Scattershot Politics: Sport and Its Serpentine Political Meanings

June 14, 2011 — by Ryan1



[Editor’s note: We welcome back contributing writer and longtime friend Ryan Reft.  He’s kindly allowed us to repost this essay from his groupblog Tropics of Meta.  For some of his past contributions to CultFootball see here, here and here.]

Over the past fifteen to twenty years, historians have increasingly emphasized the role of sports as both a driver and reflection of society.  The recent Bill Simmons-inspired and ESPN-produced 30 for 30 documentary series tackled a number of difficult subjects via sport.  In “The Two Escobars“, directors Jeff and Michael Zimbalist travelled through 1980s Columbia, following the lives of Pablo (international drug dealer/murder/local philanthropist) and Andres Escobar (captain of Columbia’s 1994 World Cup team murdered in a nightclub alteration several months later).  The two unrelated protagonists encapsulated the travails of late 20th century Columbia.  Drug money filtered into the nation’s soccer infrastructure, boosting its competitive success but also adding layers of complexity and violence to a nation already struggling with decades of conflict.  Writing for the Onion’s AV Club, Todd VanDerWerff summarized its importance similarly: “The film’s portrayal of Colombia as a nation that made its compromises and learned to live with the hell they unleashed is also particularly good, as the story of the two men at the center slowly radiates outward to encompass more and more of the nation’s society.”

This is not a wholly unusual conclusion for the series.  In “Pony Exce$$,” director Thaddeus Matula explored the corruption and ultimate destruction of Southern Methodist University’s (SMU) then dominant football program as booster money flowed in from the oil wealth that defined the Southwest US in the 1980s. Though the Southwestern Conference consisted of eight schools (Baylor, Rice, SMU, Texas, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Arkansas, and Texas Christian University), Dallas served as a hub for numerous successful graduates of each school.  As several observers note in the documentary, football rivalries crackled in the board room meetings of Dallas high rises as alumni from all schools engaged in recruiting practices that seemed to define the decade.

Likewise, Billy Corben’s film,“The U” about the dominance and bravado of Miami University’s 1980s football teams reflects similar themes.  Miami’s football team served to unite a divided city behind a collection of local talent that also rewrote the rules of the game.  Miami’s players excelled spectacularly on the field but stoked controversy with their trash talk and exuberance.  If oil money shaped SMU, Miami’s notoriously tough African American neighborhoods, embraced by Miami’s first successful coach Howard Schnellenberger, came to symbolize “The U’s” power.  Along with cultural productions like Scarface, Miami Vice and the notorious Two Live Crew, players like Michael Irvin challenged college football and its fans.  Unlike “Pony Exce$$”, “The U” reveals the racial undertones that marked some of the criticism faced by the Miami program.  When teamed with Steve James’ masterful “No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson” and the recent “Fab Five” film about the innovative early 1990s Michigan basketball team, “The U” reveals so much more about American life than just college football.  Race, money, and a changing cultural landscape collided.  As one writer observed, James’ movie looks at Allen Iverson “more as a phenomenon, a human inkblot whose polarizing effect on people often says more about them than it does about him. They see whatever they want to see, and that may or may not be the truth.”  In essence, all these films and others in the 30 for 30 series function to elevate sports to a level of political and social importance that might have been derided in early decades.

“Architecture is the simplest means of articulating time and pace of modulating reality and engendering dreams.  It is a matter of not only of plastic articulation and modulation expressing an ephemeral beauty, but of a modulation of producing influences in accordance with the eternal spectrum of human desires and the progress in fulfilling them.  The architecture of tomorrow will be a means of modifying present conceptions of time and pace.  It will be both a means of knowledge and a means of action.” – Ivan Chtcheglov, Forumulary for a New Urbanism, 1953


Writing in 1953, nineteen year old architect and devotee of the Situationist movement, Ivan Chtcheglov published his sweeping indictment of mid-century urban planning.  For Chtcheglov, the architecture of cities past reflected the dead life of capitalist production.   City dwellers had been hypnotized by the built environment, thus, focusing exclusively on capitalist accumulation to the extent that when “presented with the alternative of love or a garbage disposal unit, young people of all countries have chosen the garbage disposal.”  One can see parallels with sport, most clearly in the above examples regarding SMU and the Escobars. The excess capital of drug and oil money created a vehicle for the egos and dreams of ruling classes that were then imposed. (To be fair, soccer teams as several interviewees in The Two Escobar note, serve as great money laundering devices.  One might suggest the same of Enron and other corporate entities in recent years.)

