Footballitics

Posted on September 12, 2011 by

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My interest was piqued this week by a couple of thought-provoking articles. One, by The Football Ramble’s Luke Moore, discusses the author’s discomfort during his recent trip to Wembley. He shares his disgust at fellow England fans who had indulged in renditions of Ten German Bombers and No Surrender to the IRA, and:

“…the threatening, snarling and downright uncomfortable atmosphere that pervades everywhere, the pathetic, jingoistic stench with an undercurrent of transparent racism and anger at every turn, both inside the stadium and out.”

And over on Surreal Football, Michael Moruzzi explains why he hates watching England in the pub. His experience is all-too-familiar, describing the “casual xenophobia with an undertone of menace” that is commonly overheard during big international fixtures:

“To the un-initiated this might have looked suspiciously like some sort of fascist rally. The menacing, nationalist fervour whipped up with flags and songs about wartime exploits? Hello, this doesn’t look good. My sensitivities on this issue haven’t been helped by reading a novel by the late JG Ballard, in which the residents of an M25 satellite town are gradually indoctrinated into a fascist movement that takes the St George’s cross as its emblem.”

All this got me thinking about the political content of football, and I wondered whether the modern game has become more right-wing than ever before (although this is not something I will go into now, for fear of cod-philosophising, and I’m sure such a huge subject has been better dealt with elsewhere.) But I was struck by an idea about the slightly peculiar distribution of footballers/managers on the political spectrum. See this diagram (from politicalcompass.org):

This conceptualisation of a political scale according, not only, to economics beliefs but also to ideas about the organisation of society, is helpful. And, arbitrarily plotting the English Premier League somewhere on the scale, you might be pleased to know it appears in the same Authoritarian-Right quartile as Thatcher n’ Hitler. Remember, the EPL is about as extremely capitalistic as it gets, and for a sporting institution which mocks women who try to play a modest part, and doesn’t have a single openly Gay player or manager, it’s pretty clear to see. See how I have imagined the league (generally) might answer these questions from the politicalcompass.org test (click to enlarge):

(1. There is still resistance to refereeing technology á la Tennis/Cricket, but the digressions of the playing staff are there for all to see in Sky HD; 2. Fortunately the league hasn’t quite gone that far; 3. The idea that a squad could manage itself cooperatively, or that referees could become extinct, is unheard of; 4. People like end product, but Arsenal have legitimately used their attractive football as a shield against criticism for years now.)

Perhaps the US’ Major League Soccer, with its centrally-planned players’ draft and examples of affirmative action, would make it into the Authoritarian Collectivism section (along with Stalin). And quite possibly clubs such as St. Pauli or Barcelona would feature in the Libertarian Left square because of their association with Anarchism. I struggle to think of a footballing example of a right-wing, socially liberal institution (to go along with Milton Friedman), so feel free to comment if you have any ideas.

Of course, the obvious question is – does any of this really matter? Should the politics of a league or a club or a player you follow really affect your enjoyment of the game? Should I support Chris Hughton’s Birmingham FC, knowing what I know about the left-leaning manager’s democratic managerial style, or should I assume Swindon Town as an enemy now that the fascist-sympathising Paolo Di Canio is in charge? As a Liverpool fan, I was deeply uncomfortable with these quotes from Alberto Aquilani when we signed him (yet I still supported him and wanted him to stay at the club):

“There are too many foreigners in the country – most of the violence and trouble you see is caused by them.”

“My uncle is very keen on Mussolini and he gave me some things to do with him. I have a statue and a few photographs and portraits of Mussolini at home. But as for me, I don’t know anything about politics.”

Equally, maybe right-wing Liverpool fans might have been put-off by Robbie Fowler’s famous pro-Trade Union gesture. Maybe Conservative voters wish Jamie Carragher wouldn’t be so vocal in his support for the Labour Party. Over at White Hart Lane, Spurs fans might be disappointed to know that Roman Pavlyuchenko is a political colleague of Vladimir Putin. Ultimately, there are countless examples of players and managers with questionable political beliefs.

But, naturally, an awful lot of the “political” content of football is just meaningless noise. Now that we have access to the day-to-day thoughts of football stars on Twitter, we all know that many of them are willing to pontificate on anything, regardless of whether they have truly considered the implications. Joey Barton’s insight, for example, probably gave New Labour’s PR department a headache. Much of it should be taken with a pinch of salt, though. The prevailing image is of Thierry Henry wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt at an awards ceremony (while Ronaldinho sported an outfit provided by sponsors Nike). And indeed, the famous Paul Breitner, who shared a great political rivalry with team-mate Franz “Kaiser” Beckenbauer, pulled out of the 1978 World Cup in protest against Argentina’s military dictatorship. He looks like this now, but back in the day he posed for this memorable photo:

Left-wingers

From this humble Trawlerman’s point of view, it is lamentable that the footballing socialists of yore have died out. You don’t get many Brian Cloughs or Bill Shanklys any more. (By the by, André Villas-Boas, he of this parish, is deeply embarrassed by his aristocratic roots). Perhaps the ultra-free market, increasingly-middle class nature of the Barclays Premier League (in assocation with Prawn Sandwiches) has taken its toll. As Barney Ronay wrote on this subject:

“At the top level at least, footballing socialists are an almost extinct breed. This is hardly surprising. The Premiership player lives a rarefied life. Alienated by celebrity and his own vertiginous wealth, bombarded with the tedious superlatives of a deeply introverted industry, it seems barely conceivable he might still be capable of making the distinctions required to call himself a socialist, a monetarist, a disciple of Chairman Mao, or anything else for that matter. […] The top tier of British football stands as an extreme expression of a certain kind of politics, rampant capitalism with the volume turned up to 11. A Premiership socialist? It might not even be possible.”

