Want to understand politics in the last 25 years? Look at football

In the early 1990s a few ambitious politicians rejected redistribution for a new capitalism based on equal opportunities and the free market. Some people became filthy rich and others turned to grassroots politics. Sound familiar?

Philosopher, semiotician and lifelong football fan Jacques Derrida once declared: Beyond the touchline, there is nothing. Derrida did not mean that football is superior to the goings-on of life beyond the pitch but perhaps that everything that happens outside the stadium politics, economics, or even art and culture is automatically reflected inside it. The football pitch is a microcosm of life itself.

Since the last decade of the 20th century, consumption of football has been growing almost exponentially throughout the world. At its forefront is the Premier League empire, which, with the help of cable and later satellite TV, spread its tentacles throughout Africa and Asia a couple of years into the new millennium. The Spanish, German and Italian leagues soon followed.

Meanwhile, as the Soviet Union breathed its last, Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) were busy formulating what they called the Third Way. Tony Blair was won over by 1993 and, after New Labours election victory a few years later, Blair hosted a bilateral meeting on the future of New Democrat-New Labour politics.

In 1999, the same year Manchester United completed the treble in a dramatic European Cup final in Barcelona and won over dedicated fans throughout the world, German chancellor Gerhard Schrder, Dutch prime minister Wim Kok, and Italian prime minister Massimo DAlema attended a meeting with Clinton and Blair to discuss these new politics, which were supposed to end what they considered to be restrictions brought about by left-wing ideology.

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Hillary Clinton, Cherie Blair, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair enjoy a day of sightseeing in London in 1997. Photograph: Greg Gibson/AP

Al From, the founder and CEO of the DLC, said of the Third Way: Its first principle and enduring purpose is equal opportunity for all, special privilege for none. Its public ethic is mutual responsibility. Its core value is community. Its outlook is global. Then came the killer blow that was aimed at finishing off a Left that was struggling to come to terms with a new, rapidly liberalising world: And, its modern means are fostering private sector economic growth.

In his book The New Democrats and the Return to Power, From declared that the Third Way was the worldwide brand name for progressive politics for the Information Age. As politics was reformulated into a brand, top-flight European football clubs, which were already run like companies, found they had evolved into something resembling multinational conglomerates.

Football, or rather the football experience, became a commodity that was now sold globally at an unprecedented scale. After the Bosman ruling in 1995, football followed the Third Ways emphasis on investment in capital rather than redistribution, elevating a few clubs into giants and pushing others on to the path of decline. In super-agents such as Mino Raiola and Jorge Mendes, football also found its counterpart to the Washington lobbyist.

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Barcelona fans unveil a banner at their Champions League match against Juventus. Photograph: Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images

To make football uniformly consumable to people across continents, the sport had to be sanitised and made devoid of any meaning barring that of the spectacle of the game itself. The stadium had to be made to appear neutral and protected from any external element that might give the game a meaning that surpasses the events on the pitch: the ghosts of the Spanish Civil War that haunt el Clsico, the reflection of the class struggle when Olympique Marseille play Paris Saint-Germain, the anxiety of race and colonialism that crops up when Algeria play France or Brazil play Portugal.

So we have laws preventing political or ideological messages from being displayed inside stadiums. Celtic fell foul of these regulations last year their fans flew Palestine flags in a European match against Israeli club Hapoel Beer Sheva; Uefa fined the club 8,600 for the illicit banners, saying their rules prohibit the use of any message that is not fit for a sports event, particularly messages that are of a political, ideological, religious, offensive or provocative nature.

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Celtic fans fly Palestine flags during their Champions League play-off against Hapoel Beer Sheva. Photograph: Steve Welsh/Getty Images

Halfway around the world, China became a member of the World Trade Organisation in 2001 and, three years later, the Chinese first division was restructured to form the Chinese Super League, which now pays some of the highest salaries in football and financially challenges the European big guns. That same year, Australia replaced its ailing Australian Soccer League with the revamped A-League, which follows the no-promotion-no-relegation format of Major League Soccer in the US.

India liberalised its economy in 1991 and, just seven years later, (now absconding) alcohol baron Vijay Mallyas United Breweries bought half the shares of both East Bengal and Mohun Bagan two rival Kolkata clubs who were also two of the biggest and oldest clubs in the country. The clubs were rechristened as Kingfisher East Bengal and McDowells Mohun Bagan. The sport walked the tightrope between absolute commercialism and fan-based football for quite some time until the increasing preference of European football among the younger generations ensured that interest in local football was on a steady decline.

In 2014, Indias football association gave its blessings to Reliance Industries and the US-based IMG to launch the franchise-driven Indian Super League (ISL). A merger between the ISL and the existing premier division, the I-League has been on the cards, but is stalled at present after several clubs objected to the terms of the merger. As well as this, the demand for East Bengal, associated with migrants and refugees from neighbouring Bangladesh, and Mohun Bagan, associated with the native populace of Kolkata, to change their names, colours, crest and even shift out of Kolkata (since the city already has a franchise team) was met with public outrage.

While the inherent contradictions within this proposed merger evoked a sense of wariness about commercial interests, it also threw up a question essential to football: the question of identity. What does it mean to be a fan? Taking the example of Kolkata, for instance, was the fans loyalty supposed to be pledged to the older clubs or the new franchise based outside of the city? To stretch this idea further, is the young football fan supposed to feel guilt for preferring to watch football being played halfway around the world rather than in a local stadium?