For Americans, sports provided both meaningless entertainment and incredible important cultural moments of resistance.  Dave Zirin documents athlete resistance of the twentieth century in his 2005 work, What’s My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States.  To Zirin’s credit, What’s My Name, Fool? gathers countless examples of political acts by athletes across the sports spectrum, engaging in issues of race, gender, and class.  For example, Zirin traces the complicated politics of Jackie Robinson who, despite his bravery in desegregating MLB, came to be unfairly seen by radical Black nationalists of the late 1960s as a sell out. Some have described Zirin as sort of Howard Zinn of spors journalism.  Perhaps.  He does look at major historical events like the 1968 Mexico City Olympic protest by Tommy Smith and John Carlos, in which both athletes upheld closed black gloved fists.  Zirin explores many facets of the event that had gone unnoticed.  Unfortunately, while Zirin collects valuable stories worth reflection, he too often veers in the direction of soap box oratory. Moreover, Zirin seems to feel the need to conclude paragraphs with zingers. For example, how about this gem regarding the failure of several WNBA sports franchises: “while some franchises found success, others have folded faster than a rib joint in Tel Aviv.” (186)  When discussing Allen Iverson, Zirin notes Iverson’s role as an anti-corporate anti-hero summarizing his nickname may have been A.I. but “there was nothing artificial about him.” (163)  Nuance is not the most prominent feature of  What’s My Name, Fool.  Still, even if the equivalent of street corner radical, Zirin contributes something to our knowledge of American culture and sport.

If baseball and to a lesser extent American football and basketball have served as venues for political expression, predictably, football occupies a similar position for Europeans. In How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization, Franklin Foer traipses through countries around the world, but predominantly Europe, exploring the meanings and processes that manifest themselves in the sport. Throughout How Soccer Explains the World one thing becomes clear, the political complexity of football and more generally, sport, radiates in countless directions.  When Foer presents Barcelona’s “bourgeois nationalism” as a model for 21st century cosmopolitanism,  he goes so far as to claim that it “redeems the concept of nationalism.” (198)  For Foer, Barca never demonizes opponents the way supporters at Red Star (Belgrade- the subject of a previous chapter, one that found soccer fan bases and clubs of the former Yugoslavia as germs for the paramilitary organizations of the Balkan wars in the 1990s) have. Instead, Barca illustrates that “fans can love a club and a country with passion and without turning into a thug or terrorist.” (197)

A central aspect of Barca’s identity rests on its foundational myth, its role as a means of Catalan resistance toward the post Spanish Civil War fascist Franco regime. According to this myth, Camp Nou, Barca’s legendary stadium, enabled Catalan fans to express themselves in ways forbidden by Franco.  Camp Nou allowed for political and social subversiveness. “Its fans like to brag that their stadium gave them a space to vent their outrage against the regime,” writes Foer.  “Emboldened by 100,000 people chanting in unison, safety in numbers, fans seized the opportunity to scream things that could never be said, even furtively, on the street or in the café.” (204) Yet, as Foer acknowledges, there is another way to view Barca’s history.  More likely, Franco saw Camp Nou and Barca as harmless outlets for his repressed populations.  Unlike the Basque region and its terrorist/separatist movement ETA, Catalonia never developed any similar liberation fronts.

BooksGeneral KnowledgeHistory

Intersectionality Meets Football

November 23, 2010 — by Ryan1


The Collision of Ethnicity, Class, and Memory in My Father and Other Working Class Football Heroes

If one believes the authors of Soccernomics, the provincialism of the nation’s working class remains one of the maladies plaguing English football. Though the authors acknowledge England’s creeping post war “embourgeoisement”, working class attitudes continued to dominate footballing circles and not necessarily for the better. In America, football depends largely on the middle class, but in England, for much of its sporting history, working class culture produced the vast majority of players. Soccernomics laments this development, suggesting the exclusion of the nation’s middle classes from competitive soccer acts as a “brake” on England’s international hopes. Furthermore, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski argue that the provincial proletarian mindset continues to bedevil the sport. Pointing to the insights of Manchester United Manager Alex Ferguson as evidence, Britain’s working class players subscribe to a theory of work in which they are “entitled” to a couple pints every night (provided they’ve put in an honest day’s work), not to mention the semi-frequent Saturday night bender. Ferguson identifies this belief system as a direct result of “the shift worker’s mentality”. How very Scottish.

The authors are not completely unkind. They point to long traditions of self education among working peoples, the rise in college attendance among the general British public, and the blame that the middle and upper classes deserve for the wayward educational opportunities of England’s proletariat, yet despite these examples “the anti-intellectual attitudes that the soccer administrators encountered do seem to be widespread in the English game,” write the authors, “These attitudes may help explain why English managers and English players are not known for thinking about soccer.” [21] For many players and managers, education serves as a mark of suspicion rather than achievement; Kuper and Szymanski label this the “anti-educational requirement.”[22] While Soccernomics points to many truths about the game, it is not the rosetta stone of football. The book is sometimes guilty of ahistoricism (or at the very least flawed periodization that doesn’t always fully reveal all the nuances and turns of their subject’s narrative) and economic determinism (which some fairly point out should not be a surprise considering its title). The question is, how to get at these slippages?

