By John Sloop (@NCAMookie), columnist.
Is soccer a distraction from politics and political action? Should it be? Do I personally want it to be?
I’ve been thinking about the relationship between soccer and politics in a broad sense a lot lately. While rereading Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World, I found myself musing over a chapter titled “How Soccer Explains the Sentimental Hooligan.” Foer argues that the demise of hardcore English hooligan behavior of the 70s and 80s can be at least partially attributed to the rise of global investments in English teams as well as the rise in finances provided by the creation of the Premier League.
In brief, as more money is invested in teams, the risk of “bad behavior” is much higher for the owners. As ticket prices rise, people demand a fun and safe experience. Fewer people want to attend a rumble at top dollar. As a result, each club takes on a process of policing and weeding out any behaviors that could be dangerous (physically or otherwise) to fans, families and tourists alike. More, teams try to soften any aspect of the game, including player comments, that could lead to controversy. In effect, the experience needs to be a sanitized one, comparatively speaking. Hard core support is fine; hooliganism and politics from any perspective is less so.
Attending a game at Stamford Bridge and sitting in the area in the stadium that used to be ruled by hooligans and firms, Foer observes that, rather than violence and noise, “Chelsea looked like the audience at a symphony, with only a few beefy guys muttering incendiary obscenities under their breaths” (97).
Now, while as a Chelsea fan, it pains me to read the “symphony” portion of that critique, most of us would agree that if the price of ridding the stands of old school, racist hooliganism is a more sedate, cleansed atmosphere, it’s well worth it.
A decade ago, however, literary critic Terry Eagleton famously turned this critique on its head in an opinion piece entitled “Football: A Dear Friend to Capitalism.” In this essay, while Eagleton may agree that the demise of racist hooliganism is a benefit, he argues that football has become a sedative to the masses. Rather than an opportunity to mobilize politically, people are passive, waiting to be entertained.
Indeed, Eagleton refers to football as the “opium of the people,” as well as their crack cocaine, and he asserts that, as the football experience has been cleansed, it has become a source of distraction rather than a site of invention.
“Like some austere religious faith,” Eagleton says, “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’s the supreme solution to that age-old dilemma of our political masters: What should we do with them when they’re not working?”
When I put this question to a class I’m teaching this semester, the students argued back that soccer continues to have its political moments, pointing to Megan Rapinoe’s positions on equal pay and the Trump White House, as well as Mesut Ozil’s criticism of the Chinese government for their treatment of Muslims. While these examples are certainly true, these positions are ones taken by individual players rather than by the supporters or by the ownership. And while there is certainly a powerful move within football to stifle racist behavior within the crowd, Eagleton’s point is that the crowds themselves, now sanitized by global investments and mediation, are sites for complacency rather locales for political fervor.
To be honest, while I can sometimes be critical of the ways in which football fans act in such a lockstep fashion that they constrain behavior rather than encourage invention, I’m also perfectly happy with soccer being a place where I enjoy the spectacle and play of the game, the feeling of unity with others with whom I share nothing more than the love of a particular team. While I applaud and encourage individual players who decide to act politically (regardless of their politics), I'm not sure how much I want the crowd itself to be always in an act of political action. Call it sanitized if you wish, but football fandom in a way re-energizes me for everything else I do in the world. I’ll work my politics on my own.
I’ll take the distraction.
The above is the opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of Speedway Soccer as a whole.