play, stands at a counterpoint to the rhetoric and iconography of leonine ‘passion’ which girds the national team. In the stands, fans display symbols of a putative English ‘indomitability’, Spitfires and – provocatively – Crusader outfits. Before the game, the coverage displays black and white headshots of the players, their faces fixed in an uncompromising grimace. If everything else changes, this extreme dichotomy between belief and the radical disbelief exemplified in the performances remains exactly the same.

There’s a kind of doublethink here which matches that of English life at large. Ron has already touched on this in his discussion of the national team’s affliction with market or capitalist realism, but we can perhaps put this in more Orwellian terms. To live in England now is to be asked to believe simultaneously that happiness is impossible – we must be ‘realistic’ – and that we are already, perhaps inherently, happy. Similarly, England must lose and cannot lose. Wayne Rooney must perform badly but he also cannot play badly. Perhaps the disorder which inevitably kicks off as history repeats itself once again is not a simple expression of disappointment but a confused articulation of what it is like to inhabit this contradiction in both sporting and political terms.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

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Scotland, Independence and ABE

 

In years past, both Andy Murray and Gordon Brown have been placed into difficulty regarding the England national football team.

In 2006, Murray received hate mail on the BBC website after saying that he would be supporting “anyone but England” (ABE) at the World Cup in Germany that year. Coming from a sporting Scot, this is pretty unsurprising – most English people would presumably assume Scots don’t want England to win – but given Murray’s ploughing of the lone farrow of “British” tennis excellence, this worryingly rebellious (if honest) streak had to be quashed. One wit let it be known on the BBC’s website that they would be supporting “anyone but Murray” at Wimbledon (possibly before they realised the dearth of more unproblematically “British” players that had any chance of getting past the first round).

Then in 2007, Brown exhibited the anxiousness and clumsiness that was to accompany his prime ministership when he tried to pre-empt the kind of criticism Murray received by suggesting in a conversation about England’s bid to host the 2018 World Cup that he’d like “the host” to win. As the BBC reported: “Asked then who he wanted to win the World Cup, Mr Brown replied: “I think the host.” When asked “Not Scotland?”, the Chancellor replied: “Well, of course, I want Scotland to do well, but let’s just see how it all works out.”” Potentially worried that this reflected a rather pessimistic attitude toward Scotland’s chances at a hypothetical tournament, and smarting from Alex Salmond’s accusation that he had “completely lost the plot,” Brown later clarified his “ideal scenario”: “Scotland play England in the final and Scotland win.””

These examples bespeak a closer and more ignorant – at least on the part of the English – relationship between England and Scotland, one hardly (then) thought about save on occasions of sporting rivalry like this. The relationship between the two countries seems a lot different now. England has been forced to learn – and think – more about Scotland, even if the prevailing attitudes are still imbued with faint bemusement; Scotland wants more and more to differentiate itself from England. If Scotland will hold an independence referendum in less than four months time, David Cameron’s Westminster government seems a lot more English than Blair’s Labour one did, which featured, in addition to Brown, the Scots Alistair Darling, John Reid and Robin Cook, among others. Cameron’s Englishness is so much the type that Scots dislike – loud-voiced, ignorant, un-self-aware, Southern – that differences which may be quite small (his cabinets have featured Glasgow Tories Liam Fox and Lord Strathclyde) are amplified. That’s not to mention the very real political differences between the Cameron government and the vast majority of Scottish people; the Scottish Government is actively engaged in sabotaging (or mitigating, if you prefer) some of Cameron’s most hated policies.

If in 2010 a shop in Aberdeen was visited by police on account of its reportedly “racist” ABE t-shirts, will similar sentiments arise at this World Cup, spurred on by the independence referendum in September?

