Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Politics and the Sporting Spirit

As time has gone forward, sport has taken on a greater significance and prestige in the world. This can be of doubt. The "cult of sport" as George Orwell put it, has made people actually care about who wins. That may seem a strange thing to say nowadays but back in history sport was considered nothing more than a past-time. These days, it is a heavily-financed activity, totally corrupting its purpose which was for young people to play the game simply for its own sake - for enjoyment. Of course, as with everything else, football has been caught within the hooks of political purpose, power struggles, and the ever-lasting attempt by men to exploit sport for their own uses.

George Orwell's summation of sport as nothing more than an arena for the show of prestige under the banner of local patriotism, stems from a culture which demands that in order to gain meaning from sport, it can only be achieved from the desire to do your utmost to win. It is precisely the value placed on the victory that justifies the struggle that preceded it. It is the case where the burden of proof lies with the method and not with the objective; or simply phrased: one must only justify his actions in order to automatically validate the reasons for his actions. No matter the reason, by using this logic, one can always succeed in justifying his actions no matter how capricious his intentions. This, I suspect, is Orwell's prime objection - a raw detestation - towards organised physical sport. So great was his attitude that he described international sport as mimic warfare. One cannot forget, however, that Orwell's time was dealing with the threats of Fascism and Stalinism, whilst clinging onto failing Imperialism. As nationalistic ideologies and tensions were at a crescendo, he was very much justified to assert that national sport was very often used as an identification marker for nationalists. When football matches were used as propaganda tools to highlight national pride, patriotism and prestige, [and they were frequently used by probably every autocratic government (a movie featuring Sylvester Stallone and Pele was made that demonstrates an example of this)] they did turn into "war minus the shooting", undoubtedly. Sport can be a great amplifier of passions and the politicisation of it is the most sinister of its uses.

While the threat of fascistic states has for the time being been diminished (until its inevitable return one day) it should be useful to bear in mind the possible uses of sport by propaganda in the future: football is now unquestionably the largest and most popular sport; it has an immense influence on culture; it is swathed in cash and the class system is very much representative of a right-wing economic model; the richest clubs are growing richer and at a faster rate than the poorer. If one were to choose an adjective to describe it, a good choice would be a gorging type of free market: resources are consumed, money is borrowed, then spent, then even more resources are consumed. Such a system is exposed to corruption and manipulation. We must therefore be careful which hands are allowed to mold the future of the game.

A leader who insists upon absolute power is already morally corrupt, in my judgement. Aristotle was of the opinion theory determined that benevolent dictatorship is the best form of government. Despite its appeal, this form of governance was most likely to be corrupted, leading to tyranny. Sir Alex Ferguson had almost complete control over his immediate surroundings and his is the best recent example of a dictator in power. Mind you, that is not to necessarily say that he was a bad dictator but, that he was a dictator, cannot be questioned. There is a joke: what is the difference between Kim Jong-Un and Sir Alex Ferguson? One is the leader of a tyrannical regime, the other is Kim Jong-Un. This joke would perhaps be more appropriate when applied to a club owner rather than a first-team manager. Replace Sir Alex Ferguson with Roman Abramovic and you will understand what I mean. Not only would it provide potential humour for a comedian to exploit, but thinking of Chelsea as a mini North Korea would allow us to imagine how a club would look like when a man who has one-hundred percent control is its owner. There is no account in history to my knowledge that describes a nation run by an all-powerful leader who has not exercised his authority for the purpose of some form of mildly sadistic practice, at the very least. Sure, football is not a country, but the principal applies. Sport is already ruled by money and in the future this will be even more so. Simply have an imagination and you can picture how a corrupted version future might look.

Football has always been vulnerable to serving the political purpose: a consequence of football's accessible nature, almost as if it were inviting its own molestation. It would take too long to outline every occasion where sport was forced to coalesce with this purpose, however, it would not be courteousness of myself if I abstain from mentioning a few occasions at the very least. Very well, let us start with a football riot in May 1990 that, for many, symbolised the beginning of the breakup of Yugoslavia, and the beginning of its wars. The riot in question was a preprepared event at a match between the Serbian nationalists of Red Star Belgrade and the Croatian nationalists of Dinamo Zagreb, and was in its entirety, an act carried out in the name of political purpose; two football clubs playing the role of branded tattoos, the markers that identified who was to be hated and who was to be hating alongside. The sport in this scene had lost its purity, now merely serving as an unwilling vehicle for viruses, powerless to decide for itself who it allowed within its borders. If the potential strength of men - who only have a love for one badge in common, and who are solipsistic enough to expect respect for this devotion - has still not made its way in your mind, I can remind you that among the first men recruited to the Serbian paramilitary group, "The Tigers", were men from Delije, the Red Star Belgrade firm, or supporters group. (The recruiter of these men was later indicted for war crimes.) Any passion, properly funnelled, can be used for extreme purposes.

