By Nasser Amin
22 September, 2006
fascinating feature of the captivating spectacle of the recent World
Cup is the way in which it illustrates that modern sport has assumed
an existential and political function.
The performances of national
teams in such competitions occupy an imperative role in lives of millions
of spectators, providing a special dignity and meaning.
Great social significance
is attributed to the individual spectator of the sporting event, whether
he or she views directly from the stadium or from a further vantage
point via mass media coverage. Football has lent a hand to the foundation
of a burgeoning spectator culture. In the Western hemisphere, where
community and family relationships are in turmoil, the person-to-person
closeness engendered by being part of the crowd has provided a valuable
Identification with other
compatriots and the nation-state represented by the team one supports
is an essential component of this modern sporting experience. The creation
and development of this collective identity, manifested by united and
contemporaneous experience of the same event, serves to augment and
intensify feelings of wider national consciousness and unity.
All citizens of the state
are as welcome as any other in this milieu, irrespective of their ethnic
or other origins, it is said. In countries where tensions have been
apparent between ethnic groups, football has been seen as a stimulant
to harmony between them. The nation's colors, arms and flag become a
marker for the national team and a ubiquitous uniform for all, worn
to exhibit devotion and integration.
Football has maintained a
role in symbolizing the struggle to achieve the respect and recognition
of others in the global community. Aspirant nations, states with their
independence only recently granted, or countries with a weak sense of
nationhood have looked to football to strengthen their resolve against
both international and internal rivals and project an image of the values
and potential power and glory of their self-governing state.
An illustration of this is
2006's victors, Italy. Throughout the 20th century, football competition
served to aid the awareness of Italian nationhood, from a position in
the early part of the last century when it was acutely compromised by
factionalism and regional allegiances.
Turning the table
Against a backdrop of pervasive
global injustice and the inequality between states, football contains
the possibility of destabilizing the political status quo, with teams
representing nations from lower down the geo-political order able to
compete, seemingly, on a level playing field and able to exact defeat
on more powerful foes or friends on the pitch. Such victories against
the mighty are almost unthinkable in other realms of competition between
the developed and the developing, especially within the political, economic
or military domains. One recalls the singularity of USA's loss to Iran
in the 1998 World Cup and the French team's ignominious defeat to its
former outpost in West Africa, Senegal, four years later.
An important historical example
of such a subversive capacity in the colonial environment was the formation
of the football team of the Front de Liberation National (FLN), which
struggled against French dominion in Algeria. The President of the provisional
government in the aftermath of French rule explained the higher goals
of the team:
"They [the French] rule
us with guns and machines. On a man-to-man basis, on the field of football,
we can show them who is really superior."
The FLN team played against
other sides from around the world, traveling to fourteen countries.
They were hugely successful, emerging victorious in a clear majority
of the games in which they participated, and thus strengthening steadfastness
against the occupation at home.
Some regard the competition
between nation-states exhibited in football contests as a safer arena
inside which global rivalries can be thrashed out and peaceably discharged,
quelling popular feelings which can otherwise lead peoples to pressurize
their leaders to go to war against others. If conflict among men is
inevitable, then at least, as G.B. Shaw remarked, "Serious sport
is war minus the shooting." Football, they contend, can ultimately
exert a calming influence in a turbulent world, potentially putting
a stop to conflict, and evincing how similar we all are. The official
slogan of the recent World Cup, 'A time to make friends,' was suggestive
of this aim.
For many, a function of sport
is to provide a form of therapy: football is a diversion from the harsh
realities and complexities of life, an escape into a dream-world where
heroic characters delight and inspire with their skill, ingenuity and
success. In a world where moral decisions can be complex, and the avoidance
of automatic allegiance to one's own side can be exceedingly hard and
painful for many, football culture offers a simple answer: support your
own team. Everything appears uncomplicated.
The psychological benefits
of sport's consolation have often been most sought at times of crisis.
After the Israeli military disconnected the electricity supply from
much of Gaza during the recent World Cup, after an earlier sabotage
of the Palestine national football stadium, the Palestinians were outraged.
Farid Khatib, Director of the Rafah football club in Gaza, told reporters
of the salutary role the world game fulfills in their lives:
"The Palestinians need
soccer to forget their problems if only for a night. It's better for
our kids to watch soccer than turn to drugs, smoking and extremism."