It is hard to say. My immediate sense is that the referendum, rather than creating a space in which all sorts of nationalist blather can ooze out, is actually showing it up for the silliness it always was. My impression – cybernats and former Secretary Generals of NATO notwithstanding –  is that the debate about the referendum really has been about the issues and about politics, but also – and more inspiringly – about what sort of country we want to make and to live in. It is distinctly different to the drudgery and conspicuous lack of choice in a general election. In this context, in which the entire country is having a serious, engaged and optimistic conversation with itself about what it wants to be, ABE seems a remnant of a different age (just like those Labour governments). As my friend Ciaran said when I asked him about it, “my support for Independence comes less from a patriotic sense [than] a political perspective.” ABE has something of the pre-2008 crash about it, a negative (in the photographic sense) reflection of the boorish culture that surrounded the “golden”-WAGS-Eriksson (and, dare I say, it New Labour) generation of ten years ago. Today’s squad has largely moved on from those figures, and the ones that are left – Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard – are the more introspective and palatable members. John Terry has retired from international football, David Beckham from all football, and there is not a robot dance to be seen. Instead we have “the Studge” and a host of much more likeable players – Danny Welbeck, Adam Lallana, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain et al all seem like fine upstanding young gentlemen in comparison with the group that went to Baden-Baden in 2006.

That said, given that 2014 sees both the referendum in Scotland and a World Cup at which England – and not Scotland – will be present, one might be forgiven for expecting a resurfacing of ABE sentiments. While there are always going to be ironic cheers when this year’s Heskey hoofs a shot over the bar, I wouldn’t bet on an upsurge of nationalist-infused ABE. Part of the reason is because of the negative nature of the sentiment itself. As a friend said to me, “part of the reason that Scottish people often are so vehemently anti-English when it comes to sports is a perceived sense of entitlement and ludicrous degree of expectation that comes with every major tournament. Up until the last World Cup there was still a lot of talk about England being contenders. Now that expectations south of the border are so much lower, it’s difficult to generate as much bile – it’s just not as fun anymore.” No matter how many Clive Tyldesleys there are in the world, if the team they’re cheerleading are so conspicuously average, it’s hard to work up too much excitement about them.

The comparative muteness of ABE sentiment is also partly due to what Ciaran described as a “lack of general interest in international football.” Although he “can’t stop [himself] basking in their defeat,” his schadenfreude has “less vigour” because of this. If it’s always been the case for fans of the larger clubs, I think this lack of interest is increasingly the case for the average football fan too, for whom the international side of the game is pretty uninteresting and for whom a growing proportion of their football interest is devoted to worrying that their precariously-financed club gets its bit of the TV-and-advertising deal bonanza. This isn’t helped by the fact that the players themselves hardly seem bothered by it (no matter how many times they claim to be “proud to wear the shirt” and that “it’s a dream to represent your country”) and also by the impression that it is simply not the place where the best football can be seen. Fans support teams named after the city where their stadium is, but they watch a team made up of players from around the world. Globalization and capitalism are responsible not just for massive TV deals but also the decreasing importance of the nation state – and individual and collective identities connected to them – in general. If you don’t feel particularly English, then it’s hard to support a team whose whole identity is based on marshalling some sort of anachronistic Three Lions-St George sense of Englishness. And anyway, for many the Champions League is a better tournament than the World Cup.

Brief, unscientific research since the beginning of this year’s tournament seems to confirm at least part of this. If most pubs in Glasgow have put up flag bunting, like they do for every tournament, some have chosen a team to support, usually one of the favourites. I’ve seen Brazilian, Spanish and German ones displayed prominently in bar windows. Watching the opening Brazil v Croatia match in the pub the other night, there was a lot of investment in Brazil not embarrassing themselves (revealed in the strength of the cheers when Neymar equalised) but a similar amount who found the possibility of Croatia upsetting the narrative an appealing prospect. I’ve been in Glasgow for the 2008 and 2012 Euros, and the 2010 and this World Cup, and I’m always struck by the way these tournaments are here a way for people to become more internationalist, boning up on the rivalries between Central American minnows or how Bosnia’s political history translates into their midfield dynamism. This is obviously partly due to Scotland’s absence from those tournaments; if they’d been present, I’m sure much more focus would be on them at the expense of this welcome cosmopolitanism. I didn’t go to the pub for the England v Italy game, but you don’t often need to go that far to hear evidence of ABE feeling. Earlier this year, I could pretty much tell the score in the Six Nations matches featuring England because a particularly raucous neighbour would scream every time whoever England were playing took the lead. Watching Saturday’s game at a friend’s, the surrounding flats were dead silent. Of course this could be for many reasons, but it seemed apt.