Shall I point out a few more examples? Very well, once again. This time not restricted to just the supporters, Athletic Bilbao has made it on a point of principle that it should champion the culture of its Basque region by recruiting only Basque players (with rare exceptions). Barcelona FC is the best known symbol of Catalan independence, seen as to courageously rebelling against the evil oppressors of its culture. Then we have Scottish football which has been a disaster on a whole, poisoned to a large extent by the utterly backward religious tribalism that comes standard, it seems. Such is the problem, that the cancerous condition of classifying humans as if we were insects is infested. One is not a Celtic supporter nor a Rangers supporter; one is either a Catholic or a Protestant. In cases such as these, pointless sectarianism is made infinitely worse when a charismatic authoritative leader further preaches this stupidity, spreading the rhetoric to otherwise indifferent spectators who simply wish to enjoy a rich spectacle with cheap food and mid-priced friends. The revealing thing is, this leader does not actually exist. The leader is a non-person - it is, in fact, the club itself. You hear it all the time: Celtic is a Catholic club. Rangers is a Protestant club. This is utter trifle, of course. A club cannot be anything. To classify it as such is to say that anyone associated with the club automatically shares the same identity with the club. Once a club is something, it can never be anything else. This is the problem with classification. Once Celtic is classified as a Catholic club (or Rangers with Protestantism), it will always be a Catholic club - it can never change. In short, it is fundamentalism. This is an evil that must be resisted, for the sake of sport.

Danger comes when one ceases to support a football team for its own sake. Opinions outside the sphere of sport such as politics, religion, class etc., is the pollutant of the sporting atmosphere, not merely diminishing it, but positively poisoning it. The boundary between what is sport and what is merely another form of an abused, agenda-spouting mouthpiece must always be fought to be kept absolutely distinct with an infinitely deep chasm in between. Even when the stakes of the match are not as critical as those involving deep-felt nationalistic or ethnic emotions, the merest hint of rivalry, or of national or local spirit, or gusto, will always spark the slightly sadistic desire to witness a certain degree of combative violence and a morsel of spilled blood. And even when football is seen as a peace statement, of solidarity and harmony, it is still a political statement. A match between Israel and Palestine is political no matter the context. It is never just a sporting contest.

The concept of national heroes and national pride are overstated. (What is national pride in any case but an appeal to geography? Should I have been born on the Moon, I should hope to curse this pride of mine for leading me to believe that living separated from the rest of mankind is an act of valour.) At any rate, it is the spectators who epitomise the silly idea that "running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue," as Orwell put it bluntly. In England, look at how the country who invented the game are so despondent at the state of its national team, decrying every game it does not win. When Wayne Rooney is the villain of the day he is not simply a disgrace to English football, but England of itself. Sure, there is patriotism, but then there is patriotism simply for its own sake. And on the other hand, when Qatar's national team actively seek out talented Brazilian players who would be willing to naturalise and play for them instead (via a fast-tracked citizenship process, no less), what does this say about the value placed on the spirit of international sport? Clearly, the objectives are more valued than the methods by which to achieve them. If one thinks that a football team can ever be a symbol for a nation's pride then one is obliged to say that he lives a life with twisted priorities . . . and probably a sad one, no less.

The pinnacle of barbarism in a "sporting" arena is the hybrid boxing-wrestling-kickboxing-thuggery sport quite honestly called "cage fighting". That such an activity can claim to be a serious and accepted past-time shows that the willingness to watch fellow people be bashed in such a brutal manner is not as reprehensible as we would like to think. One only has to look at the demography of the audience to realise that burly men with veins on the verge of bursting are the most interested of onlookers. Indeed, they are the vast majority of the spectatorship; the few female spectators are also noticeably the type who would not look out of place at a popular red-light district nightspot, making acquaintances with more men than she has in the whole of her extended family. I think it is overlooked that humans have a deep, inner urge to witness brutality, provided that they are not experiencing it themselves; Orwell describes it as a "sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence." Certainly, all modern entertainment - blockbusters, dramas, theatre and sport - have an obvious element of brutishness to it. It is accepted because it is stylised, choreographed, pre-agreed by all involved parties - it makes it all somehow not real. Take away the setting and the money, and cage fighting would be called street fighting. In an age where places to burn off excess energy are limited to the confines of sedentary life, organised group sport provides the best outlet to satisfy our primitive impulses for violence and combativeness. In regards to football, it is the ultimate escape, the gold standard of the group mentality, simple and accessible entertainment, with the bonus tribalism that is associated. One can properly belong to a club, feel a part of a family. However, this comes with a trap-door. To properly be a part of the family, you must adhere to its emotions at any particular time. Feeling injustice when the family does, as if there are dark forces deliberately sabotaging your team, is a requisite for anyone who claims to be a proper supporter and not merely a casual bogus; to display the "correct" emotion is to prove you are authentic. To stray from the official line is to dissent - it is Thoughtcrime, only with mildly amusing and slightly pathetic consequences. If it is not the only sport, football is certainly the best adapted to combine the perfect mix of the physicality and the primitive wolf pack mentality.

As we look forward, it does help to look back once in a while. It takes the occasional event to make us realise that we cannot be complacent, we cannot simply assume that sport will always be a thing we do for its own sake - for enjoyment. It is wise to listen to Orwell's prose as a reminder of what were the threats to the sporting spirit at the time, for one can never be too prepared to face those threats once more.

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