Archive for the ‘Sport’ Category

Tuesday’s match was regarded as the pick of the European Championships qualifiers this week – Italy, one of the great powers of world football versus Serbia, a nation with increasing stock within the game. Perhaps, had Serbia won, pundits might have looked back on their visit to Genoa as a changing of the guard, a transfer of superiority in line with the trend within international soccer towards Eastern Europe, in line with the strong tournament performances of Russia, Turkey, Greece and Croatia of recent years. However, the Serbian supporters who made the journey had no intention of allowing such an event to take place. Fuelled by a range of factors, from the obvious – alcohol, drugs and anger – to the abstract – rabid nationalism, hooligan hierarchies and domestic football politics – they laid waste to their enclosure within the Luigi Ferraris Stadium and forced the abandonment of the match after just seven minutes. They brought wire-cutters to break the barriers off the away supporters area, they brought hammers to break the plexiglas seperating them from the pitch, and they brought flares. Oh, they brought flares.

This was not a football riot in the traditional sense. The Serbian supporters did not come to fight, they came to make a statement – to the Italians, to their government, to the Serbian Football Association, to Europe. The history of hardcore football supporters in the Balkans is littered with big political statements, and the role of hooligans in political life is one which cannot be ignored. In 1990, a match between Red Star Belgrade (who provided the bulk of those in Genoa) and Dinamo Zagreb provided the short term stimulus which brought down Yugoslavia. The circumstances were volatile, and forces within both the Croatian and Serbian nationalist movements took their opportunity to split wide open the ailing state, using hooligans as their weapon. 3,000 Red Star fans travelled to Zagreb’s crumbling Maksimir Stadium, lead by the notorious criminal Željko Ražnatović, better known as Arkan. They were met by 19,000 home supporters, and the riot that ensued irrevocably ended the harmony that Tito had worked so hard to forge. The hooligans, however, did not just fight at the football. They took their fight from the terraces to the battlefield. Arkan’s Tigers, comprised of Red Star supporters, became one of the most feared units of the Serbian forces; Croat soldiers marched beneath Dinamo flags and with Dinamo insignia. Both clubs have monuments at their stadiums which commemorate the riot of May 1990, and cite it as the start of the war, the Gavrilo Princip moment.

The political undertones of football hooliganism in the Balkans however, are not accidental. There are forces within Serbia (and Croatia) which seek violence and use the hooligans, the angry, under-employed youth, to their own ends. The riot in Genoa, as in Zagreb , and as in most riots, was a consequence of disillusion and alienation. The Serbian situation is that of decline. The country is racked by unemployment, racism and economic decline. As their anthem played on Tuesday night, their supporters jeered, and produced a banner which read “Kosovo is Serbia”. Later, they burnt an Albanian flag. Last Saturday, a gay pride march was attacked by homophobic protestors, some carrying Serbian flags and Orthodox icons, but others clad in black, who had brought petrol bombs and other explosives with the express intention of causing a riot.

Football politics were also evident. Former national team coach, ex-Barcelona and Real Madrid (and Luton Town) legend Raddy Antic, who had lead the team at the World Cup was sacked due to a personal disagreement with Tomislav Karadzic, a move whih angered many supporters. The team’s goalkeeper, Vladimir Stojković, a former Red Star player, had committed the cardinal sin in the eyes of the predominantly Red Star-supporting hooligans, by moving to deadly rivals Partizan Belgrade – he was attacked by supporters before the game. In their previous match, Serbia had lost to minnows Estonia, and sit second bottom of their qualifying group, only the Faroe Islands below them. The Serbian fans were determined to vent their anger, and Italy was the ideal place to do it.

Italy is the home of the ultra – the hardcore style of support that is prevalent in Continental Europe. Ultras adhere to a certain method of support, based around constant noise and choreography on the terraces, and is by and large peaceful, but in certain areas it has been fused with the more British firm style of support, which has been mythologised by supporters on the continent through films such as The Firm, Green Street and The Football Factory. The Serbian hooligans practice the violent, often racist and certainly anti-social aspects of traditional British football hooliganism, but use the materials and tactics – banners, flares, the corteo (mass march to the game from the city centre) – of the Italian ultras.