Before this World Cup, there was perhaps a better occasion to gauge the current strength of ABE sentiments, when Scotland played England at Wembley last summer. In addition to the excitement of the game, with Scotland taking the lead twice and England pegging them back and eventually winning, the event was noteworthy for the pre- and post-game opinions of fans, players, and commentators, all of whom seemed to be on the same page, both Scottish and English. The overwhelming impression I got was that everyone was excited to have the fixture back on the calendar, and that it was fun to indulge in a bit of friendly rivalry. There was talk of a home nations tournament being revived. Even the result seemed to please everyone: Scotland didn’t expect to win, but gave a good account of themselves, while England didn’t risk fan invective by losing to a team who at the time were ranked 36 places below them. There wasn’t, to my knowledge, any violence outside the game, and it ended with all involved saying “this was nice, we must do this again sometime,” Scotland basically inviting England up to Hampden next year. It may be possible that I’m gilt-edging this, and that others might have a completely different impression. My assumption that both teams were happy with the result might smack to some of precisely the condescension Scottish football fans hate in the English, but it comes from talking to a co-worker, a member of Scotland Supporter’s Club who travelled to Wembley for the game. On his return it wasn’t the result he wanted to talk (or moan) about; instead he wanted to show me photos of the trip on his phone. He was looking forward to the return game at Hampden in 2015, and politely suggested that Scotland might win it.

Posted by Mark West

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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

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The Booing of Dilma Rousseff

As the opening ceremony of the World Cup took place yesterday, riot police outside the Árena de Corinthians were administering heavy-handed treatment to protesters, drawing criticism from Amnesty International.  Inside the stadium, as kick-off approached, President Dilma Rousseff was booed, something that continued throughout the match. The same thing happened in Brasilía last year at the opening match of the Confederations Cup but this time it was nastier –– a recurrent chant was ‘Ei, Dilma, vai tomar no cu!’ (‘Hey, Dilma, fuck you!’ or, more literally, ‘Hey, Dilma, go take it up the arse’) and it has been replicated with a hashtag on social networks. There has been a lot of vitriol directed her way of late, much of it unabashedly misogynistic –– she has been called ‘mal comida’ (sour bitch), ‘sapatão’ (dyke), ‘vagabundo’ (tramp). Even many of her critics have baulked at the language used against her.

 

 

Those inside the stadium though are not quite the same people protesting on the streets –– they would need to be seriously hypocritical leftists if they were. As veteran football journalist Juca Kfouri said on ESPN’s Linha de Passe after the game, they were São Paulo’s white elite, who never felt any need to boo or insult successive right-wing leaders who rocked up to sporting events –– he named, in particular, former São Paulo governor Paulo Maluf, a man dripping with corruption allegations but who has never even faced charges in Brazil, but is wanted in the US for conspiracy and criminal possession. Kfouri said that the stadium volunteers he spoke to were visibly upset at the abuse directed at the president –– a hint that many of those were, unlike those able to afford to pay their way in, were not white. Looking at footage of the chanting, it is safe to say that those in the stadium were not very representative of Brazil’s social and racial make-up.

