Bar-On, T. (1997) 'The
Ambiguities of Football, Politics, Culture, and Social Transformation
in Latin America'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 2, no. 4, <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/2/4/2.html>
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Received: 6/10/97 Accepted: 2/12/97 Published: 22/12/97
Politics is no longer restricted to the political sphere, but infects every sphere - economics, science, art, sport. ... Sport itself meanwhile, is no longer located in sport as such, but instead in business, in sex, in politics, in the general style of performance (Baudrillard, 1993: p. 8).
Control in the name of civility and civilization is what the world is about, and control of the culture industry enables lion kings to gain and keep control. Spontaneity is out, though we all long for it, desire it, miss it. Control is the name of the game. In Europe, where soccer is king, the masses must be controlled. Stadiums have become Roman coliseums with barbed wire and guards patrolling the edifices inside and outside. The contests on the field are secondary to the event of going to the stadium and participating in the hoped-for victory. It is important to be number one, to win at all costs. Such outright display of ruthless desire goes against the rules of civility, thus it must be contained and controlled, just as rock concerts are carefully planned and controlled. Sports are spectacle, but a controlled spectacle, where people can briefly vent their frustration according to a prescribed rite. Now and then people are unfortunately killed, trampled on and beaten, either for revenge or the celebration gets out of hand. Such catastrophes prompt greater control and police measures (Zipes, 1994: pp.163 - 164).
This phantom football match should obviously be seen in conjunction with the Heysel Stadium game, when the real event, football, was once again eclipsed - on this occasion by a much more dramatic form of violence. There is always the danger that this kind of transition may occur, that spectators may cease to be spectators and slip into the role of victims or murderers, that sport may cease to be sport and be transformed into terrorism: that the only event occurring is strictly televisual in nature. Every real referent event may become acceptable on television's mental screen (Baudrillard, 1993: p. 80).
In the early years of the century, many old-style establishments - not only football clubs but also factory management boards and the like-representatives of Latin America's elite, made attempts to form relationships with working-class teams. At times this took the form of patronage, with an established club funding an affiliated local team. At other times, it took on other dimensions - managers encouraging the creation of football sides among the workers to engender company loyalty and, perhaps more importantly, to divert employees' attentions away from the more damaging spectre of industrial unrest. In these early relationships formed between the elite and the masses in football, can be seen the origins of one of the most compelling arguments in the analysis of football in Latin America: that football serves as an opiate of the masses, an instrument of mass control, a social adhesive binding the most volatile and precarious of ethnic and political mixes (Del Burgo, 1993: p. 55).
These are the real reasons for the war: El Salvador, the smallest country in Central America, has the greatest population density in the western hemisphere. Things are crowded, and all the more so because most of the land is in the hands of fourteen great landowning clans. People even say that El Salvador is the property of fourteen families. A thousand latifundistas own exactly ten times as much land as their hundred thousand peasants. Two thirds of the village population owns no land. For years a part of the landless poor has been emigrating to Honduras, where there are large tracks of unimproved land. Honduras is almost six times as large as El Salvador, but has about half as many people (2.5 million). This was illegal emigration but was kept hushed-up, tolerated by the Honduran government for yearsÉ. Salvadoran peasants settled in Honduras, established villages, and grew accustomed to a better life than the one they had left behind. They numbered about 300,000É. In the 1960s, unrest began among the Honduran peasantry, which was demanding land, and the Honduran government passed a decree on agricultural reform. But since this was an oligarchical government, dependent on the United States, the decree did not break up the land of either the oligarchy or the large banana plantations belonging to the United Fruit Company. The government wanted to re-distribute the land occupied by the Salvadoran squatters, moaning that the 300,000 Salvadorans would have to return to their own country, where they had nothing, and where, in any event, they would be refused by the Salvadoran government fearing a peasant revolution (Kapuscinski, 1990: pp. 182 - 183).
I'm struggling for freedom, for respect for human beings, for ample and unrestricted discussions, for a professional democratization of unforeseen limits, and all of this as a soccer player preserving the ludic, joyous, and pleasurable nature of this activity (Shirts, 1988: p. 100).