The globalisation of football has spread anxiety about not belonging. As the fanbases of the top European clubs have expanded globally, paradoxically, the clubs are increasingly promoted as having an identity that is deeply rooted in place, history and culture. It poses the question of whether fans from distant Africa or Asia ever relate to or, in football parlance, belong to a European club?

On non-European online forums, these anxieties sometimes reach ludicrous levels where older fans brand younger counterparts as plastics or glory hunters it does not matter to either group that all of them started supporting the club in the globalised era or that neither of them have ever lived anywhere near the clubs ground. Fans try to prove their authenticity through the language they use. The term Man U tends to incite long lectures from supposedly learned fans, although, as Red Matters author Giles Oakley has shown, the term is not derogatory and was used to refer to Manchester United long before the Munich tragedy.

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A Clapton Ultras sticker. Photograph: Frantzesco Kangaris for the Guardian

Back in Europe, there is also a debate about authenticity within football. Fans can be broadly divided into those who have accepted the rapid commercialisation of the sport into a global industry, supporters of the Against Modern Football (AMF) movement and those who have shifted their allegiances to newly formed alternative fan-owned clubs, such as Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem and Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls, that have cropped up throughout the world. Some people deride these fans as liberal hipsters while others view them as remnants who may even attract harm to the game by bringing politics into it.

When right-wing groups noticed that Clapton Ultras, who are moving to take control of Clapton FC, offered support to immigrants and refugees, they made official complaints about political banners being displayed at matches. This tactic (which goes against their stand on poppies in football) had previously worked against the Inter-Village Firm fangroup, who were banned from displaying political and ideological symbols at Mangotsfield FCs stadium, but it failed when it came to Clapton, whose chairman insisted the club would always stand against racism or discrimination of any kind. Realising that this tactic would not work, members of the English Defence League attacked Clapton supporters at a pre-season friendly, leading to clashes between fans.

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A banner at a match between Bayer Leverkusen and Bate Borisov in the Champions League. Photograph: Patrik Stollarz/AFP/Getty Images

Across the Atlantic in the US, the authenticity of the whole sport has long been been an issue. As historian and author Gabriel Khn notes in Soccer vs. the State, football has come under attack from conservatives who perceive it to be a liberal sport, a college sport, a communist sport, a gay sport and an immigrants sport. Jack Kemp, a former Buffalo Bills quarter-back who bid for the Presidency, argued in Congress that the US should not bid for the 1994 World Cup as American football is democratic capitalism whereas soccer is European and socialist.

While football fans seek to prove their authenticity in England, the US and forums throughout the world, the same pattern is being played out in the realm of politics, where it translates into more significant questions about what it means to be English, American, European, French and Spanish and how that reflects peoples relationship to migration, refugees, Islamophobia, race and identity.

While commercialism in football has driven some fans away, the failures of neoliberalism even the IMF admits its costs could be much larger than the benefit have led to a rejection of centrist politics. Hillary Clintons shock defeat to Donald Trump in the US Presidential election shows how alienated liberal centrists have become from the rest of the population. As political analyst Thomas Frank put it, she was a technocrat who offered fine-tuning when the country wanted to take a sledgehammer to the machine.

Clintons electoral campaign was data-driven by a complex algorithm nicknamed Ada. Its spectacular failure reveals that despite what the Silicon Valley may believe, algorithms and AI can often not see real world contingencies. Joe Kennedy points out in Games Without Frontiers that this strange reliance on technology has also gripped the footballing world. It is beyond doubt that Billy Beanes Moneyball strategy has helped several smaller football clubs compete with their bigger counterparts, most notably FC Midtjylland and AZ Alkmaar. Data analytics has also helped footballers improve their performance. However, while statistical analytical models might level the playing field between a small club such as Alkmaar and a global giant like Bayern Munich, it does nothing to solve the problem of the existence of the huge gap between the two clubs in the first place.

Statistical analysis assumes everything (in the case of football, perhaps each match or each pass or kick) can be quantified, packaged and analysed. Yet, in the same way it failed to deliver Clinton the presidency, data analysis alone can never assess a footballer. Kennedy argues that this is because data analytics, like its political counterpart, Ada, will never be able to account for the real world. Contingencies will always crop up that will resist simple numerical classification. Which algorithm could have predicted Eric Cantona kung-fu kicking a fan at Selhurst Park and being punished with a lengthy ban?

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The favourite to be the next UK Prime Minister, the supposedly unelectable Jeremy Corbyn. Photograph: John Stillwell/AFP/Getty Images

In 1992, Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the dying days of the Soviet Union as the moment that marked the birth of a post-ideological world and the endpoint of humanitys socio-cultural evolution the end of history. Now that neoliberalism has been shown not to deliver economic growth but just make some people much richer, the dominant centrist narrative is being challenged by politicians such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. Both were deemed too leftist and unelectable to win support. Both gathered momentum from extensive campaigning at the grassroots level. And both have defied predictions repeatedly.

If we are to make football a progressive and inclusive sport, it is perhaps time to embrace fan-owned, grassroots football clubs that are also dedicated to anti-fascism and the fight against xenophobia, homophobia and sexism. Beyond the touchline, as far as electoral politics goes, figures such as Sanders and Corbyn have made progressive politics popular again. The more disillusioned or radically inclined, however, can always pay heed to Slavoj Zizeks plea: Do not be afraid, join us, come back! Youve had your anti-communist fun and you are pardoned for it time to get serious again!

This article appeared first on In Bed With Maradona
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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/football/in-bed-with-maradona/2017/dec/14/politics-football-premier-league-capitalism-neoliberalism

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