Against Sanitised Football
Can fans fight back against clubs who seek to ignore their history for bland branding?
It is awful, jarring, the equivalent of a scraping fishbone stuck in a football fan’s gullet.
It is a cringe-worthy television advert produced by Qatar Airways, starring the players of Barcelona.
If the advert did not exist, it would have to be invented. For there is no other existing piece of media that better encapsulates the worldview of football in the neo-liberal age. It is 40 seconds of distilled ideology at its purest.
The advert begins by zooming in on a mystical Neverland-like ‘FC Barcelona island’ – an island taking the form and colours of the blaugrana crest. On this island, Lionel Messi and co arrive at a glass behemoth of an airport. It is one of those hyper-modernist airports, a transparent, shimmering structure of flowing glass so universal in its blandness that it could belong to any country – the sort of airport you would insert into your modernist utopia in Sim City.
Messi and the gang, seemingly alone in the airport, roll up to the check-in desk in their rock-star gear. Behind the players lies a void of squeaky clean airport marble, like a hospital for rich people. It is notable how the 105,000 fans who attend each home game have been erased from this fantasy. “Don’t worry”, the advert implicitly suggests, “there are no fans in this shiny airport wonderland. You are alone, safe from the masses.” Messi et al are relaxed: phew, they can get away from the roar of the crowd.
And all of this with Samsung suitcases.
Let us just say that Craig Calhoun, the London School of Economics’ sociologist who has called globalisation the ideology of “wealthy frequent fliers”, would have a field day… The Barça players clearly belong to a deracinated, transnational elite.
Now on board a Qatar Airways plane, the players jet across the world, making stops in Paris, Tokyo and Miami. At each location they enter party mode, rejoicing in a World Cup-like carnivalesque atmosphere in which everyone dances along smiling and in which each time there is a noticeable lack of football.
I wonder what Barcelona’s socios, the members of the club, made of the advert. Of all clubs in European football, Barcelona has always been identified as a bastion of identity politics, its footballing kernel inseparable from its left-wing collectivist politics forged during the Spanish Civil War. Particularly as the club has such a strong historical connection with anarchist political philosophy, I think Barcelona’s socios might feel uncomfortable swallowing their Qatari medicine.
The club, as Sir Bobby Robson put it when in charge of the team, is “the invisible army of Catalonia”, displacing its (claimed) political nationalism and anti-Madrid sentiment into sporting battle. So intense are the emotions stimulated by the club that the board is having to expand the cemetery adjacent to their stadium, so that more fans can rest in perpetuity next to their ‘home’.
How depressing it is to see the club allow its image to be manipulated so vulgarly in the pursuit of profit. Barcelona is supposed to mean something, to be a shared emotional space in which a chronology rooting back to the 1930s is evoked and celebrated. It is not supposed to be a commercialist utopia we can all fly to.
In an age in which the largest football clubs, such as Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich resemble transnational corporations by commodifying their ‘brand’ in international markets, a sea-change has taken place in clubs’ identities. Football clubs are sanitising their self-images, removing emphasis from the political narratives that previously gave their teams meaning.
Football has never been just about football. When 11 players take the field for your side, they become the embodiment of the ‘imagined community’. As the political scientist Benedict Anderson argued, in large societies in which we will never meet the vast majority of those who claim the same identity as us – a Frenchman from Paris cannot meet all his fellow Frenchmen – a sense of community is produced not by face-to-face interaction, but in a collective imaginary in which all members imagine themselves as a single community. This imagined community is reaffirmed in a shared chronology of the nation, with events such as 1789, 1848, 1914 or 1968 providing a common narrative of identity.
In a postmodern society in which we all have plural identities – I am a Tottenham Hotspur supporter, a Radiohead devotee, a university student, a middle-class boy from a working-class family, a Brit raised in Brussels – there are no longer hold-all identity frames like ‘class’, ‘religion’ or the dichotomy of ‘civilisation’ v ‘barbarism’ that act as nodal points for our identities. We no longer live with shared experiences: not all kids now go to Butlins on holiday or undergo military training together.
Football matches on television, or in person at the stadium, thus offer one of the sole devoted time slots in which society is experiencing the same event at the same time. In the latest World Cup, 88.4% of Dutch people watched their national team’s victory against Chile. 82.1% of Belgians watched their national team beat South Korea. 81.3% of Greeks saw their team defeat Côte d’Ivoire.
