PAUL BREEN examines why football cannot be detached from the broader social, cultural, and political environment in which it exists.
When Mario Götze pounced in the 113th minute of Sunday’s World cup final against the resilient Argentinians, the power of his volley extended far beyond the pantheon of the Maracanã. In the few seconds of a ball’s journey from the left of the field to the net, the 22-year-old German forward reached into the (as yet) undiscovered part of our brain that shapes dreams. No, he did more than that in a single, sweeping move of writing his name into the history books. For a few seconds, the world’s eyes fell upon him, with a mixture of pride, envy, admiration, shared consciousness, and echoes of every boy’s childhood dreams. Lifting his face to the heavens, in a moment of solitude at the end of the match, he surely felt blessed – giving the Germans their fourth World Cup. But more than that again, it is the pattern of their victories that is most enviable to the rest of the world.
Mario Götze, André Schürrle, and the rest of the gold-winning class of 2014 have become the latest generation of German players to give four ‘generations’ of German fans and citizens the chance to line the streets in a victory parade. In itself, that’s worthy of analysis – but this article isn’t about dissecting the almost perfect mechanics of Joachim Löw’s exemplary football machine. This is about something else, which goes right to the soul of football, and the rights of ownership over that soul. Before the World Cup, and at the start, there was a lot of attention given to the fact that this was FIFA’s World Cup, played out in a glossy, corporate image of Brazil far from the reality of the poverty-ridden favelas in which a small, but substantial, part of the urban population still reside.
Organisations such as Football Beyond Borders (http://www.footballbeyondborders.org) have tried hard to level the playing field, as their own slogan suggests. Throughout the summer, they have worked hard to leave a legacy for the ordinary people of Brazil, who some might call the underclass; echoing their original work with deprived communities in London. Assisting such communities in Brazil, their projects have included running an alternative favela World Cup, providing support for English Language classes, and economic development in the form of helping families within the favelas offer accommodation to tourists and visitors to the finals. Doing this, football serves as a power for good, a force for change, and a game in touch with those at the grass roots, who may well provide the next generation of boys to grow into James Rodriguez, Luis Suarez, and Didier Drogba.
In the corporate worldview, which dominates at the present time, those at the bottom do not matter. They are part of a pyramid, the flesh and blood serving as food for the leaches of the upper echelons. In a Darwinian game of survival, we see this philosophy enacted in our own countries too, with ideas such as the creation of a third division reserve league, which will help the ‘big boys’ and may well kill off half the smaller clubs and leagues in England. Again, a volunteer organization is working hard to resist this.
Save Grassroots Football (http://www.savegrassroots.co.uk) has been leading a tireless social media campaign to protect the historic legacy of the game in Britain, where there is an excellent social and geographical spread of clubs throughout the land. I am Irish, but the last thing I would ever want to see is a situation previously written about on this very website, where everyone in the country supports Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, or whatever new franchises spring up if the game eventually goes in the direction of the American or Australian leagues.
“Hey there’s a market in the west of the country – so let’s close down Bristol City, Rovers, Yeovil, Torquay, Plymouth, and Exeter, and just create West Country Wanderers, or maybe make things just that little bit sexier – West Country Seabirds – because we can’t use seagulls as the cost of absorbing the old Brighton & Hove Albion into Southampton & Portsmouth & then moving them to Selhurst Park was to use the name South Coast Seagulls.”
Anyway back to reality and away from Charlton supporter fantasies of Crystal Palace fans seeing their stadium shanghaied by somebody else – the message here is that football is slipping away from its grassroots and, to paraphrase Roy Keane, playing to a new audience in the form of a prawn sandwich brigade. Personally, as a big fan of my wife’s prawn and seafood wraps, I never liked that analogy, but I get where he’s coming from. Where he’s actually from is a working-class suburb on the north side of Cork, and there’s a great story about his father in the local pub on the day he was transferred from Nottingham Forest to Manchester United for nearly four million quid, which was a British record fee at that time. I’ll not repeat that story but I’m sure you’ll find it somewhere amongst the many urban myths of the online world, but the important point is that Roy Keane has never forgotten where he comes from. Even his walkout on the Irish team in Saipan during the Korea/Japan World Cup of 2002 was looked upon differently in the working class suburbs of Cork, than it ever was in Dublin.