The commonest, one might call it the natural, rhythm of human life is routine punctuated by orgiesÉ. Orgies, whether sexual, religious, sporting or political, provide the periodic excitement which all of us crave, and which most of us are too insensitive to feel except under the most crudely violent simulationÉ.The important thing is not to create a conference on disarmament or world economy, but to convene a 'World Psychological Conference' to decide upon the emotional cultures to be permitted and encouraged (Huxley cited in Virilio, 1990: pp. 68 - 69).
2 As an indication of football's popularity, projections for a cumulative worldwide television audience of over 37 billion people for the 1998 World Cup in France suggest that it will surpass the 32 billion registered for the 1994 finals in the United States. Live attendance figures for the 1996 Olympic Football tournament matches topped the tables with about 1.25 million spectators - even more than the number watching the world track and field athletics competition. See the June 1997 newsletter written by Joseph S. Blatter (1997) general secretary of the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), entitled 'Football's Popularity'.
3 For an elaboration of the traditional weakness of and disdain for of football (soccer) in the United States from a European perspective, see the seminal article by Markovits (1990: pp. 230 -264).
4 There are several obvious exceptions in the hemisphere, such as: the importance of cricket in the West Indies, the case of football's weak implantation in Cuban society (baseball, boxing, and track and field are Cuba's domestic pastimes and international strengths), and the widespread popularity of baseball in Nicaragua, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic. (See Arbena, 1988).
5 Nonetheless, the recent fall of some Latin American military regimes and the proliferation of liberal democratic-style elections does not entail the abandonment of internal and external modes of oppression and domination. While the former could include the suffocation of popular sectors like unions, farmers, and indigenous peoples, the latter could comprise the hydra of globalized capital, multinational corporations, and Euro-American mass media cultural homogenization. Moreover, to quote General Cluseret, 'In the social equation, the army constitutes an unknown quantity which it is better not to trust.' Or, for Paul Virilio, the overt demise of the military leads to their infiltration into the movements of daily life. In short, war can be waged without physical combat, such as: the military displacement of forces and swiftness; selfish and savage business practices simply concerned with the unlimited desire for profits; environmental destruction; and modern information warfare including ideological control, subconscious marketing persuasion techniques, and advanced conditioning like infant suggestion techniques and hypnopaedia; various addictive drugs generally used to pacify the population and 'amuse ourselves to death' (Neil Postman) rather than achieving self-governance or attaining spiritual consciousness; and a developed science of human differences or eugenics designed to standardize human and non-human products and facilitate the task of 'controllers'. In a Huxley-like 'Brave New World', killing would be more lethal and efficient than the brutal totalitarian police states of this century as its world citizens cherish their servitude (freedom!) and cannot bodily, nor psychically comprehend the 'wars' waged against them. However, the old illusion and dogma persists that 'a state of peace means the absence of open warfare, or that the military which no longer fights but 'helps' society is peaceful, and that the military institutions can even be beneficial, once it stops attacking.' See Paul Virilio (1990: pp. 17 - 36) and Huxley (1934), especially the 'Foreword' of the 1946 edition, pp. 7 - 14.
6 For an excellent journalistic account of the 'Soccer War', see Kapuscinski (1990). Also, for additional background information about the social, political, and economic triggers of the 'Soccer War', see Durham (1979).
7 In fact, Argentina required a 4-0 victory against Peru to reach the finals. In private conversations, the bribery charge is a standard position held by Argentinians who were able to witness the live proceedings of the Argentina-Peru match at the stadium.
8 In this respect, the most talented Latin Americans play in the richer European leagues like Italy, Spain, and France. Furthermore, professionalism's commercial imperatives clash with the increasingly outmoded nation-state model structuring football's World Cup competitions. At the beginning of the 1996 Italian 'Serie A' championship, Argentinian international Abel Balbo of Roma hinted that national commitments might take a backseat to his professional longevity and commercial interests with the European club side. It should be mentioned that the nation-state critique argues that it is in retreat because it is too big to solve local issues and grass-roots popular concerns, and too small to tackle the larger global problems like poverty, environmental degradation, nuclear weapons, and the pace and direction of rapid technological change.
9 It should be pointed out that Latin American hooliganism is more muted than its European counterpart, but little cross-cultural comparative research has been carried out on this particular subject. On the British phenomenon, see the recent classic journalistic account of football hooliganism by King (1997). For a sociological interpretation of hooliganism, see Dunning and Williams (1988).
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