It’s a lot easier to imagine and invest emotionally in 11 men as the embodiment of our nation than it is to rationalise abstractly that that bloke from 300 miles away, whom we will never meet, is also a member of the ‘we’. The psychological dynamics of football stadiums result in clubs becoming lightning rods for charged political identities. With the alienation of industrialist society, in which the division of labour means that we compartmentalise our ‘professional’ and ‘personal’ lives and rarely find ourselves together in a substantial grouping of our colleagues, football stadiums offer a unique social function.
They become an emotive space, in which the crowd can take on a singular voice in their chants - a process that the psychologist Gustave Le Bon called the ‘de-individuation’ of society. As Le Bon showed, when individuals are in groups, they lose their inhibitions and are more willing to flout social norms. As a result, football stadiums provide a seemingly enchanted space in which the norms of the current political order can be suspended, and furthermore, resisted.
When Lechia Gdansk played Juventus in the 1983 European Cup Winners’ Cup in Gdansk, football became the site of ideological transformation. With the president General Jaruzelski having banned Solidarność, the Polish anti-Communist ship workers’ movement, 16 months prior to the game, the match took on significance when it was announced that Lech Wałęsa, who had recently been released from jail, would attend. The leader of Solidarność and the subject of a smear campaign by Jaruzelski, Wałęsa maintained a real fear that he would be booed by a crowd won over by regime propaganda, an act that would have represented the symbolic death of Solidarność.
Instead, as the game reached half time, a cry of “Solidarność! Solidarność! Solidarność!” reverberated around the stadium. As the home team manager Jerzy Jastrzębowski recalls, “We were in the dressing-room at half-time when we heard it and it sent shivers down our spines, the whole ground singing ‘Solidarność’.” State television was so concerned about the ramifications of the chanting on public opinion that it delayed the broadcasting of the second half for six minutes. When the game finally came back on, it was broadcast without sound. The symbolic authority of the regime had been compromised; all of Poland could see that workers had turned against the workers’ party.
Similarly, the Parc des Princes of Paris Saint-Germain, until its recent purging by PSG’s Qatari owners, was a symbolic battleground between the Left and Right of Paris. Situated at one end of the stadium, the Kop of Boulogne, the Boulogne Boys promoted a Fascist, overtly racist ideology in which their tifosi paid homage to the iconography of the 1930s. At the other end, in the Virage Auteuil, left-wing workers and immigrants fan groups provided an alternative. In 2010, after a racist attack by the Boulogne Boys on the Supras Auteuil, a member of the latter killed Yann L, a Boulogne ultra. In response, the new ownership disbanded both groups, but then took the further step of preventing any fans from choosing to sit next to groups of others. Instead, a new ticketing system was introduced which randomised seating allocation. Ticket prices were ramped up and the ownership admitted that it was implementing a strategy of ‘fan gentrification’ whereby it was trying to attract wealthier fans. As one club spokesman put it, the club was attempting to replace hard-core supporters with ‘fan customers.’
Trying to separate football clubs from their histories is wrong. We cannot sanitise football clubs, removing them from the meanings that their communities have invested in them, before branding them as ‘global products’ to be sold via merchandise. I am reminded here of the Argentinian political theorist Ernesto Laclau’s theory of the role of the ‘empty signifier’ in neoliberal capitalism. Laclau argued that in order to amplify their market appeal, brands would ‘empty’ themselves of their controversial significations, their political roots, and market themselves using bland, catch-all terms with which anyone could associate.
When Barcelona markets itself abroad as mes que un club, because it shows ‘solidarity’ and the value of ‘passion’, one has to resist the temptation to yawn. Any fan in the world could project their own commitments onto such phrases and be a Barcelona fan. The brilliance of the marketing strategy is that the words solidarity and passion essentially mean nothing; who can object to such principles? It is the same reasoning as when Barack Obama ran on the mantra of ‘change’ in 2008. Change? Okay. But which change?
There are two logics of football fandom that are at war in the modern game, and regrettably, I think the wrong one is winning the battle. These two logics are those of (1) football as event, carnival v (2) football as emotional investment; a debate that has been defined by French theorists as the clash between plaisir and jouissance.