Kfouri was also damning of the referee and said Croatia were robbed –– of Fred, who went down under Dejan Lovren’s slightest touch,  he gave him “5 out of 10 as a centre-forward [surely charitable], 8 as an actor, so 6.5 overall”. There was plenty of support for Kfouri from Brazilians on Twitter, many of whom called the booing a disgrace. Others pointed out he was part of the very same white Paulista elite and that ESPN had nobody but whites on their panel that evening too. Another criticism of him was of being ‘caviar left’, though that is more in line with the shriller criticism of Rousseff’s government, from right-wingers who call it ‘totalitarian’ and ‘communist.’

Rousseff is certainly not blameless. Her government has not handled the protests very well and has been a little too eager to please FIFA (though not near as much as the ANC in South Africa four years ago). The protests against her on the streets though have little to do with the well-heeled Paulistas who booed her yesterday though. It is more from the middle classes who are feeling the pinch of heavy inflation brought about by rapid economic growth and by a high cost of living. Lower down the social scale, her government remains solidly popular, as more and more people are pulled out of poverty and the middle class is expanded. She faces re-election in October later this year and, the protests notwithstanding, she stands to be returned comfortably. People on lower incomes are happy with low unemployment and the tangible anti-poverty measures the successive Workers’ Party governments have implemented. The Brazilian bourgeoisie is beginning to bridle a bit but it is unlikely to rise up in a manner similar to Venezuela, Bolivia or Ecuador. For the moment, boos and insults at expensive sporting events is the only weapon they have.

Posted by Oliver Farry

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Preview 29 – Spain

Spain prepares for the World Cup at something of a moment – the king has decided to abdicate. King Juan Carlos: Franco’s king, the transitional king, democracy’s king, the consummate modern monarch, a living Borbón. Can any politically minded footballer pick up the baton from the huge Tercera Republica rallies in over 100 cities last week, and flash a bit of Republican purple when he scores?
 
As Joe suggested in his Sketches of Sketches Spain post, tracking the ‘politico-emotional logic of Iberian football’ is no easy task for the amateur. Clubs and the cities or regions they represent have played a considerable role in Spanish 20th century political developments – Real Madrid for example is never likely to be able to ward off the twin shitty-sticks of ‘el equipo del gobierno, la vergüenza del país’ with which rivals wield at them. Franco, said to be initially a fan of Bilbao’s more muscular approach, wised up to the potential prestige and reputational boost of backing the Merengues’ all-conquering 50s team. At the Nou Camp for City earlier this year, by far the most rousing chant in a generally drab atmosphere in the home ends was for Catalonian ‘independencia’.
The same cannot be said of the players currently at these clubs. It would then be easy to make cheap presumptions and claims about the squad, that the team’s Real players are either all clandestine Falange, with a false nostalgia for the Movimiento and the caudillo their dads have told them about, while Barcelona’s are all hardcore Catalonian separatists to a man, maybe even with a hankering for the anarchist days of ’36. Maybe the players from more impoverished backgrounds or regions are backing the Indignados and Podemos movements.
 
We can pick apart the cliques – the Real and Barca boys you all know, the Atlético Madrid crowd (Koke, Juanfran and Costa, as well as alumni De Gea and Torres), Valencia’s veterans (Silva, Villa, Mata, Alba, Albiol), and the Basque exiles (Martinez, Alonso and Azpilicueta) and find little, on the English-language web at least, to enlighten us on a player’s politics. [Although props to Alonso for taking part in the #DefiendeAlEibar campaign against the threat to rescind their promotion). Are they all too busy ignoring the real problem of racism in the Spanish game to give thought to their political allegiances? Maybe the chronic unemployment will be brushed away with a noble sweep of Sergio Ramos’ bullfighting cape?
These are all top-level players in the world’s top league, often more familiar to British fans than their local lower league or non-league strivers, and it would seem most dutifully play their role of performers of the spectacle, nothing more (except a pretty young wag), nothing less. Thus Spain, Spanish teams and Spanish footballing culture have made maximalist use of the ‘all about the football’ axiom to have a moment too, a 10-year glorious, luxurious bathe in the sun.
 
