Football, politics and metaphor

Ammar Ali Hassan , Saturday 14 Jul 2018

As the world continues to be fascinated by the football World Cup, what are the connections between football, politics and nationalism, asks Ammar Ali Hassan

Italian football team in 1934 World Cup
The Italian football team making the fascist salute during the 1934 World Cup tournament

How often must politicians have stared in amazement at football crowds and wondered whether it would be possible to make politics equally exciting to them.

The large discrepancy between the draw of the stadium and the popularity of politics has not prevented the two fields from borrowing from each other, sometimes to the extent of confusing the one with the other in spite of the obvious differences between them.

Football coaches sometimes wear caps similar to those of military generals or political leaders when preparing teams for critical matches.

Pre-game speeches and pep talks given by coaches to their teams have much in common with the speeches generals deliver to troops about to go into battle or the way diplomats are prepped before entering difficult negotiations.

Politicians also often use game analogies when analysing or planning actions and policies. Political scientists have even coined a term for this in “game theory”. Some politicians, if not the overwhelming majority, deliberately play games with the public.

This mutual borrowing is informed by a perception that football is more than just a leisure sport or a form of physical exercise and that it is a human activity that has a certain magic.

It changes those who connect with it. It transforms strangers into friends and thousands of supporters of a particular team into a single family, inspiring all its members with the same feelings at the same moment.

It has the power to transcend political identities and to transform misery into glee (and vice versa) and smart people into maniacs (and vice versa).

The Uruguayan writer Edouardo Galeano put it eloquently when he said that “I play; therefore, I am: a style of play is a way of being that reveals the unique profile of each community and affirms its right to be different. Tell me how you play, and I’ll tell you who you are. For many years soccer has been played in different styles as the unique expressions of the personality of each people, and the preservation of that diversity seems to me more necessary today than ever before.”

When England was eliminated from the World Cup finals some years ago the UK newspaper the Daily Mirror reported that “it’s the end of the world.”

The Intellectual Interest

The interest in football extends beyond the young people who assiduously follow the matches. It has also been the subject of commentaries by numerous intellectuals and writers.

In both Mythologies (1957) and Le Plaisir du texte (1973), the French critic Roland Barthes expressed his love for the sport and its profound philosophy and expounded on its underlying codes and symbols.

The Italian film director, poet, and writer Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote that “if I hadn’t become a poet, I would have dedicated my life to football.”

The Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz boasted of being a talented footballer in his youth.

He saw it as much more than a game. “Many of those who saw me play at the time told me I had a great career ahead of me in football. They forecast that I would play for one of the major clubs and head from there to international tournaments with the national team… Only literature was able to take me away from football. If I’d continued playing it, I may well have become a prominent football star,” he said.

The late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish once came out with the surprising observation that football diverts people from everything, including war. During the siege of the Palestinians in Beirut in 1982, as Israeli warplanes hovered overhead and bombarded the city, the World Cup tournaments gave people a moment to catch their breath and let the peaceful competition momentarily serve as an alternative to the horrifying destructiveness of war.

“Football — what is that magical madness capable of declaring a truce for the sake of innocent pleasure,” the Palestinian poet asked. “What is that madness that can soften the tyranny of war and turn missiles into flies? What is that madness than can put fear on hold for an hour and a half and that courses through the body and soul more powerfully than the passions of poetry, wine, and the first meeting with an unknown woman? Football performed a miracle under the siege when it stirred life in streets we thought had died of fear and distress.”

During the next World Cup in 1986, Darwish, who also described football as “the noblest war”, wondered “what we are going to do when Maradona returns to his family in Argentina.

Who will we spend our evenings with after having grown used to pinning our peace of mind at his miraculous feet? Who will we find to thrill us with his company after having grown addicted to him for a month during which we were transformed from spectators to lovers?”

One is reminded of the Japanese Embassy hostage crisis in 1996 when members of the Peruvian Marxist-Leninist movement Tupac Amaro stormed the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima and held everyone in it hostage for four months.

At one point, as the fate of the hostages hung in the balance, television screens around the world broadcast images, taken by helicopters hovering overhead, of the hostage-takers playing football with the hostages in the residence’s backyard.

It was the only time the two sides shared a sense of freedom and, perhaps, a sense of humour, and a momentary escape from thoughts of the future. Months later, Peruvian security forces stormed the residence, killed all the Tapac Amaro members, and rescued all the hostages but one.

