A 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 surrogate companionship.
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 hegemony
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 be.
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.
Nasser Amin 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.