With the Primera Liga long taken over from Italy’s Serie A as the Brit’s continental’s league of choice, Spanish football’s hegemony has taken in: the World Cup in 2010 and European Championships in 2008 and 2012 for the national team; Barcelona’s European Cups in 2006, 2009 (including Spain’s first ‘continental treble’) and 2010; UEFA Cups for Valencia 2004, Sevilla in 2006, 2007 and 2014 and Atléti in 2010 and 2012; and now Real’s feted La Decima. Some even said La Roja’s 2010 triumph provided the moment when regional divisions evaporated into a benign plurinationalism, just like France’s victory eased racial tensions in 1998 (they’d be wrong on both counts, of course).
 
As with all hegemonies questions are being asked. Admiration for Atléti’s temporary break-up of the stifling Real-Barca duopoly comes with ongoing concerns over their tax affairs, mirroring scrutiny over Barca’s transfer practices, Real’s land deals, etc. There is a sense that they all have benefited from soft treatment at national and European level (echoes of Franco-esque backing for prestige-value here). On the field, there is ennui at Barcelona and the national team’s tiki-taka style.
 
Could Brasil 2014 crystallise a moment when British boredom with their pet football object syncs in with the relative waning of Xavi/Iniesta and the team’s desire to take on a more expansive style, leading Spain to the type of ignominious early exit we used to? Symbolic bloody noses like Luis Enrique’s actual smash-up are unlikely. If you have ever played with Spanish lads generally their desire is to pass you off the pitch as the bulldogs wheeze around trying to keep up. Tiki-taka, such as it is, is merely an intensification of that (Real’s different style was largely the work of Mourinho and the need to accommodate a true individual in Ronaldo). Besides, talk of tiki-taka can be a false flag – Del Bosque insists he is not a ‘Taliban’ as wedded to the style as people might think.
 
And the current golden generation is likely to give way to the next batch of international galácticos. As Jimmy Burns told Time a few years ago: ‘Training has something to do with it … there’s a very kind of ethical dimension to it, particularly with young kids. You don’t necessarily tell them that what’s important in life is to win. What’s important is team spirit, your creativity, to do things well and to do things nobly.’
That leaves us with hopes of one of these ‘noble’ players using the opportunity to make a political statement, maybe backing the grassroots social justice organisations, the calls for a republic in the wake of the big game hunter’s abdication or the Catalonian independence movement. But the evidence is these players don’t expose their flawless football careers to external faultlines, so, like expectations of an early upset or an eventual end to Spain’s prominence, don’t bet on it.
Posted by Murray W
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Preview 28 – South Korea

1966. So evocative. The cheering crowds in a packed stadium, the intake of breath as the ball drops and then the roar of approval as the 18,000 at Ayresome Park celebrate Pak Doo-Ik’s solitary goal in the encounter between North Korea and Italy. What? Oh.

Fergie’s Noisy Neighbour jibe doesn’t even come close in the case of South Korea. While Manchester City may have the economic equivalent of nuclear weapons, causing a mass retrieval of protect and survive manuals for the range of lower league clubs in Lancashire, they don’t have a minefield separating them from Old Trafford. Just Ordsall, which may be worse. And yet it was “AGAIN 1966” from the South Koreans as they hosted Italy in the 2002 World Cup, when the rumblings of discontent generated by the succession of Kim Jong-un were in the future and diplomatic interests were represented by Jimmy Carter, rather than Dennis Rodman. Those last two things might be related.

What is related is Korean identity. Despite Government wrangling, a tectonic game of not-quite-war, Koreans recognise Koreans, share in their achievements past and, despite the ongoing political turbulence of the present, the ghost of the shell of the Hermit Kingdom encapsulates both countries. The Koreans support the Koreans, regardless of the intended separation of politics and ideology. After all, they’re Korean, too. So 1966 again it was, and a remarkable host tournament too, not least because of the fascinating pairing with Japan. Even more remarkable, given that South Korea hadn’t won a game in the five previous consecutive World Cup finals. I’m not going to talk about referees. I’m not.