Although Keane divided Ireland in 2002, in a way not seen since the end of the civil war in the 1920s, deep-down he knew the impact it would have on supporters, those who understood his reasons, and those who’d take a long time to forgive him. There seems no such soul-searching on the part of those who ‘control’ football three World Cups on from the blazing red spectacle of a summer in Seoul, and the probability of a fifth in Qatar in 2022. Stories of corruption, and human rights abuses abound in the news on an almost weekly basis, but this matters little to FIFA, as if football now exists in a bubble disconnected from broader society.
It could get to the point, if it hasn’t already, of ‘borrowing’ countries just to act as a stage to host a showcase for the wealthy and powerful, taking much, and giving nothing back in return. Ordinary supporters, and ordinary people, then become incidental. Much is decided beforehand, like Lionel Messi receiving the Golden Ball, which some argue is justified, and others believe was influenced more by sponsorship interests than events on the pitch. Sure, he’s the best player in the world but that’s not the basis for awards, in any discipline. You don’t give the Booker Prize to writers on account of what they’ve done before. It’s given to the person who has written the best original work of a particular year. Same rules apply to football matches and tournaments. Though Messi is probably the best player in the world, with no need for the consumption of lager to enjoy his sublime skills, this was not the best series of games in his lifetime, by a long shot. In fact, this award could undermine the next one, if and when he lights up the Russian World Cup of 2018, to win the medal that puts him on a par, in public opinion, with Diego Maradona. But still, it’s important to say that he played a great part in the early stages of the tournament, and has shaped supporters’ dreams in a series of moments this summer, as good as any witnessed at a World Cup.
Despite all of FIFA’s shenanigans these past few years, it’s the rekindling of football romance that gives me hope of a more level playing field in the future. There has to be, and FIFA must waken up to this, because some day the fact of using someone’s country as a showcase that gives nothing back will spark off social unrest. It almost did this summer in Brazil, though won’t in the next two World Cups I would imagine. On Sunday July 13th, the Maracanã did not just belong to the two teams, the smart-suited officials, and the thousands of supporters who could afford to be inside.
The atmosphere and aesthetics of the scene went far beyond the immediate setting, inside the stadium and on the beaches outside, watched over by the towering, luminous figure of Christ the Redeemer, framed in a second-half sunset, on Corcovado. At one stage, in the months leading up to the event, it seemed as if we could see a perfect storm, a Brazilian equivalent of the 2011 London riots meeting the 2012 London Olympic Games. Some of the media coverage would even have had us believe we could see an uprising on a par with that of El Salvador and Honduras in the early eighties, when poverty and land issues spilled over into societal, and then military rage, just before each of them reached the 1982 World Cup finals. But none of these things came to pass, as the newspapers and TV channels found plenty of stories, of interest, on the actual pitch. Though some discontent remained, peace and national pride prevailed, until the latter subsided under Germany’s steely weight with that unforgettable 7-1 result.
Long before a ball was kicked in the final itself, the World Cup had once more become a theatre of dreams for those who watched it in their kitchens and living rooms, or on big screens out on the street as in Woolwich, just down the road from where I live in London. Echoes of stories from the past came back to us, things we didn’t witness, but which live in our cultural and communal imagination – the Dutch team resurrecting memories of the Orangemen from the 1970s, Messi in competition with the spirit of Maradona, Algeria getting over the regret of 1982 with chivalrous performances, and the suicidal Brazilian defence of the same year now seeming like minor sinners for their ‘quarter final’ loss to Italy, compared to the highway pile-up of Germany’s 7-1 victory.
Suddenly, we witnessed something that crossed generations, and threaded together generations and stories in a way that even FIFA’s marketing people could never have predicted. The World Cup again had become a tapestry of connected events rather than a series of independent snapshots spread out in four-year gaps. Those not old enough to remember the Algerians of 1982, or Belgium’s battle against Maradona’s dribbles, in glue-stick boots, in the heat of Mexico 1986, now know that history didn’t begin the minute they first watched a football match. Though we live in the moment, the immediate, snapshots and soundbites, we got back a sense of what I remember football being when I was a kid. It was a fabric of stories told by another generation, of people I’d never be lucky enough to see in the flesh, at least not at their best – like the great George Best, Gordon Banks, the two Bobbies, Moore and Charlton, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff, and Edson Arantes do Nascimento, whose ‘real’ name we’d try to show off with as kids.