The Serbian supporters arrived determined to make a statement in the heartland of the ultra, and they did. They came to show their own team, their own Football Association and their own government that they were still a force to be reckoned with, and they did. But it is not the fotoball hooligans who will benefit from their own actions; it is their masters, the shady figures who still wield considerable influence within their circles – the ultra-nationalists, the hardliners, the old guard from the Milosevic era. The Serbian players approached their own supporters and gave them the three fingers salute heavily associated with the right-wing Serbian Renewal Movement – derived from the manner in which Serb Orthodox Christians make the sign of the cross. The supporters responded in kind. The riot in the Luigi Ferraris Stadium was not a football riot – it was a riot that happened at a football stadium. There were factors far beyond the scope of sport, and these are to be focussed on and thought of in context of bruised nationalism in the aftermath of Montengrin and Kosovan secession, in context with the alienation and redundancy of young Serbian masculinity, and in context of the political actors within Serbia who appeared to be able to use these hooligans at will, and who represent the root of the violence in Genoa.


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Amidst the piercing vuvezelas, zulu dancing, cries of Bafana Bafana (the boys), and general joy-ridden pandemonium, there is a growing resentment that lurks beneath the surface, masked by the bright, painted faces.

Despite the projected gross impact of R93 billion on the South African economy and the 695000 jobs created (http://www.southafrica.info/2010/worldcup-overview), such profit will line the pockets of government officials, advertising moguls, FIFA representatives, and business owners, whilst the 695000 will shuffle home on 11th July and wonder what the hell just happened. In their state of bewilderment, where and to whom will they direct their blame?

Who is actually to blame for these empty promises and who the people blame may differ, but it is the perceptions of the people that could have devastating effects for the political progress of a country already wracked with political instability, crippling poverty and inequality. The main question is whether the government is viewed as an actively deceitful party in the shattered hopes or merely the ignorant puppets dancing to the strategic pulls of FIFA’s hands?

The 2010 world cup was regaled in South Africa as a panacea to the problems of the poor, promising to; increase business opportunities, heighten tourism potential, and secure sponsorship and investment deals to ease impoverished situations. The ANC voiced the notion that the world cup would “spread confidence and prosperity across the entire continent’ (http://www.sa2010.gov.za/node/515). Instead, many feel economic gain has been diverted into the pockets of the government and the associated commerical giants. A torrent of distrust, and discontentment has gushed ferociously into the face of Zuma, his idea of a ‘proud legacy’ (www.fifa.com) has been thoroughly derailed.

Others overlook the government’s responsibility and instead blame FIFA for allowing the globalisation of football to dictate the unchallenged control they have had over the event. In a recent article ‘2010 World Cup: Africa’s turn or turning on Africa? A political economy of FIFA’s African adventure, (Soccer & Society, volume 11, issue 1 & 2, January 2010, by Patrick Bond), it was stated that ‘FIFA, rather than the host country, has the monopoly of television rights, advertising and stadium space’. FIFAs domination has rendered the government helpless, and prevented them from implementing their anticipated World Cup model, aimed at South African advancement. (Is it naïve to believe the government had these good intentions?) This view is supported by FIFA regulations that have gripped the country throughout the tournament, including suggestions of heavy FIFA censorship in national newspapers and unreasonable street trader regulations. Beatrice, a food trader who operated in the area surrounding Greenpoint Stadium was told to buy a portable kitchen and register with FIFA if she wanted to trade during the World Cup period. Unsurprisingly the costs of these regulations have left her no choice but to abandon the area and survive by other means ‘until all this nonsense is over’. The condemnation of FIFA as a corporate evil has exposed the weakness of the government. Those that hold FIFA responsible have not pardoned the government completely, blaming them for their pathetic vulnerability at the hands of an international multinational.

