I am a former D-1 college varsity soccer player. I am also a former member of Mensa, a high school National Merit Semi-Finalist and holder of a Master’s degree. If you count an MBA as such. The idea that professional sport exists as a tool of government to entertain and quell the masses is not new to me. But it is one I can’t reconcile with my own experience.
Ever since Marx proclaimed that “Religion is the opiate of the masses” it has been simple to look at organized sport in the same manner. You have a team you support. Of course, as with religion, you are granted freedom to choose which one. (And, as with organized religion, if you choose not to affiliate with any option, you will draw attention to yourself.) Once a week you attend the match, usually on Sunday. You sit in the same place, surrounded by the same people, chant the usual chants, sing songs, take pleasure in the same phases of the ceremony, and then leave, somewhat fulfilled. You do not change your allegiance lightly.
“You can change your wife, your house, your car, but you can never change your team. Chairmen come and go, boards come and go, but the fans remain. They are the one true constant. I’ve just been a custodian of the Club.” — Eddie Thompson
Isn’t it interesting how soccer teams use the term “club” in their name? The number of professional teams with the initials “FC” or “CF” remind us that they sprung from fraternal organizations (“Football Club” or “Club de Fútbol”) . Many originally had other missions and purposes.The most famous and widely supported team in Brazil, CR Flamengo, was originally a sailing (“regatta”) club and its stadium is still known as the “Estádio da Gávea“ (Topsail Stadium”). And, you can belong to the club. In Spanish club members are called “socios” and you have to belong in order to buy season tickets or others in advance. Of course we have a similar structure but the nomenclature of “season ticket holder” is far less of a statement. Among teams in the United States, our current weekend guests the Green Bay Pavkers are one of the few who follow this fan ownership model.
In Brazil, fans do not say they are fans of a certain team, nor do they proclaim themselves “supporters” as the British do. Instead they use the verb, “ser“: to be. Someone will say, “eu sou Santos” for example: “I am Santos”
This unwavering commitment to a team, a club, a part of your town or city is as understandable as it is laudable. We take pride in our communities, and supporting the local side is a simple, easy way to show our strength and passion. Today I was perusing the “thinky” web site http://www.aidaily.com and found this: “The left has long viewed sport with suspicion. Orwell called it “war minus the shooting.” His disdain smacks of smug elitism. Competition is brutal, ruthless, and full of joy..” and it got me to thinking, because they have a point.
The artifice of the club affiliation makes even less sense for the player. Virtually every player in the world has passed through the life-cycle of aspiring to join a team, getting the invitation to sign, working into the starting lineup, playing as a popular and vital member of the side, then falling subject to critique, fighting for one’s place against newcomers, moving to the bench and finally departing as a cast-aside who no longer is good enough. As a player, your time in the spotlight is short-lived, ephemeral. Even OJ Simpson realized this when he repeated something he’d heard, “Fame is a vapor, popularity is an accident, and money takes wings. The only thing that endures is character.” And that was before all his troubles hit the limelight.
The two questions I always get when someone hears I coach club soccer are “Is your kid on the team?” (answer: no, rarely have I coached my own children) and “what’s your favorite team?” My standard answer to this is that I don’t really have one. When people raise their eyebrows at this I try to explain by saying, “It’s just eleven millionaires against eleven millionaires.” The same tide that has English soccer matches showing up on ESPN (the real ESPN, not “the ocho” way off in the morass of unvisited cable channels) and FOX (again, the real one, the one showing NFL and MLB games), that same media surge has transformed the football club into a Global Brand. While at the lower levels a team can still be made up of the local lads who work all day and train a couple nights a week, the most famous sides draw players from all over the globe and these players will move from a club to its most hated rival in the blink of an eye. The speed and ease with which the players can do this remind me of the endless war in Orwell’s 1984:
“That alliance ends and Oceania allied with Eurasia fights Eastasia, a change which occurred during the Hate Week dedicated to creating patriotic fervour for the Party’s perpetual war. The public are blind to the change; in mid-sentence an orator changes the name of the enemy from “Eurasia” to “Eastasia” without pause. When the public are enraged at noticing that the wrong flags and posters are displayed they tear them down—thus the origin of the idiom “We’ve always been at war with Eastasia””
In a time such as this, I find it almost impossible to feel emotion towards any of these corporations teams. Sol Campbell split London in two when he moved from Spurs to Arsenal, a move akin to Tybalt being adopted by the Montagues.
Earlier, superstar Luis Figo (in)famously changed from Barcelona to arch-rivals Real Madrid. This was a move of such incredibility, I can think of no simile that makes sense. It would be like the Bushes being friends and investment partners with the Bin Ladens. Oh wait, that actually happened. It’s like the Pope becoming Wiccan. It was one of the changes so huge, it stuck its finger in the eye of people everywhere who believed in loyalty and rivalries. It was as huge as the Major League Baseball strike in 1994 in showing fans that the pro league was a farce, money was its engine and greed its fuel. (I’ve never gotten seriously interested in baseball since, not even the miraculous Giants.)
So where does that leave us? Professional soccer is a commercial, mercenary business that colludes with governments to dull the senses of the masses, diverting their attention from politics and economics and instead senselessly celebrating the successes of teams whose members are completely fungible. We say loyalty is everything yet players change teams at the bat of an eye, or the drop of a few million dollars. My anarchist-leaning kyd gave me an excellent book, Soccer Vs. The State: Tackling football and Radical Politics, where the manipulation and commercial exploitation of “the Beautiful Game” is clearly documented alongside the alternative ways the game can flourish.