Football as an event or as plaisir refers to a model of World-Cup like fandom, in ascendance today, in which fans celebrate each match as some Dionysian event of utopian happiness. Fans, sporting face paint, dancing side by side and doing Mexican waves revel in the now, everyone having a great time. Football becomes a site of consumption: indistinguishable from going to the cinema or a nightclub with the point being to consume ‘happiness’ via beverages, merchandise and gleeful dancing.
There is nothing inherently objectionable about the model. Apart from the fact that it is:
a) incredibly conservative as it uses a mass event in the manner the state wishes us to: to enjoy ourselves, consume and forget issues of political contention. No example is better than this than the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, in which the government was more than happy to ignore social protests, placing emphasis instead on the euphoric imagery of fans dancing side by side while getting drunk on the Copacabana.
b) quite frankly, really boring after five minutes. Where is the meaning in a dramatic narrative in which everyone gets on? Does Switzerland versus Switzerland get your juices flowing?
The second model of fandom is that of football as emotional investment or jouissance, the latter loosely translated as taking pleasure from suffering. This is not meant in some sadomasochistic, Nietzschean sense but rather in a more quotidian context. Any hard-core football fan will tell you that a goal scored in the 94th minute of a nail-biting, frustrating game leads to greater emotional arousal than a goal scored after 10 minutes. It is because pleasure that is produced as a result of suffering (of 93 minutes of internally whispering to ourselves that a draw would not be that bad, of self-talk) acts as a release from tension, providing an infinitely more aroused ‘high’ than a straightforward win. We ‘get off’ on suffering a little bit; it is the reason why cyclists both relish and dread the uphill climb.
Being a football fan is about being ready to suffer. To be ready to get soaked, and secretly enjoy it, on a Tuesday night away at Carlisle United. It is a perverse sense of enjoyment that arouses people; faced with the repetition and banality of everyday life, is it not understandable that people enjoy the absurd?
For these devoted, suffering fans, football is the serious life, not some game to be consumed like a soft drink at the weekend. It is the realm where emotions are produced, emotions which are not triggered by the everyday routine. Is it particularly surprising that the emotions awakened, the sense of community produced by being part of the collective, leads to political affiliations? These are people living what is a thickly layered emotional experience.
In similar terms, we cannot remove the fan from his social context. If a football club is situated in an industrial workers’ town, as it is in Donetsk to give one example, it would be an act of violence to demand that fans separate their social identity from their support for the club. Indeed, Shakhtar is such a pertinent example because the billionaire owner Rinat Akhmetov has demanded precisely that, to the mass protest of fans (even before the club was forced to – temporarily, hopefully – relocate because of the conflict in eastern Ukraine).
To pick on a theme first detailed by David Winner, football needs Darth Vaders. We need to have certain clubs that we love to hate. They provide a historical richness that we need to give our lives meaning. Otherwise football will become a soulless rationalism in which rootless clubs, transnational Manchester Uniteds, play against each other.
Clubs that deploy Fascist iconography should be banned from doing so, only because such symbols carry such latent representational force, associated as they are with the traumas of the 1940s. They should be banned because not to do so would be to contravene the European Convention on Human Rights, representing a traumatic threat to a black or Jewish player’s psyche on the football pitch.
Nevertheless if fans of a particular club wish to self-identify with the neo-fascist movement, we cannot stop them. A recent movement in European and US philosophy, neo-fascism renounces the genocidal ideology of the 1940s, but nevertheless promotes an aesthetic of masculinity and self-discipline. It is self-contradictory and holds a latent, if not overt, racism in my view.
But we cannot have our cake and eat it too. If we allow Livorno to display Communist icons despite the genocides perpetrated by Stalin, can we object to Roma fans promoting a censored version of Fascism? If football fans want to celebrate the Nietzschean triumph of the will and an ideal of masculinity separate from racist ideology, that is their prerogative as autonomous individuals, as long as they do not endorse discriminatory policies. We have to remember that much of Fascist ideology was originally not explicitly racist, but rather a philosophy drawing on Romanticism’s love of the homeland. This is a fine, fine line and one that I think the tensions of neo-fascism will inevitably cross. But we cannot try fans in advance or judge them guilty by association.