More consistent in qualifying and having progressed further in the finals than certain other 1966-centric nations in the last twenty years, South Korean players have used the platform of 2002 to spread far and wide. This year, 17 of their 23 man-squad play outside of Korea, a sharp reverse from the 7 who plied their trade abroad, mostly in Japan, 12 years ago. A sign of the rise of Korean football, or a willingness to recruit individuals to exploit the huge potential market of what is inaccurately called the ‘Asian market’? Roy Race romanticism or rat race economics? This battered carcass of a refugee from Portsmouth’s freefall says the latter, the desperate, brief spark of belief and hope and joy which gets its moment once every four years says the former.

I suppose we’ve now reached the point we bring up the other cultural ticket-barrier touchpoint when discussing modern Korea. And in a way, it’s representative of our treatment of Korean football. Gangnam Style was a targeted satire of aspirational money culture within South Korea, lining up and picking off references in a lyrically sparse catchy K-pop jaunt. But he did a funny dance and used enough English in the chorus for it to be a spannered-on-Revolutions-cocktails singalong classic, and two billion Youtube views later his follow up singles will forever be stuck in a deep shadow alongside Jordi Cruyff, Nicky Summerbee and the recently jailed Edson.

As goes PSY, so goes Korean football? Amusing, briefly interesting but ultimately disposable. A one hit wonder, who’s still gamely working the circuit. Familiar enough to be recognisable but an obvious lesser form of our own vastly superior Western genre. Look at the size difference, bless them. Look at how happy they are when they score, it’s almost like they understand what it means. Plucky, and an emphasis on the last five letters. Patronising bollocks at best, new ways of employing imperial and race based stereotypes at worst.

They are drawn in Group H with Algeria and Belgium, two nations who are no stranger to division, and Russia for whom the same could be said, but for entirely different reasons. It’s not one of the most scrutinised groups, but will be worth a watch to see which team finds its voice. Don’t rule out the team from south of the 38th parallel.

Posted by Dutton Peabody

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Preview 27 – Russia

There was a time when the novelty of a televised match was such that an enjoyment of the football ‘in itself’ was enough to sustain the neutral viewer’s interest. Now, televised football’s erstwhile scarcity has been replaced by the broadcast ethic of the soap opera, with each game marking a plot point along one or more of the sport’s intersecting narratives.

Gorging on the World Cup’s gluttonous bounty of up to three televised matches a day, it cannot be long before the disinterested viewer begins to, as it were, lose the plot. Liberating ourselves from the high-stakes drama and indulging in the spectacular ridiculousness of a game’s gaudy display, we can find ourselves cheering on a team or player for no other reason than that we like the colour of their kit, the unseemliness of their gait, the audacity of their haircut or – in arrogant Anglo-centric fashion – the purported silliness of their name. The Slavic and Germanic languages have traditionally provided such excuses for imbecilic mirth – all those “itches” and “offs” begging to be stitched on to body parts – and this year Russia has not disappointed. Arshavin may have won his last cap, but in Oleg Shatov, with a name like an exclamatory toilet mishap, there is cause enough for the raising of smirks around the lips of the more infantile and/or semi-inebriated among us.

Snapping out of this scatological reverie and back into the grander narratives provided by the competition between these proxy national armies, one is forced to consider the grim politics of the regime Russia is ostensibly representing. Far be it for a humble football blog to cast judgement on the geopolitical machinations of former superpowers, but when those actions are enough to prompt US senators to request that Russia’s football team be booted out of the tournament, it is all one can do to suppress a desire to see the Yanks get their hypocritical butts kicked in a potential Round Two grudge match. (For the more imaginative enthusiasts of this sort of thing, it is even conceivable that Russia’s group match with Belgium – home to the EU – provides a kind of ersatz battle between militaristic “hard” power and the “soft” power of the European Union’s economic hegemony.)