Soccer and Western
The expression of rebellion
by the developing world towards the West through the medium of football
is ironical, however, in that the game is a European cultural invention
and was largely disseminated across the globe, thanks to the efforts
of colonial administrators and Christian missionaries. Football's early
advocates believed that the sport would instill in its players what
they saw as admirable Christian and Western values.
The desire to be free and
different from the West has perversely led to the willing acceptance
of this form of cultural imperialism, where the battle for respect and
the recognition is played out on Western terms. Tacitly, this only serves
to underline how dominant and enveloping the culture of the West can
The upshot of the popularity
of Western sports throughout former colonies has been that indigenous
games and forms of physical education and exertion have had their central
role supplanted, and in many cases have been wrecked. It is with lament
that one witnesses the decline of horsemanship and archery among the
Arabs. There have been a few notable successes in resurrecting games
native to the culture, for example the resurgence of Gaelic sports in
Ireland or Lacrosse in North America, but by and large, Western games,
which offer brilliant performers the promise of bountiful riches and
a ladder out of poverty, have won the contest.
International football does
not occur in a vacuum, but rather is reflective of the broader political
context in which we live. The national teams themselves reflect the
global territorial atlas, which in the case of the developing world
meant that states were created and forced upon the subjects under European
dominion, often without reference to the location of traditional homelands.
The manufactured countries and their frontiers are accepted and validated
by participation in world soccer and by fans' support for them.
The supremacy of an elite
is also evidenced on the field of play. Football-playing countries outside
of the powerhouses of Europe and South America have invariably performed
poorly in World Cup tournaments. No one realistically expected an Asian
or African to take home this year's trophy. A team from outside the
two dominant football continents has never reached the final of the
competition. That a handful of national teams wield power in world soccer
is the product of economic disparities and the failure to nurture talent
in the developing world, because most of the first rate players leave
to enjoy lucrative careers for European clubs.
It is questionable whether
the idea that football encourages peace between nations and peoples
rings true. The stoking of pre-existing nationalist sentiment can all
too often lead to confrontation with others. In many European countries
there exists a notorious sub-culture that fuses far-right ideologies,
violence and football, with racist disorder ensuing and minority groups
being the principal victims. The sport may act as a form of catharsis
for hostile feelings, but it just as easily heightens sentiments leading
to conflict. In 1969, for example, El Salvador and Honduras waged war
on each other, shortly after a World Cup qualifying game erupted in
riots. Although the causes of the war lay beyond soccer, the ugly scenes
at the match inflamed tensions.
From an ethical perspective,
the nurturing of an outlook that prizes allegiance to one's own nation
is perilous. Such unconditional nationalism cultivated in the football
crowd, irrespective of who is in the right, can lead to unconditional
and immature support for other institutions and policies of the nation-state,
potentially causing great damage to the 'other side.'
The World Cup victory of
a multi-ethnic France team in 1998 was seen as testimony of football's
capacity to infuse harmony between different cultural groups within
a society. The esprit de corps of the squad under the French tricolor
was said to have brought the nation together. However, this was a transient
victory for ethnic harmony at best, for the real problems in French
society continued to exist, culminating in the 2002 strong electoral
display by the openly racist Front National, and the outpouring of fury
from minorities that we saw in late 2005's Paris riots.
The public amity between
citizens that football can bring to bear is merely a meager substitute
for the genuine community relations that have broken down in much of
Western society. A culture of spectators may also encourage an inert
attitude to a wide range of issues, including political engagement when
active participation is the key.
Football is a distractive
pastime, which satiates a human need for amusement and leisure, especially
in hard times, yet has no power of its own accord to change the world.
Many claims are made about its qualities to ameliorate or redeem the
lives of its devotees, yet the sport reflects the problems of life and
the world rather than posing a resolution to them. We ought to enjoy
the display of excellence, creativity, contests and challenges, which
the game exemplifies, but be suspicious of the emotions it ignites,
the passions it arouses, and the ease with which it has usurped native
culture. With 'World Cup fever' behind us for another four years, it
is time to compose ourselves and realize that football and its attendant
flag-waving are not the panacea.
is a 25-year-old postgraduate at the School of Oriental and African
Studies, University of London, Britain. He is a writer for Islam Magazine.