Besides, can we expect football fans not to be attracted by such an ideology when much of football subscribes to a Fascist aesthetic? Cristiano Ronaldo is inadvertently a supreme representative of Fascist masculinity: he is overwhelmingly individualist in his play, refers constantly to the strength of his will in rendering him the player that he is and flaunts his sculptured body like it is a public exhibit. Not to mention the awkward fact that he seems enamoured by the purity represented by Madrid’s all-white shirt.
To return briefly to the Qatar Airways advert, no other metaphor could express the alienating nature of modern football to the local fan than the mystical Barcelona Island of the advert. It de-territorialises football completely, a fantastical utopia chopping off the roots of Barcelona’s history. It implies that to reach Barcelona land, you have to travel on Qatar Airways, rather than, say, actually visiting the club or studying its history.
It says something about how disillusioned I was that I positively enjoyed this next video that was recommended to me. It is the perfect contrast to the sanitised Qatar Airways utopia.
It is called The Last Argument, an anti-‘modern football’ manifesto uploaded on YouTube by Dynamo Kyiv ultras in 2011.
It is the footballing equivalent of Friedrich Nietzsche, like watching football fans’ testament to Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Nietzsche famously wrote of his fear of the coming of the ‘last man’, a man no longer willing to take any risks or invest himself emotionally in any goal, a man wary of life, waiting to die. Dynamo Kyiv fans’ decision to entitle their video The Last Argument takes on a deeper meaning in this context. Where Qatar Airways brushes off history, Dynamo Kyiv fans actively embrace it. They self-consciously are placing themselves within an ideological narrative.
The argument of the hour-long video is crude, raw and discomforting. But it is appealing nevertheless, for all the same reasons that Nietzsche remains a seminal philosopher today.
The video begins with a man standing, head tucked downward, on a metro platform waiting for the train. The train arrives. He gets in. The train then sets off again, becoming a blur as it accelerates. A narrator voices over the action: “Do you live? Or do you only think that you live? Nowadays life is like a recurring dream. Monday, in the morning you go to work, in the evening you watch TV before having a dull orgasm before you go to sleep… They tell you that this is how you live life: to consume more it is necessary to work more.”
These guys have clearly read Nietzsche as well as Marx’s theory of alienation, using the modernist symbolism of the metro to represent the oppressiveness of industrial society. It is pop philosophy but it hits home. Whereas modernism is worshipped by Qatar Airways, it is demonised by Dynamo fans.
The leaders of the various Ukrainian ultra groups then revert to a common discourse. Football is about emotions. Emotions that you cannot experience in other areas of life. Emotions that are like an explosion. You cannot abstract a people from their politics; you cannot turn an active footballing public into a passive football audience.
Troublingly, the ultras endorse pre-arranged punch-ups with fans of other clubs in determined, remote locations. This is disgusting, reifying as it does archaic notions of masculinity and honour through violence. This reflects the dual heritage of the counter-Enlightenment as represented best by Nietzsche: railing against the rationalist philosophy of the French lumières, counter-Enlightenment philosophers stressed not only the primacy of emotions but also implicitly endorsed violence. While I am of the opinion that humans need to have some medium in their life where they can channel aggression, through playing football, boxing or whatever, it is not desirable that such anger is expressed through mass beatings.
Nevertheless, even if expressed in inappropriate terms, their clubs truly mean something to them. The team is a pocket of anti-establishment ideology, a critical site of resistance to the dominance of the every day. There is a romanticism about Dynamo that you will not find on Barcelona Island. I know which side I will be gunning for.
Which is why I am calling for football clubs to reclaim their identities, as particular and local as they may be. This could be done by publishing less airbrushed histories of their clubs – a lesson Real Madrid’s directors would be wise to learn after producing the mother of all whitewashings – naming stands in the honour of their supporters, reserving seats for working-class fans, refusing to taint their match-day shirt with gambling sponsorship, providing fans with a stake in their club or advertising themselves internationally as the team of left-wing progressives. It will not make money, but it will mean something.
For at the moment clubs are moving towards becoming rootless, even soulless entities. Entities obsessed with money rather than meaning. Entities that know the cost of everything but the value of nothing.
This article appeared on Episode Sixteen of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.