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Let's not romanticise the World Cup

Can we share the joy of communal football watching without glossing over the toxic, discriminatory effects of its commodification? 

Image: England fans during the World Cup match against Panama. Credit: Adam Davy/PA Images, all rights reserved.

In a recent article in Open Democracy Mark Perryman argues that for a Left politics to succeed it must engage with popular culture and, for example, “translate what we see on the pitch into the changes beyond the touchline we require of a more equal society”. He moves on to notice the increasing multiculturalism of World Cup teams as a symbolic mark for the beginning of a journey away from racism.

A day after the article appeared we were confronted with something decidedly less hopeful in the run up to the England-Colombia football game - the Sun’s “GO KANE” front page, referencing both English striker Harry Kane and Colombia’s link to the cocaine trade. Even following the subsequent victory, the Daily Mail chose to headline their coverage by singling out one of England’s black players, Raheem Sterling, for criticism.

We should not be surprised and we should brace ourselves for worse, indeed do so in direct proportion to Britain’s subsequent victories. As Pratt and Salter put it, hyper-commoditised, spectacular football – exemplified in its World Cup and Euro-Cup varieties – has long been “a meeting point for a variety of social conflicts, hostilities and prejudices” [1]. As social media is currently observing, for example, instances of domestic and racist violence increase exponentially during football matches.

Academic research has long confirmed various statistically significant correlations between engagement/interest in football tournaments and all manner of social pathologies: sexual coercion, sexism, rape myth acceptance, violence, hostility, and homophobia [2]. Football fandom can sadly but all too easily progress through a series of toxic in-group/out-group categorizations. If it is pertinent for Labour to explain the cultural meaning of the World Cup, as Mark Perryman argues, it should begin with that.

There are at least two more reasons why a Left politics should engage far more critically with spectacular football tournaments. First, the World Cup is a strange case of Karl Marx’s “commodity fetishism”, the idea that we consume various products as if the social relations behind their production do not matter. But whereas bananas in the supermarket shelves or clothes from our favourite high-street retailer keep silent about the conditions of their production, the World Cup does not. We are all given a flavour of what is involved in our “consumption” of the World Cup – from the appalling conditions of extreme labour exploitation in 2014 Brazil to human rights violations in 2018 Russia – and yet we behave as if this does not matter. Various social theorists would describe this as ideology par excellence: the less we question something as taken-for-granted or normal – here, the idea that watching football is a benign activity – the more effective it is, as ideology.

Finally, there is the worry that football allows us to engage in some form of “complicity communality” [3], a revival of a largely bygone communal ethos in a context which for a Left politics can be rather inconsequential, if not actively damaging.

Leon Trotsky observed the potential threat football represented to movement organisation in England, writing: “The revolution will inevitably awaken in the English working class the most unusual passions, which have been hitherto been so artificially held down and turned aside, with the aid of social training, the church, the press, in the artificial channels of boxing, football, racing and other sports.”.

Fast forward decades of extreme commercial appropriation of football (and other sports), can we argue otherwise? No longer bread and circuses, but bread and football, perhaps!

I do agree with Mark Perryman that if a Left Politics is to be popular it must connect with what we see on the pitch. But we also have to connect critically with what remains submerged in the variety of settings within which the World Cup spectacle is produced and consumed.

What is to be done? For the millions of people that can live without watching football, such as myself, the easy way out is abstention. But for a vast segment of the population where watching football is an undeniable joy, indeed one of the few effective entry points to the joys of community and collectivity, the task is to rescue football from the combined forces of rampant commodification and discriminatory populism. From UK’s Clapton FC to Greece’s Asteras Exarcheia, there have been various attempts to reclaim “football from below” by, for example, embracing and celebrating their losses rather than their victories. We have to connect with the popular meaning(s) of the World Cup, but not before we try to change them.

Notes:

[1] Pratt, J., & Salter, M. (1984). A fresh look at football hooliganism. Leisure Studies3(2), 201-230.

[2] For example, see: Forbes, G. B., Adams-Curtis, L. E., Pakalka, A. H., & White, K. B. (2006). Dating aggression, sexual coercion, and aggression-supporting attitudes among college men as a function of participation in aggressive high school sports. Violence against women12(5), 441-455.

Kian, Edward M., Galen Clavio, John Vincent, and Stephanie D. Shaw. "Homophobic and sexist yet uncontested: Examining football fan postings on Internet message boards." Journal of Homosexuality 58, no. 5 (2011): 680-699.

[3] See Miles, S. (2010). Spaces for consumption. SAGE publications

[4] Trotsky L (1974) Writings on Britain, vol. II. London: New Park Publications. (p.123)

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