There is another idea that rather than taking a dictatorial role which ousted the government entirely, FIFA in fact manipulated the government into genuinely believing that the positive economical effects of the world cup would trickle down in a beautiful cascade of development? Whether people blame FIFA as a totalitarian actor or as a manipulative actor, it is the ANC who are receiving the brunt of the peoples’ dissatisfaction. Perhaps the ANC are innocent of intentionally deluding the public, but regardless, the people are finding them guilty of either unfathomable ignorance or alarming weakness.
Is it fair that the ANC is burdened by a political legacy that they had very little control in creating? As FIFA pump their meaty fists in the air celebrating the most commercially successful World Cup ever, the ANC are left to abate the bewildered public. I am not defending the government’s faults of overestimating gains and delivering sensationalized information, but FIFA are escaping the heartbroken eyes, the confused frowns and the discontented glares of the people. Is it fair for the ANC to be labeled the enemies, be faced with a legacy that threatens political progress, and have to unify an increasingly fragmented society, while FIFA flee in a state of merriment, having garnered corporate admiration as well as a 50% rise in income since the last World Cup (Fifa secretary-general Jerome Valcke, The Cape Times 4th June 2010)

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The people’s game or the opium of the masses? I am continually branded a hypocrite for enjoying the World Cup whilst still maintaining what can politely be deemed an aversion to capitalism. This slander is usually qualified under the assertion that ‘football is the most capitalist thing in the world’. Terry Eagleton recently posted an article on the Guardian’s Comment section claiming that “Nobody serious about political change can shirk the fact that the game has to be abolished”. But why? Is football that much of a distraction that it stops us all from realising the extent to which we are exploited? Would we all be in revolt were we not spending our time thinking about the next match? In reality, the idea abolition of football is in my opinion more unrealistic than the much more favourable prospect of the eradication of capitalism but for those serious about political change, their time would be much better spent thinking about how football can be utilised rather than abolished.

It is useless to ignore the actuality that capitalism has taken over and transformed the sport from what it was at its roots, the origins of many top teams were in the work places of its players. Woolwich Arsenal, for example, being the team of the munitions factory south of the Thames, Boca Juniors and River Plate, the two Argentinian giants started out as teams of the workers in the docklands area of Buenos Aires. What would those players think now? Early football was in fact criticised by some leftists at its outset, especially in South America, who did see it as a distraction for the workers from resistance to their working conditions (as if they didn’t deserve one!). Now the roots of the game are a distant memory, black and white photos and memorabilia while the modern professional game is full colour in (almost) every country in the world, a platform for people on every continent to be brought together or a platform for advertisers to simultaneously reach millions and millions of attentive viewers. An art form for people to admire and revel in, or something to be manipulated to squeeze as much money out of its loyal followers as possible.

It can’t be ignored, the players that are worshipped are paid too much. The directors who plough in the money are at the same time the bosses of the companies profiting from the fans labour. Shirts cost too much, tickets cost too much, the fans have no say, but their loyalty to their team in without question. Their season tickets will have paid for the stadium in the years they have followed, but the price is still going up. The revenue from the World Cup, the Premier League, La Liga, the Champions League individually will exceed the annual income of entire nations. The hosting of the World Cup in South Africa has displaced thousands of the countries’ poor and profited the rich and big business.

Modern professional football has turned into a money making machine, which has, in return for our love, taken our money, or worse.

But to say it should be abolished is a useless comment. It ignores the fact that divided in so many ways, we are brought together by football. It can be a platform for resistance, protest and importantly, solidarity. When fans demand more control in their club, they are demanding more control in a big part of their life, its a struggle against the bosses and a fight against those who want most of all to make money from them. We are not tricked into loving football, we love it because it is an art, it is the perfect blend of individual skill and teamwork. As another responder to Eagleton, David Zirin wrote, in his Comment piece we are as naturally drawn to it as we are to music, or dance. We can still admire the art and recognise the politics which mar it.

