Football: Opiate of the masses or source of popular power?

Football is a psychological outlet. Many socialists claim it to be ”opiate of the masses”, as Marx did the Church. You should be shouting against injustice or oppression, but you end up shouting against the opposition football team. This is to some extent true.

But football is, or could be, much more than this, in no small part because of its worldwide appeal. Football’s appeal is in part down to its simplicity and the fact that it can be played without any cost. Throughout the world’s poorer countries, football is played with t-shirts as goalposts and with tied-together rags or anything else resembling a football as a ball. Football also has a capacity to transcend cultural and ethnic boundaries due to its universal and non-lingual character.

What other sport, or any other subject for that matter, opens as many doors or conversations as football around the world? A working knowledge of a couple of star players in the Zambian national side, for instance, opens many a door, and starts many a conversation, in even the remotest village in Zambia – as it does in many countries around the world.

But why is this so? Football is a game where, like perhaps no other game due to the low scores, the underdog can prevail. In no other games do upsets happen as frequently as in football. Just think of Cameroon beating the reigning World Champions, Argentina, in the opening match of the 1990 World Cup. Or Senegal beating former colonial power France in 2002. Or the USA beating England in the 1950 World Cup.

Football also played an important role in the decolonisation of several African countries. Football clubs founded before independence by Africans played a role as sources of pride and the game was part of a nation-building process that helped unify people against the colonial oppressors.

In apartheid South Africa, one of the few places where blacks and whites met on relatively equal terms was on the football pitch. The South African Soccer Federation, founded in 1951, allowed footballers of al races to compete, and  “even the police and defence-force teams were playing matches against black teams” by the eighties according to Leon Hacker, a former Public Relations Officer in the now defunct, non-racial South African National Soccer League.

On the other hand, football is not necessarily liberating and does not necessarily or automatically bring people together. The more or less extreme sense of fan loyalty of, many fans is not easily distinguished from overt patriotism. And as all other social phenomena, football can be made to serve bigotry and cruelty as well as socialabilty.

Just think of the countless football ground punch-ups, the British racist National Front’s attempts at recruiting members at football grounds, the ugly manifestations of bigoted nationalism, racism or homophobia in football, or the attempts to use football as a propaganda tool by dictatorships such as Brazil in 1970 or Argentina in 1978.

But these attempts to use football for purposes of propaganda often backfire. In places where the social and political space is limited or entirely absent, legitimate social events such as football become politicised and places where dissatisfaction or criticism with the regime can be uttered more or less thinly veiled.

For many in such countries, being part of a football club at whatever level could be the first public institution that people became organised in. And as organisation and becoming organised is the sole source of power for poor people, or for any group of non-influential people for that matter, this experience could lead to further organisation around more overtly political subjects. Football is after all essentially a game where individuals must combine their talents to prevail on the pitch, and where the vast majority of spectators attend especially international tournaments in a spirit of friendship.

But as in all other aspects of life, football also needs to be more responsive to democratisation for football to truly become a force for good. And football players and fans need to rid the game of perhaps the greatest threat to its chance of helping bringing about a fairer and more sociable world – the individualisation and commercialisation of the game that makes passive consumers or individualistic football millionaires, and not active and community-orientated participants, out of spectators and players alike.

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