Another soccer is possible

October 27, 2011

Shaun Harkin reviews a book that reveals the extent of corporate control in the world of football--and that describes the attempts to build an alternative.

IT'S ESTIMATED that 3 billion people watched some of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Globalization over the last three decades has made the global game ever more global, but the expansion has come at a price. The distorting financialization and commodification of what fans call the "beautiful game" is apparent and depressing everywhere.

A glance at the concentration of wealth and power around the upper echelons of the "new football economy" could make one easily identify with the damning and desperate appeal issued by the anarcho-syndicalists of the Free Workers' Union of Germany in the 1920s:

May God punish England! Not for nationalistic reasons, but because the English people invented football! Football is a counterrevolutionary phenomenon. Proletarians between the age of 18 and 25, i.e., exactly those who have the strength to break their, have no time for revolution because they play soccer!

No matter how much effort you put into advertising political meetings, no one attends. Meanwhile, thousands, even tens of thousands, of proletarians gather around big city football fields every Sunday. We can find the worker with his wife and kids, holding his breath while following a soulless ball's every move. As if the answer to the social question, as if life and happiness depended on whether if flies to the left of to the right.

It is a disease, like a fever.

The $3.4 billion Moses Mahbida stadium built in Durban for the 2010 World Cup
The $3.4 billion Moses Mahbida stadium built in Durban for the 2010 World Cup (Mohammed Moosa)

The English Premier League (EPL), the top league for football (known as soccer in the U.S.), had total club revenues of $3.385 billion in 2009-10 and received the Queen's Award for Enterprise. Chelsea paid Liverpool over $68 million for Fernando Torres this year, and Liverpool handed Newcastle nearly $48 million for Andy Carroll. In 2009, Real Madrid paid Manchester United $109 million for Cristiano Ronaldo.

The fantastic wealth of the owners of the EPL's top teams, much of it not English, is even more alarming and proves that money, more or less, can buy success. Manchester United are owned by the American Glazer family worth $2.56 billion. Chelsea's Russian owner, Roman Abramovich, is worth over $16 billion. Sheikh Mansour, of the United Arab Emirates and ruling Abu Dhabi family, is worth more than $31 billion and has transformed Manchester City from a struggling mid-level team into a top-flight European club bursting with talented and super-expensive players.

Even FC Barcelona, a club that has long been identified with Catalan independence and resistance to fascism, succumbed to corporatization when it agreed to the Qatar Foundation's offer of $307 million to have its name emblazoned across the front of the team's shirts for five years--the charity UNICEF is now relegated to the backyard of the shirt.

Fans have resented, resisted and even rioted against the billionaire takeovers. But there is also a brutal logic at work among fans that wishes for a new owner with the pockets to purchase players to make their team compete and win.

THERE'S NO doubt that soccer is fully integrated into the competitive arteries of world capitalism and reinforces nation-state rivalry. More so, soccer can fuel bigotry, sectarianism and fan violence. The Marxist author Terry Eagleton felt driven to write: "If every right-wing think tank came up with a scheme to distract the populace from injustice and compensate them for lives of hard labor, the solution to each case would be the same: football."

However, soccer has more to it than this--there is resistance to corporatization, and there are alternatives to the rule of profit. Gabriel Kuhn documents this resistance and attempts to come to grips with the game's contradictions in Soccer vs. the State: Tackling Football and Radical Politics.

He describes, for example, how in 1968, French players stormed and occupied the French Football Association--"in order," according to their statement "to give back to the 600,000 French footballers and to their thousands of friends what belongs to them: football. Which to the pontiffs of the federation have expropriated from them in order to serve their egotistical interests as sports profiteers." Viva la France!!!

Kuhn is no soccer utopian. "Radical football fans," he writes, "like to portray the game as a traditional working-class sport. This is true in certain ways, and false in others." Kuhn reveals the origins of of the game, how it evolved and how it was "tamed" in the late 19th century through regulation, reflecting the dominance of industrial capitalism.

Kuhn says that "although the players in these clubs were workers who attracted a largely working-class audience, the teams were founded, financed and administered by capitalist industry. This means that from its beginnings as a professional enterprise, football was economically dependent on and controlled by the middle and upper classes."

A series of interviews with soccer fans and analysts shed light on how the game has developed in multiple countries and its relationship to politics. For example, an interview with sociologist Daniel Künzler is a decent introduction to some of the key questions and debates about African soccer, its relationship to European clubs, player migration and abuse. There are all sorts of interesting and inspiring stories about political players and "communist" managers who believe there is a socialist-inspired style of play and a drab result-driven capitalist version that's deathly for fans and players alike.