Colombia’s Marxist FARC organisation also gives its hostages opportunities to play football in the jungle and to watch matches on TV.

The French writer Albert Camus was said to be a “football maniac”. His friend Abel Petos testified to Camus’ infatuation with the game. “For Camus, football, like theatre, is his real university. If forced to choose between it and literature, he would choose football,” he said.

In 1930, Camus was goalkeeper for the University of Algiers football team. Since he first began playing football in the streets in his childhood he was determined to play the role of goalkeeper because that was the place where his shoes would get less wear and tear.

Camus came from a poor family, and every night his grandmother would examine the soles of his shoes and beat him if she found any scuffing.

Football And Socio-Politics

Football in a broader context is a form of creative social interplay carried out on a relatively fair and level playing field that is largely unaffected by ordinary human circumstances even in countries where justice and equality is lacking in virtually everything else.

It is for this reason that football easily lends itself as a metaphor to help people understand some of the defects of political life.

Regardless of disparities in resources, all football clubs are represented by a certain number of players, all of whom must defer to an impartial arbitrating authority. On the field, the weak have the opportunity to defeat the strong, and the team at the bottom of the heap has the chance to come out on top.

This property alone has the power to fire the imagination of weak opposition parties in authoritarian and totalitarian regimes.

To political oppositions everywhere, the Dutch football legend Johan Cruyff remains an eternal source of inspiration. Asked whether a poor club could beat a rich one, he famously said that “I’ve never seen a bag of money score a goal.”

The same thing rarely applies in municipal, parliamentary and presidential races. In undemocratic systems above all, it is impossible to compete with the ruling party or a president running for re-election. Here, victory only becomes possible if we apply the rules and mechanisms applied in football.

In football matches, there are two teams of equal numbers, a set time for the contest, a referee who ensures fair play to the best of his capacities, a set of explicit rules and regulations to which all are bound, and an audience watching keenly from the stands or on television and judging the game as well.

In politics, especially in undemocratic systems, almost everything takes place under the cover of darkness with no guarantees of fairness, equal opportunity, material sources of power, access to the public or even to the arbitrating body which often flaunts its bias for the stronger and wealthier player.

Such juxtapositions between football and politics have extended to the level of the world order. On the eve of the World Cup in 2006, then UN secretary-general Kofi Anan drew a comparison between the tournament and the UN and ruled in favour of the former in which the laws and their application guaranteed equality between nations and the prevalence of fairness, talent and collective work.

The world of international relations had much to learn from the World Cup, Anan felt.

Political Metaphors In Football

Analogies are frequently made between football players and politicians or warriors. Sándor Kocsis, the Hungarian footballer who played for Barcelona, was nicknamed the “Golden Head” because of the way he could aim the ball into the net with his head.

According to some, he had the best head in Europe after that of British politician Winston Churchill.

During the 1990 World Cup, the Egyptian novelist Abdel-Hakim Qassem likened the Cameroon forward Roger Milla to Spartacus, leader of the slave rebellion against ancient Rome.

Here the football analogy was applied not just to politics, but also to war and to the struggle for human liberation.

Some political scientists and politicians have expounded on the relationship between politics and sports. US senator William Fulbright in his The Price of Empire (1989) mentions football in the context of the perils of the US-Soviet conflict during the Cold War, which was then nearing its end.

He held that the conflict could not be compared to the competition for supremacy on the football field and observed that because of the arms race the international competition could not inspire happiness unlike the athletic one which harmed no one.

Some have seen a close correspondence between football and politics in certain cases. Egyptian commentator Kamel Abdel-Fattah observed that “in football we turn semi-talented players into superstars just as we turn semi-talented politicians into tyrants and demigods in politics… In football, the roles are no longer diversified in the tournaments, but are monopolised, just as they are in politics in the absence of democracy…When we lose in football, we see a conspiracy by the referees or on the playing field, just as when we lose in politics we see the world conspiring against us and against our desire for peace and prosperity… In football, as in politics, we turn small victories into miraculous feats which we then attribute to an individual, whether he is a player or a politician.”

Others, however, have cautioned against such a close correspondence between football and politics. There are resemblances, but we should not lose sight of the fact that football is a game like any other. It is not politics, nor should it be, they argue.

