Ugly Side of the Beautiful Game

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Watching the world cup was a game of two halves.

As I watched the England-Denmark game, my daughter asked me why I was so 'anti-English'. Another friend looked at me in that 'you miserable killjoy' sort of way, and reminded me that it was just a game, and the whole thing was pretty harmless. And I have watched the games, and enjoyed them. But I don't think it's quite that simple.

The England fans have been welcomed back into the fold, it seems. They may be wrapped in the Cross of St George and belt out 'God Save the Queen' and 'Rule Britannia' in endless succession, but there is an odd inclination to forgive all that in the name of the beautiful game. We might have momentarily suspended our judgement, but the Jingo Caravan, the Patriotic Parade, is still rolling. The carefully crafted Jubilee consensus has locked into World Cup fever, the Falklands commemoration and Blunkett's tests of Englishness.

It's only a few weeks since the BNP strutted their stuff at the local elections wrapped in the rags of St George. Suddenly, it is as if those symbols of reactionary nationalism have had all their teeth pulled.

My fear is that it's the opposite that's happened. Nationalism is becoming respectable. But there is a world of difference between a passionate identification with your local team, even if they are the property of a building millionaire or the man who keeps rewriting 'Candle in the Wind', and a resurgent pride in the mystical lexicon of nationhood.

Was it an accident that the Russian fans who smashed up central Moscow in the wake of their team's defeat waved Union Jack T-shirts? Wasn't that the banner they waved in Dublin too when they were smashing up the stands at Lansdowne Road?

Berlusconi used the football slogan 'Forza Italia' as the focus for his right wing coalition. The Argentinian generals drowned their team in tickertape in 1978 to veil the regime's destruction of human rights. 'Bread and circuses' have always been an instrument in the hands of the powerful, first to distract the masses and then to bind them to the patron of the games. In Latin America, for instance, the first teams were set up by foreign companies and bore their names. And as the so called national teams burst onto the artificial turf of Japan and South Korea, every inch of their shirts and shorts and boots seems to carry a logo that is defiantly global--Adidas, Nike and the rest.

So does that make me some old curmudgeon who doesn't like people enjoying themselves? I don't think so. This is not an attack on the beautiful game. But sport, like every other cultural activity, is a contradictory space where there is a struggle for appropriation. Sometimes, our side can take it back.

Take cricket, for example. There can't be many kinds of performance that so clearly play out social relations. The cricket field acted out the tranquil relations of landlord and peasant--the pavilion, lengthy pauses for tea, leisurely mid-morning starts after long and heavy breakfasts, five uninterrupted days on well-kept lawns. Then, in the early 1960s, that consensus was blown apart by a West Indies team whose eruption onto the British field of dreams announced the coming of colonial liberation. And 20 years later cricket went corporate--it was only following on football's heels.

The majority of the French team--and prime among them the great Zidane--are Africans, pillaged from their home ground for purposes of profit. They are the new precious minerals fuelling a massive worldwide industry. Every player who takes the field is a commodity whose displays of skill and elegance are product presentations for a corporate audience--with the rest of us looking on. Like the corrupt millionaires who buy and sell the so called Olympic dream, Fifa is the board of management of an international corporation trading in logos--commercial and national. Amid the fanfares marking the cup, the allegations of corruption and misuse of power by Blatter and the others seem to have gone unheard. They were certainly never satisfactorily answered.

There is still beauty in the game--there is still excitement and suspense. Perhaps the most exhilarating part of the whole experience is to watch with others, the collective of the crowd. But like every other expression of our social existence, there are those waiting in the wings to transform that shared experience into something that can serve their interests. Patriotism is as much a commodity as brand loyalty, and just as dangerous. It can lead us so easily to buy the product--the jingoism, the hatred of the other, the roar of disapproval at those people who insist in running uninvited onto our pitch and spoiling the game.

Isn't it possible to love the beautiful game--the skill, the fluidity, the athleticism--without carrying the flags?