A socialist's guide to the World Cup

by Simon Black

As World Cup fever grips the globe, many progressives will be sighing at the prospect of another sporting spectacle distracting the "masses"from the pressing issues of the day — the classic "bread and circuses"argument. There is a tendency on the North American Left to disdain sport: its competitive nature, the corporatization of its grand
events, its inherent masculinities and cultures of exclusion.

Some of this critique is grounded in good sociology; some of it bears an irrational disdain for that in which one does not participate or enjoy. In many sports, but especially in "the beautiful game," politics and the game have a symbiotic relationship. Politics can influence and be influenced by what happens on the field of play. The
World Cup is no exception.

My parents immigrated to Canada from Liverpool in the 1960s; growing up, soccer and socialism were the main topics of discussion in the Black household. Conversations at the dinner table moved seamlessly between football and politics, England's chances in the World Cup and the NDP's chances in the upcoming election.

I only committed my life to socialism after being rejected as a professional soccer player (a brief stint with the English Premier League's Watford FC is my footballing claim to fame).

In many countries, soccer is a terrain of political and ideological struggle like the media or the education system. Teams in Europe often have decidedly partisan political followings. Lazio of Rome was the club of Mussolini and retains a large fascist following today. Italian club A.S. Livorno has long been associated with communism and banners of Che Guevara can be seen waving in the stands at the team's home games. Clashes between Livorno's supporters and the fans of right-wing teams can dominate match day in this picturesque Tuscany town.

When asked to play a friendly match against the Zapatistas, left-leaning club Inter Milan gladly took up the offer encouraged by its bohemian supporters who see their team as a counterbalance to AC Milan, owned by former right-wing Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

In the UK, Glasgow Celtic were an organizing ground for the cause of Irish liberation and a haven of Catholic solidarity in a hostile Protestant and Unionist Glasgow.....

...So whether you're cheering on the boys from Brazil or avoiding the television at all costs, keep an eye on the political dynamics of this year's World Cup. Before you vilify the overpaid athletes participating, remember that for many of them, football has been their means of social mobility, rising from the ghettoes of Sao Paulo, Tehran or Manchester to the world's biggest sporting stage.

And for those of you who still can't see what all the fuss is about, keep in mind the words of a famous English coach (and Lefty) by the name of Bill Shankly, "Football isn't a matter of life and death, it's more important than that."

Simon Black is a Toronto writer.

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