It should not be likened to a state in miniature or be taken for an expression of national affiliation or patriotic pride. A country cannot be reduced to the heads and feet of 11 players battling it out on a pitch for 90 minutes.

The Italian novelist and critic Umberto Eco gave lectures and published studies on the game. His own field of semiotics, he said, dealt with signs that have meaning despite their artificiality or even superficiality.

Football was taken seriously and could sometimes have dangerous consequences when it was used to determine courses of socio-political, economic or cultural competition related to power and identity, he said.

The Egyptian philosopher Hassan Hanafi saw this process in situations where football was situated in diametrical opposition to or in rivalry with politics, like when football club partisanship replaces political partisanship and people are categorised by their affiliation to clubs and their emblems instead of their political party and ideological affiliations, for example.

He noted an extreme example of this in the rise of the “Ultras” in Egypt in which zealous fans wore their club’s colours like uniforms, chanted slogans and performed special gestures.

He likened this to the Green Shirts of the Misr Al-Fatat Movement (a paramilitary wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1930s) and the rival youth movement of the Wafd Party. Perhaps, too, there were similarities with the Hitler Youth in Nazi Germany.

Under the conditions of authoritarian government, Hanafi wrote, young football fans may “form ultras groups as a product of globalisation and the digital and audiovisual revolution. As a consequence of the death of politics and political repression in authoritarian regimes, these have evolved into political parties. They have reached the point where they are akin to religious sects with their own particular languages, emblems, strict organisational discipline and leaders with the power to mobilise the ranks.”

If football and politics can be diametrically opposed, this does not imply that they exist in totally separate spaces, in reality or virtually, or as fact or as metaphor.

In fact, the two can coexist in mutually dependent ways, all the more so given the factors that augment this in socio-political ways, such as the dependence on the game in the framework of sports diplomacy, intercultural dialogue and efforts to develop new modes of international understanding.

Football can succeed in forging an image where a thousand speeches, books and sermons have failed. At a time when a negative stereotype of Muslims has been disseminated in Europe because of the bloodthirsty attacks committed by terrorist groups and organisations, especially after they began to systematically target European cities, the brilliance of a single Liverpool player, the Egyptian Mohamed Saleh, has undoubtedly made a difference.

Yet, politics in football is not new. Historians have followed the history of politics and football in Egypt from the British occupation and the rise of the famous national clubs to the presence of the palace and government officials in key positions in the sporting clubs under the former monarchical regime.

The phenomenon has been taken to a broader level in Géopolitique du football, by Pascal Boniface and others (1998), which approaches the game as a continuation of war by other means, an inversion of the famous aphorism by the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz.

Metaphors in football also draw from economics. Football language typically speaks of “monopolising” the ball, “winning” and “losing” points, “calculating the odds”, and so on. Football is the most universal phenomenon in the globalised age, more universal than the market economy and democratisation.

Football And War

Football rhetoric also teems with allusions to warfare. Sports presenters eager to spice up their commentaries whether consciously or not add a heavy dose of military metaphors.

Perhaps this was why Eco said that “football is a way to make war using less bloodier means than we are used to.” The Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano amplifies this by saying that “in soccer, the ritual sublimation of war, 11 men in shorts are the sword of the neighbourhood, the city or the nation. These warriors without weapons or armour exorcise the demons of the crowd and reaffirm its faith: in each confrontation between two sides, old hatreds and old loves passed from father to son enter into combat.”

However, “soccer, a metaphor for war, at times turns into real war. Then ‘sudden death’ is no longer just a name for a dramatic way of deciding a tied match. These days, soccer fanaticism has come to occupy the place formerly reserved for religious fervour, patriotic ardour and political passion. As often occurs with religion, patriotism and politics, soccer can bring tensions to the boil, and many horrors are committed in its name.”

The metaphorical and ideological linkages between politics and football are due to various phenomena. Firstly, politics is extremely complex because of how closely it is intertwined with other fields of knowledge and activity.

Analysis requires an element of simplification through models than can be expressed in various ways from the purely verbal to the purely mathematical.

In addition, politics is potentially all-encompassing: all human activities can be politicised when they come under the focus of the political authorities.

An analysis of the underlying social and political values of the World Cup yields a host of lessons, presenting a dense panorama that can reveal the social characteristics of a given people at a particular moment in its history.