BooksCommentaryGeneral Knowledge

The Cruel Economy of Soccernomics: Capital, Players, and Football in the 21st Century

October 18, 2010 — by Ryan


In 2000’s The Many Headed Hydra, historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker explored the transnational revolutionary Atlantic world’s collection of working and enslaved peoples’ of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Linebaugh and Rediker present numerous examples of this burgeoning Atlantic world proletariat as it struggled against the crushing dominance of a nascent capitalism shedding its mercantilist restraints.  The commoditization of labor and peoples, left sailors, slaves, and commoners as physical representations of opposition, providing tangible fervor and ideological depth to various uprisings, revolts, and revolutions from England to the West Indies to the United States.  Acting as “nodes of revolution”, sailors and slaves carried ideas, plots, and oppositional violence against “the dictates of mercantile and imperial authority” targeting the property of the growing merchant class.  (156) In the face of state sponsored violence of the period ranging from slavery to penal colonies to military intervention, revolution through piracy, slave revolt, and riot served as resistance to the formation of new capitalist order.

Strangely, 2009’s Soccernomics (entitled Why England Lose in the UK) represents an interesting correlation to The Many Headed Hydra’s oncoming tsunami of free trade and “open markets”.  No footballers are not, never have been, and are highly unlikely to ever be “nodes of revolution:”, anyone who’s followed recent sex scandals involving prominent players like England’s John Terry (likes 18 year girls  and sleeping with his best friend’s former fiancée) or Wayne Rooney (allegedly cried after “performing” with an escort while his wife was in labor with their first child which makes him simultaneously ridiculous and despicable) knows that even getting them to be “nodes of decency” proves challenging. Yet, throughout Soccernomics the three themes seem central to authors Simon Kuper (soccer journalist/writer) and Stefan Szymanski (economist) economically deterministic approach to football:

  • •  The rising dominance of European style/tactics over the past 30 – 40 years (the authors even argue that Brazil has diminished aspects of its “beautiful game” to adopt much of the European approach)
  • •  The role of capital flows in altering the modern game
  • •  Players themselves, most from working class populations (in the rich and developing world (though differences between poverty in France and South Africa remain stark), serving as nodes of both developments.

“The best soccer today is Champions League Soccer, western European Soccer.  It’s a rapid passing game played by athletes.  Rarely does anyone dribble, or keep the ball for a second. You pass instantly.  It’s not the beautiful game – dribbles are prettier – but it works best.  All good teams everywhere in the world now play this way.  Even the Brazilians adopted the Champions League style in the 1990s.  They still have more skill than the Europeans, but they now try to play at a European pace.” (27)


Soccer in Sun & Shadow: A Brief History of Uruguayan Football

July 6, 2010 — by Suman3

"Soccer in Sun & Shadow" by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano

“Other countries have their history. And Uruguay has its football.” -Ondino Viera, Uruguayan national coach during the 1966 World Cup

On the surface, it appears that among the 4 remaining teams, Uruguay is the minnow, the surprise. No one really expected them to be playing today–some even doubted whether they would advance from their group, given that they were placed with two purported soccer powers in Mexico and France, as well as the host South African side.

But from another perspective, this is a return to the sun for Uruguayan football, after decades spent in the shadows.

Consider that of the remaining semifinalists, Holland and Spain have never won the World Cup (perhaps the two greatest footballing nations never to have won), and while Germany has won 3 times (as West Germany, actually: twice as hosts, in 1954 and 1974, and again in 1990), Uruguay is right behind them, having won twice, in 1930 and 1950.


Brilliant Orange: A Brief History of Dutch Football

July 6, 2010 — by Suman4


[Editor’s note: this post was written the morning of Friday July 2, prior to Holland’s upset of Brazil. We will need to update this post for Friday’s victory–the most significant in Dutch history at least since dramatic quarterfinal win over Argentina in 1998 (see video below), and perhaps since winning Euro ’88 over the USSR.]

Today’s first quarterfinal match may just be the most anticipated of the bunch–Brazil vs. Holland.  It’s a contest between two great footballing nations, both known over the decades for playing beautiful football–technically precise, individually and tactically creative, seemingly able to maintain possession as long as they want–and for producing some of the greatest players of all time.  From Brazil: Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Roberto Carlos, Romario, Garrincha, and of course Pele. From the Netherlands: Ruud van Nistelroy, Denis Bergkamp, Frank Rijkaard, Marco van Basten, and the greatest and original Dutch master, Johan Cryuff.

Where Brazil and Holland differ, of course, is in their records of World Cup success.  Brazil has won the Cup five times, more than any other nation–in 1958, 1966, 1970 (those three with Pele on the squad), 1994, and 2002.

By way of comparison, Italy has won four times, Germany three (twice as West Germany), Argentina and Uruguay twice each, and England and France once each.

Conspicuously absent from that list is Holland.  The Dutch have come close–twice in a row finishing in 2nd place, both times losing to the hosts: to West Germany in 1974 and to Argentina in 1978, and advancing to the semifinals in 1998, only to lose to Brazil in a penalty shootout.