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July 19, 2014, Saturday

On football

The World Cup is finally over. I am against sitting in front of a TV set in the summer, turning my back to the natural wonders of the Mediterranean fishing village where I spend the summer months. But rather than watching the games amongst the self-designated international referees and technical directors of the village coffee shop, I opted to go along by bringing a small TV set. It proved to be the perfect decision.

I watched most of the games. But after the final match that ended up with Germany winning the championship, I remembered an amusing description of football. “Football is a game played by teams of 11, at the end of which the Germans win.”

I contemplated football during the series. Having spent my younger years as a basketball player in the national league, my relationship with football is only indirect, as a spectator. But as a sociologist I am aware of the importance of football for individuals and societies alike.

Those who competed in the World Cup were national teams. Hence, there was a national dimension to the phenomenon. There was also a class dimension, because young men who find it hard to attain affluence, prestige and recognition through other means can do it through football. Sports, in many ways, are a vehicle for social ascendance for youth of more humble social backgrounds.

Football has a political dimension as well. It is an instrument of mobilization and otherwise unlikely togetherness of socio-cultural groups. The game often diverts the wrath of the masses for a regime or government and directs it at the rival. The satisfaction of competition and occasional triumph keep the masses busy and happy and the game may become an instrument of control by governments that may otherwise become the target of political opposition.

António de Oliveira Salazar (1888-1970), who ruled Portugal with an iron fist for 36 years, is on record saying that he conveniently manipulated the frustration of the people with “three Fs”: fado (songs), fiesta and football.

When the issue is national competition, the individual melts into the nation and the nation into the state and the state becomes inseparable from its rivals (national enemies). All the rest is either symbolic or insignificant. The powerful support the national team together with the powerless. The rich with the poor, the lower and upper classes and those with cultural differences chant the same slogans, which they normally would not do. They become one. Even in societies that could not yet find internal peace, football is an instrument of union at the national level.

The World Cup is an area where nations of the world compete. Their struggle is peaceful but the competition revives national spirit and keeps nationalism alive as they struggle to prove how much better they are from one another.

In short, the World Cup is a world war realized by other (peaceful) means. However, it is political in that players and teams are national. Only national teams can compete at this level. The tournament yields a list where teams-nations-states line up according to their success and the national power behind it.

Nations seldom meet on the battlefield nowadays, but they constantly compete in areas like the economy, technology, science, arts, culture and sports. The national spirit is revived through this competition. Dominance, submission or the hierarchy of nations emerge out of the tireless global competition in all of these fields.

Success increases the confidence of nations. Failure does the opposite. Those who succeed invest more into the inputs that lead them to success and prominence. Those who do not succeed hardly study the reasons for their failure. Rather, they resort to conspiracy theories and find convenient “internal and external enemies.” They isolate themselves from the rest of the world and develop a negative (defensive) brand of nationalism. Or they become more fatalistic and religious, and seek divine benevolence to succeed. But they hardly develop the instruments and means of competition with other nations.

Can anyone tell me why we were not in the World Cup? Aren't we the 17th-largest economic power in the world?
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