Even though there's been a massive proliferation of soccer in the U.S., "soccerphobia" is still common. Kuhn quotes a Glenn Beck rant during the 2010 World Cup: "We don't want the World Cup. We don't like the World Cup. We don't like soccer. We want nothing to do with it!" Unfortunately, for Beck and others like him for whom the game is synonymous with "communism" and immigrants bent on destroying American culture, soccer really is everywhere in the U.S., even if it has not yet become a commercial giant.

Kuhn argues the "new football economy" has its roots in the 1960s with the lifting of the player wage cap and the expansion of television culture. Ingloriously for Liverpool fans, that club was the first to introduce sponsored jerseys, now the norm, in the 1970s.

The consequences of the galloping commercialization has been a shifting of the spectator base away from its traditional working-class supporters. Kuhn argues the effort to create a European Super League of the richest teams would sever the game's local roots and finalize its alienation from working-class communities. Ticket prices at many of the top European teams have exploded over the last decade, cutting out more and more working-class supporters.

In this context, Kuhn's discussion of the rise of the "ultra" movements of especially fanatical fans and their political contradictions is insightful. Kuhn argues that they represent a backlash by groups of fans who are intensely loyal to their team, but who feel increasingly alienated and denied ownership over the team's direction.

During the Egyptian revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak, soccer "ultras" in Cairo were organized, dedicated and fearless fighters, inside the stadium and outside, as part of a much greater movement. But it shouldn't be assumed that ultras are necessarily left wing.

IN A chapter on "Radical Interventions in the Professional Game," Kuhn looks at how fascism and bigotry has been systematically challenged by groups of fans in stadiums and how the often tolerant soccer establishment has been forced to initiate anti-racist campaigns under such pressure. Interviews document how impressive and effective antiracist and anti-fascist fan networks have been developed throughout Europe.

Physically clearing the terraces of fascists is extremely important, but a particular current of street-fighting anti-fascist organizing is glorified over the work of coalitions like the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) in Britain. Some of the interviews in the book denigrate particular organizing approaches without much explanation, other than seemingly lacking the "bottle" for real fighting and because organized socialists are central to the effort.

In light of the return and rise of the hard right throughout Europe, this narrow sectarianism appears obviously insufficient. Fascism in Europe won't simply be destroyed by beating it out of soccer stadiums--political organizations that can mobilize millions and offer an alternative to scapegoating will be key.

Another aspect of the book that's similarly problematic is a discussion in the "Alternative Football Culture" chapter of what constitutes effective activism. Kuhn describes a group of activists who say that they were "burnt out" on "political" organizing following the defeat of Margaret Thatcher's poll tax in Britain. They liked to play football and a team called the Easton Cowboys and Girls Sports Club. There's no doubt that the club is a very interesting phenomenon and shows that alternatives to profit-driven soccer are possible--but it's hardly a model for organizing in the midst of a global economic meltdown.

British society is going through an epic crisis, with growing unemployment and massive budget cuts that have destroyed aspects of the ruling class' ideological hegemony--think of the regard with which press baron Rupert Murdoch and the News of the World are held--and produced huge student demonstrations, mass action by unions and an explosive series of urban riots starting in London and spreading across the country.

In an era like this, appeals to activism that seek to get people involved through a "lifestyle" backdoor aren't up to the demands of the moment. Plus, it seems elitist to suggest that working class people wouldn't be interested in joining a political group that stands for and organizes for fundamental social change--and have to be appealed to on issues like sports.

The Arab Spring has demonstrated the actuality of revolution, and the question of what kind of organizations are most effective in defeating corporate power and vicious states is once again of burning relevance. Holding up a football team as some sort of model for activism isn't a serious strategy in that light.

It's useful to be cognizant of the organizing efforts that exist in and around the world of soccer--some are certainly more effective than others and deserve attention. D despite the problems I have with some of the organizing models Kuhn appears to sanction, the book is still useful for anyone eager to learn more about soccer. Another of the book's positive contributions is the extensive appendix covering reading material and much more.

Kuhn knows soccer and is a fan of the game. His book will help you understand why soccer is and can be more than simply a corporate spectacle.

Players, fans and managers have resisted and will continue to resist commercialization. Networks of fans are fighting for the soul of the game and challenging the for-profit logic that dominates all sports. Another soccer is possible!

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