1982 was my first World Cup and my great memory is of the sound of crowds in the radio commentary when Northern Ireland beat the Spanish one-nil in the Casanova stadium in Valencia. I was as good as there when Gerry Armstrong scored the winner, transcending sectarian politics and a divided society with a single shot. The image of his smile stands out as much Paul Gascoigne’s tears on a summer’s evening in Turin’s Stadio delle Alpi on the night that England lost their semi-final on penalties to West Germany, after he had picked up his second booking of the tournament, disqualifying him from the final. Add in the Irish team’s achievements of the 1990 World Cup, when they reached the quarter finals, and those of us born Catholic in the North, had pretty much switched allegiance away from a team that once contained Pat Jennings to a man from the most northern part of Ireland, Packie Bonner, from County Donegal, between the sticks.
I mention this because football’s got more than just social and cultural influence. It can be a political force too, or can serve as a mirror that reveals much about a political situation.
In 1982, just a year after the Irish hunger strikes, and some of the most extreme violence of the ‘troubles’, there was less of an overt connection between political and football loyalties. Fast forward 30 years, and you have a situation where young players born in the north opt to play for the south, not just because they are more successful, but because situations like that of Neil Lennon’s harassment during his Northern Ireland playing days leave an indelible mark on public perception. This can be compared to 2014, and the rage in some parts of Brazilian society at the inequity they witnessed, surrounding the economics of the World Cup, and the distribution of funding to particular aspects and regions of the national infrastructure, and willful ignorance of others. This is why organisations such as Football Beyond Borders have worked hard to ensure there is some legacy for the ordinary people whose love of football should not be tainted by the ignorance of those who manage its distribution and access throughout the world.
Politics too and the power of football as a global force was apparent too in the efforts to use social media as a means of highlighting the situation in Gaza, and of filtering this into the public eye. On the day of the World Cup final, many people from countries which have no traditional support base for football were tapping into the interest generated around the Germany-Argentina game to raise the question of why so little concentration was being given, in the media, to the deaths of hundreds of people in Palestine. In turn, this was provoking a series of other debates. Even on the forums of my local club, there were discussions on whether or not it was time to expel Israel from world sports. Whether that should happen or not isn’t an issue to be considered in this article, but the fact of this kind of debate and discussion happening around the World Cup, makes us wonder how this might develop in Moscow and Qatar.
But on a final note, having seen Mario Götze become the man of the moment, in the most perfect of many great Maracanã moments, such as that of John Barnes against Brazil in 1984, another German player deserves special mention for his actions in this World Cup. Arsenal’s Mesut Özil, the most expensive German player of all time, is believed to have donated a substantial sum of money to offer medical assistance to children in Brazil. Other stories abound on the internet of numerous causes to which footballers are said to have donated money in recent years, and most are hard to verify, but this kind of gesture further levels the playing field in the sense of bridging the growing gap between those who are profiting from present-day football, and those whose support they rely on, particularly the future generations.
Going back to Roy Keane’s quote, it’s not the kids of the prawn sandwich brigade who will provide the great moments of the 2030 World Cup finals. It’s more likely to be the kids who have grown up in the favelas or played barefoot on the beaches of Rio. FIFA would do well to remember this, and see themselves not as grand masters of football, but more as servants of those who love the beautiful game. And the irony of it all, after a summer in which the majestic Germans have brought a sense of history and romance back into the beautiful game, is that the man at the very top of FIFA’s administrative tree is Swiss-German! That said – Swiss-German is a dialect rather than a language itself, which Germans do not necessarily understand, just the very same as FIFA might not understand the poetry of football that appeals to those of us, at the grass roots, far more than the language of money, and sponsorship.
Paul Breen is the author of The Charlton Men in which he describes some other Maracanã moments, in life and on the football pitch, in a book that suggests that all’s fair in love and football, but beauty shines out of the game in the end. The Charlton Men is available at http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Charlton-Men-Paul-Breen/dp/178308166X