Quite a few of these traits are positive; others are less so, such as the spread of a culture of arbitrariness and irrationality which leads people to believe that the victor won by luck or coincidence, or that the loser was the victim of a conspiracy.

A corollary of this is the tendency to ignore maxims such as perseverance brings victory, if only after a while, and faith in progress can drive us forward.

Secondly, the ways interests and influences overlap in football and politics vary in accordance with the nature of the prevailing political regime.

In democratic systems, “sports do not influence the political process or the free competition between political parties and politicians, and only rarely and exceptionally do victory or defeat affect the nature of politics or the popularity of the political ruling class,” writes Egyptian commentator Nabil Abdel-Fattah.

He observes that among some countries of the South, such as Brazil, South Africa, India and Argentina, sports continue to be relatively influential with respect to the status and prestige of politicians, especially those with interests linked with national sporting teams.

But on the whole “the more deeply-rooted the democratic traditions, the less influential sports are in politics.”

In authoritarian and totalitarian countries, on the other hand, sports and football events in particular play numerous political roles that politicians can use to their benefit.

According to Abdel-Fattah, these include “using sports to build national identities, to achieve social cohesion, to promote overarching patriotic or pan-national loyalties by capitalising on the ability of national teams to attract allegiances that transcend primary allegiances based on tribal, clan, religious, sectarian, linguistic, ethnic, regional and class affiliations and by using football as a means for social and national mobilisation.”

Football, or the football metaphor, may come into play in the analysis of a country’s political system. For example, the British journalist Barney Ronay has observed that “the majority of Premier League clubs have their roots in either a local church or a local pub. For 100 years these clubs existed as an extension of their local community, a living riposte —albeit an occasionally violent and shambolically administered one —to the Thatcherite notion that there is ‘no such thing as society’.”

Football and its metaphors have also served to promote political careers. Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, owner of the Italian football club A C Milan from 1986 to 2017, won the general elections and became prime minister of Italy under the banner of the “Forza Italia” (“Forward Italy” or “Let’s Go Italy”) Party whose name was linked to football clubs. Berlusconi pledged to rescue the country from crisis just as he had A C Milan.

In Brazil, Ronaldinho Gaúcho, named the best player in the world in 2005, used his football stardom after joining the Brazilian Republican Party, which has links to the evangelical Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, to promote the activities of the party at the local and federal levels. 

Football And Nationalism

The idea of football championship and political victory has been taken to deeper and more symbolic levels.

The Italians won the World Cup in 1934 and 1938 in the name of the “nation” and “Mussolini”.

Before every match they would shout “Hail Italy” and greet spectators using the fascist salute. Mussolini sent three words of encouragement in a telegram to the Italian national team before the 1934 World Cup: “win or die.”

After the German occupation of Ukraine in World War II, Hitler had the entire team of Kiev’s Dynamo club sent to a concentration camp and their death after the notorious “match of death” because the Ukrainian team had refused to perform the Nazi salute when appearing on the pitch and had defied the order to let the German team win.

On the other hand, following the defeat of the Third Reich at the end of the war, football was one of the platforms that enabled Germany to return to the international community when the German Federal Republic team participated in the 1954 World Cup.

Franco in Spain and military rulers Emílio Garrastazu Médici in Brazil and Jorge Rafael Videla in Argentina all used the national football teams coupled with militaristic and nationalistic imagery to enhance their own images and strengthen their regimes.

However, teams parading beneath national banners have also been used for humanitarian purposes.

The Red Cross in Paraguay created a football team that toured Argentina and Uruguay in order to raise money to treat the victims of the war that erupted between Paraguay and Bolivia in 1934.

In like manner, the Basque Country sent its team on a tour of France to raise money for the victims of Franco’s war in Spain in the 1930s.

Finally, football and its metaphors have entered the plane of the ideals proposed by some ideologies.

British philosopher Simon Critchley argues that socialism is the political ideology that best suits football because the freedom of the individual in the game is linked to the welfare of the whole.

The foregoing furnishes justifications for the metaphorical pairings between football and politics at many levels, even as many people might claim that football is just a form of physical exercise and that the relationship between it and politics is weak.

The writer is a novelist and socio-political researcher.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Football, politics and metaphor 

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