It is interesting to consider what difference has been made by this immense amount of money sloshing around in football, especially in terms of the relationship between players and fans. I have no doubt that sociologists could offer some compelling analysis of the way that football has mirrored certain profound changes in wider society in recent decades, but on some level the difference isn’t so great. Ultimately, (in a kind of material, Marxist sense at least) footballers are still “workers,” in that they are waged labour, and don’t own the means of production. Indeed, they form unions and are even willing to strike. No-one could pretend that their interests are truly the same as those of the fans who indirectly pay their wages, but equally no-one who follows certain players on Twitter could really pretend that their lifestyles are altogether different from ours either. Have a read of one of my favourite articles ever, Rio Ferdinand’s “A Life in the Day” for The Times, for example.

[NB: Tim Vickery pointed out (on a recent edition of the World Football Phone-In) that when people sneer at footballers’ wages, there can be a relatively unsubtle hint of snobbery – no-one questions golfers’ rights to earn vast sums of money, because they are generally middle or upper class, and so they look like they suit their wealth far more than, say, a Carlos Tevez or a Wayne Rooney. Now the standard of football is so high (which requires a great deal of emotional energy and relies on extreme dedication to diet and fitness regimes), the kind of uber-professionalisation necessary for players to push themselves to the limit requires at least generous wages. Fabio Capello would have no right to instruct Andy Carroll on how to conduct himself in private if he wasn’t sufficiently financially recompensed. Some of us might find it distasteful that the head of a charity could earn six-or-seven figures, but the reality is that such a wage structure can often make the organisation more effective in its goal. Unless the prevailing economic and political structures of society are radically altered, continuing to pick on footballers for their pay-packets seems a little bit unfair. Although I might find astronomical wages offensive, I certainly don’t value professional football players’ efforts any lower than the work of buy-to-let property developers, hedge-fund managers or stockbrokers.]

And, indeed, no-one can pretend that we honest, humble football supporters (as a whole) are particularly radical or politicised. Your average England fan probably thinks Tony Blair was alright, not too sure about this Cameron fella (if he/she isn’t a closet-BNP members, of course). And most of us Twittering football fans eat more hummus than pies. Don’t even get me started on Arsenal fans.

Bucking The Trend

There are, of course, exceptions. Some footballers are genuinely principled about their beliefs, so much so that they are forced to make serious career sacrifices. See the case of the Iranian Osasuna midfielder Javad Nekounam who used a World Cup qualifier against South Korea to show his support for recently-defeated Presidential Candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, and was subsequently and mysteriously “retired” from international football. More starkly, Javi Poves (a former reserve for Spanish club Sporting Gijón) retired from professional football altogether, saying he preferred to study and try to contribute more to society. “What point is there [in earning big wages],” he said, “if you know that you are obtaining it through the suffering of many people.”

“There are certain personalities at a world level – Pele, Ronaldinho, Messi – who are ambassadors for UNICEF and who on the face of it are very good, but they could do much more,” he added. “These people have such influence that they should involve themselves in a much more direct way.”

Oleguer Presas (above), formally of Barcelona and Ajax, is a great example of a deeply politicised footballer. His earning potential has also suffered because of his ethical commitments. Most notably, he wrote a journal article (in Basque) criticising Spain’s Judicial system, and subsequently lost his lucrative sponsorship sponsorship contract with the sports company Kelme. He is still an unpopular figure in some of Spain’s more right-wing stadiums as a result.

Above all else, Oleguer is very different from most other footballers. A fiercely anti-globalisation eco-warrior economics-graduate who contributes to academic journals on subjects such as Catalan nationalism and Spanish housing policy, he also lent his support to the Zapatistas movement in Mexico (along with Javier Zanetti). He is famous for having defended an Amsterdam squat which the Dutch police were attempting to shut down. He dedicated his only career goal to a 14 year old boy who had been recently arrested for putting up posters criticising the mayor of his home-town of Sabadell. Most remarkably for a professional footballer, he possesses a character-defining mistrust of authority:

“[On Spain’s political system] No party represents me. I feel closer to civil society than political parties; the only thing they really want from the people is a vote every four years. That’s not the democracy I believe in.”

“[On the Iraq war] It’s clear that there are imperialistic, economic and strategic interests behind the war but the news moves on and everyone focuses on something else. We have to stop and reflect a bit on where we are going, about imposing a more sustainable type of development, with genuine cooperation.”

“[On Barcelona’s traditional anti-fascism] When Barcelona win the league, we become the Army of joy finally able to face up to [Franco’s troops]. We imagine ourselves halting that pack of tanks, responding to their bullets with song, laughing in the face of the fascist ire.”

“[On the footballer’s lifestyle] I don’t like to be adored. Of course it is nice when a 50 year old man congratulates me on the street. But I always feel like he has done so much more than I have.”

Perhaps Oleguer’s footballing career has suffered somewhat though; despite featuring alongside Carles Puyol in the Barcelona defence for most of the mid-2000s, he is now (aged 31) a free agent after his performances for Ajax became less and less impressive. I didn’t plan to reach a conclusion as depressing as “principles hinder achievement,” but it seems that I just have…

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