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The World Cup, which begins in 10 days or so in South Africa, represents a contradiction that runs right through both the sport of football and wider society – that of the national and the global. Club football is hypercapitalism par excellence; no other industry can claim to draw from such a global talent pool and to sell to such a global market, or to present such a multi-racial, multi-national product. Even the down sides of “modern football” – high ticket prices, astronomic wages, all-seater stadiums – are passed on to those who, globally speaking, can pay: the Third World, which watches European football with the same dedication as the First, is not adversely affected by issues that cause complaints in Europe, as they watch the games on television. The World Cup, however, is different. International football is a relic, a product of football’s Victorian origins, a final remnant of modernism in the first post-modern sport.

The World Cup carries enormous financial clout, but the association between football and commerce is not at all new. The game gained its international character because of the spread of British merchants across the globe; in Argentina, Italy, Brazil, Spain and almost anywhere else you care to mention, the first footballers, spurred by the Anglican triumvirate of spiritual, economic and physical wellbeing, took their British public school sports with them on their travels. They organised matches with the sons of the local elite, and football was simple enough for the watching poor to imitate; whereas cricket, tennis and rugby union, which they also played, required expensive equipment and knowledge of complicated rules, football only required a ball. Soon enough, the natives overtook the expats and, after the first World Cup in 1930, Uruguay emerged as champions. England, despite not having to qualify, felt the World Cup was beneath them, and refused to take part.

It is emblematic of the age that competition along national lines was organised. The first heyday of football as the global sport took place during a turbulant period – economic decline and class conflict on one hand, but also cultural revival and the height of the modernist art movement on the other. Football was a rare example of unity; a middle class public school game, co-opted by the working classes and made their own; and the World Cup allowed people of all backgrounds to come together beneath the national flag. The cultural aspects of the sport, too, have never been far away. The mystique that surrounds the British game is not just a result of activity on the field, but also the associations with pop music and terrace fashion. Even back in 1930, the posters that advertised the tournament show the heavy influence of prevailing art trends of the day.

Political considerations were at play as well; governments realised the power of football to bring out nationalist sentiments in the population: from 1938, when Fascist Italy hosted the World Cup, through the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, where football clubs were banned in occupied Germany because of fears that they would be used by Nazi sympathisers to rebuild, to the 1978 World Cup, where the military junta that ruled Argentina orchestrated a national hysteria that swept the team to victory and the army into the Falklands, the World Cup as a tool for propaganda is prodigious.

The relative isolation of nations, however, contributed to the tournament itself. When the Hungarian team destroyed England at Wembley in 1953, they did so playing a brand of football that had never been seen before. The idea that a team in the modern game could turn up without the opposition having watched DVDs of their games, intricately studied their systems and profiled their key players is anathema. The globalisation of football has lead to a situation where clubmates will face off for their national teams, and wil be more than familiar with their opponents – they will know their names, their tricks and they will all speak the same languages. Only England will go to South Africa with a team picked entirely from their own domestic league. Globalisation, it seems, has took all the unpredictablity from the World Cup.

It has also made the World Cup into, alongside the Olympic Games, the world’s only truly international sporting events. Much as baseball has the “World Series”, or cricket has a “World Cup”, they are only competed in by a select few nations, or, in the case of the World Series, only two. The strength of the World Cup is that it is almost irrelevant whether or not one’s nation is actually taking part in the tournament. Because of the club football system, most viewers will also have a club team that they follow, and thus will tune in to watch the players of that club play. Others will watch matches for the star players; to see the Messis, the Ronaldos, the Rooneys; their nationalities are subjugated to the international draw of their names. In short, the globalisation of the sport has removed an essence of what made the World Cup great: no longer can the casual observer hope to see the innovative and the unique, as any player with a new skill will already be known, and probably already playing in Europe, no longer is it necessary to support a nation in a tournament between nations, as one can merely follow the fortunes of a player who is already famous for their feats at club level.

However, the true joy of the World Cup still remains. In a sport which, more than any other, money can bring success, the World Cup still cannot be bought, as a club title can. It still has the ability to bring together the entire world for communal moments – despite being arranged around national lines, its appeal goes far beyond that. The Victorian values of healthy competition, fair play and the uniting power of sports are evidenced by the World Cup, and I, for one, cannot wait for June 9th – and my country aren’t even going to South Africa.

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