Given Fabio Capello’s propensity for building well-drilled defences and grinding out wins, such idle diversions might be the most reliable way of gleaning any enjoyment out of Russia’s matches this year. Dick Advocaat took a talented team to the 2012 European Championships, but, with the arguable exception of CSKA Moscow midfielder Alan Dzagoev, they failed to impress and crashed out after a defeat to unfancied Greece and a draw with their Polish hosts marred by some of the most foreseeable off-pitch violence in recent history. Ever the disciplinarian, Capello apparently does not particularly favour the occasionally hot-headed Dzagoev, and will pin many of his hopes for goals on Dynamo Moscow’s Alexander Kokorin. Make no mistake, though, Russia’s emphasis is on not conceding, and the imaginative, Arshavin-starring side of 2008 that had many reminiscing over the great Soviet teams is very much a thing of the past.

One question it would seem pertinent to ask is how personal this World Cup is for Capello. While it seems to be the case that he’s happy for England’s truly abysmal showing in South Africa in 2010 to be blamed on a mixture of a lack of commitment and sheer footballing naivety on the part of his charges, even the worst of Eriksson and McLaren’s sides did not display the ennervated, lumbering imaginative poverty that succeeded in finally reducing the tournament expectations of the London media. Will he be determined to prove that he can conjure a different kind of football, or will he insist on demonstrating that his methods were only inappropriate for a pampered, unmotivated squad? All the pointers seem to be towards the latter. Given Russia will meet Algeria in Curitiba in their final group game, there’s ample scope for a farcical rehash of Capello’s mistakes from 2010.

Posted by Steven Carver

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Preview 25 – Nigeria

On a personal level the choice for writing a World Cup preview for Nigeria is immense. I could set-adrift-on-memory-bliss about 1994, when England’s failure to qualify and the pre-tournament optimism of Nigerian classmates meant I supported the Super Eagles (the memory of Roberto Baggio’s late equalizer for Italy still stings). I could look at the troubling shift from the pre-teen innocence of simply supporting the team of your peers to the grim adult (self-)awareness of our racist and ironic society. I could even risk the vortex of Hornby-esque mundanity by over-sharing with you how my first heterosexual experience coincided with Sunday Oliseh’s stunning winner against Spain in the 1998 tournament.

However, thanks to western media’s pick’n’mix attitude to newsworthiness and the universalism of human rights, ever since I accepted this writing task there has been a growing clamor to view anything to do with Nigeria through the prism of kidnapped schoolgirls. Halfway between a moral panic and a blundering guilt panic, but one which seemed too dominating to ignore. I was considering dispensing with the editor’s 500 words altogether. A3 card and black magic marker in hand, I was quite simply on the verge of having to plumb the depths of Cameron-style empty gestures…

…Until a bloke on the bus intervened. I was travelling home on the Lewisham-wards 47 last week after a nightshift, a guy slumped asleep a few seats ahead of me. Suddenly, violently, he jumped up, wide-awake, spinning round to me (the only other person on the top-deck). He started ranting about the housing crisis.

“What is wrong with people in England?! Why are you so happy for the authorities to knock down council housing and replace it with inferior housing? Council housing is some of the best quality building in London, and yet you are knocking it down, to be replaced by more expensive smaller flats. Very greedy people are getting very rich.” I was amazed, not least as it is usually me that starts shouting about radical urban matters. I voiced my agreement. He shook my hand. “I’m pleased. White people normally don’t agree. They believe the lies. English people love to criticize my home country, Nigeria. They think we are savages. They think everyone is like Boko Haram. But at least we don’t knock down good houses with…” [he really belted this bit out] “…LIES ABOUT THE ENVIRONMENTAL BENEFITS!! You understand?” Yes, I understood.

The moral of the story here is surely too obvious for me to insult you by spelling it out. But Christopher (for that was his name), as with the whole of this article, did the job for me. As the bus stopped outside Lewisham Police Station, he said, “They tell me this is the biggest police station in Europe… Full of racists.”

Posted by Robert MV

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