Soccer: A Matter of Love and Hate
By Tim Parks/New York Review of Books, July 18, 2002
Held every four years, the World Cup competition for association football (soccer in the US) is now the world's largest sports event after the Olympics. This year's competition, hosted by Japan and Korea (it is the first time the cup has gone to Asia), brought together thirty-two countries, each of which had already gone through a ferocious selection procedure. Even countries like the US, where soccer is not one of the most popular sports, made a huge effort to be present and to perform. It was not always thus.
Largely responsible, in the second half of the nineteenth century, for inventing the modern game of soccer, and then for having taken the sport all over the world, the English nevertheless chose not to participate in the formation of an International Football Federation (FIFA) in 1904, nor would they go to the first three World Cup competitions arranged for the sport in 1930, 1934, and 1938. In its official history, the English Football Association now describes that decision as "a monumental example of British insularity." But perhaps it would be more useful to see the refusal as betraying a tension between competing visions of the role of team sports in modern society and, at a deeper level, between conflicting attitudes toward the whole issue of community and group identity.
After all, the English had long ago set up the first-ever "international" game between themselves and Scotland and by the turn of the century were regularly playing Wales and Ireland as well. Such encounters within the United Kingdom were necessarily galvanized by ancient rivalries and resentments. Adrenaline ran in rivers. Indeed, a hundred years later the annual England–Scotland game would have to be discontinued because of fan violence. What on earth would be the point, the English FA must have asked itself in 1930, of embarking on a three-week ocean voyage to Uruguay to play the likes of Brazil and Czechoslovakia?
Rarely articulated in the media, the "insular" attitudes that inspired the English FA in the early part of the century are still thriving, and nowhere more so than in Italy, whose sense of nationhood often seems to depend more on a series of ancient internal quarrels between erstwhile city-states than on any sense of imposing itself on the world around it. In this regard the country is not unlike those families who are immediately recognizable as such because they are so intensely engaged in arguing with each other. In his speech to the nation at New Year's, the Italian president, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, spoke of "Italy, land of a hundred cities, that unites love of my home town with love of my country and love of Europe." On the Web site of Hellas Verona, the soccer club of the small town where I live, a fan signing himself Dany-for-Hell@s chose to respond in decidedly football terms with a list of all the opposing teams any Hellas fan necessarily hates: "Italian unity = Roma merda, Inter merda, Juventus merda, Milan merda, Napoli merda, Vicenza merda, Lecce merda. Need I go on?"
Always a favorite to win the World Cup, Italy thus often seems lukewarm and ambivalent toward its national team. At a recent local game, more than one fan told me they would be rooting against the national side during the World Cup. "The national team is made up of players from the big clubs, Juventus and Roma and Inter Milan. We can't hate them all year round and then support them in summer just because they're playing for Italy."
The word "hate" turns up in private conversation in relation to soccer in a way it never seems to do in the quotable media, which froth with noble sentiments as the big "festival of football" approaches. Immediately after interviewing me for national radio about a book I have written on Italy and fandom, the journalist removes his headphones and remarks: "You know, the wonderful thing about soccer is that it's the only situation left where you really feel you have an enemy, someone you can hate unreservedly, someone you don't have to make compromises with. Even with the terrorists you have to worry about whether you're indirectly responsible for their extremism." "Why didn't you say that on air?" I asked. He laughed. Clearly mine was a rhetorical question.
But even in soccer there are enemies and enemies. On the famous Costanzo Show, Italy's biggest talk show, a veteran player, Causio, insists that despite the fact that the Italian team never sings the national anthem when it's played at the beginning of the match (indeed some players have admitted that they don't know the words), despite the low attendance at many national games, nevertheless, when it counts, the nation rallies around. This is the official version and is no doubt true of that part of the public who are not regular soccer fans and thus not likely to put their local team first. But during a break for advertising, the actor sitting beside me on the stage together with Causio remarks off the air: "No, soccer is about hate. When Roma play Lazio [local rivals] I really hate the Laziali. But how can I hate Ecuador? I don't feel anything." The small South American country was Italy's first opponent, or designated victim, in the current competition.
Necessarily, soccer began at the local level and it was here that it took the peculiar and fierce grip on the collective mind that it still has today, in Europe, in South America. This happened at precisely the time when with rapid industrialization and better communications, local identities were becoming harder to maintain. Hellas Verona, for example, was formed in 1903, but it was not until 1912 that they beat their nearest neighbors and hence bitterest rivals, Vicenza. Reporting the crowd response when the jinx was finally broken, the journalist for Verona's local paper was clearly witnessing for the first time a new way of expressing group identity:
Verona won! Nothing we could write to express our joy, if such a thing were possible; no declaration we could ever make...could be so eloquent as the powerful, almost savage yell of the crowd each time Hellas scored. The shouting slowly subsided to be replaced by a confused, never repressed clamor rising and falling with the anxious and diligent inspection of every move on the field. Verona won! A victory too long desired.
A few decades before that historic moment, in his Discourse on the Game of Florentine Football, Giovanni Maria de' Bardi defined the sport thus:
Football is a public game of two groups of young men, on foot and unarmed, who pleasingly compete to move a medium-sized inflated ball from one end of the piazza to the other, for the sake of honor.
If "savage" is the most interesting word in the first quotation, "unarmed" is the crucial qualification in the second. That day in 1912 the Veronese crowd, savage but unarmed, discovered a new way of expressing their antique enmity toward their nearest neighbors, with whom of course it was no longer feasible that they might go to war, or even engage in a resentful round of trade sanctions. And for the first time that day the Veronese had the upper hand. They could take pleasure, unarmed, in their neighbors' discomfort. They could taunt and gloat and be cruel within a framework that would allow everyone to escape unscathed and continue their lives as if nothing had happened.
Ferocious taunting is a staple of Italian football matches and indeed this kind of embattled local pride, at once intense but, in the very extravagance of its expression, ironic too, is typical of fandom at the local level all over Europe. "SINCE 1200," read a banner at a recent game, "EVERY TIME THE VERONESE GO TO VICENZA, THE GROUND TREMBLES." In sharp contrast, when Ireland played Cameroon in the Niigata stadium, Japan, on the second day of this year's World Cup, the TV commentator was obliged to remark on how little the crowd at the stadium was participating in the expensively staged event. How could they? Of what possible interest could it be to the polite, carefully seated Japanese which of these two countries won? They have no quarrel with either.
If we were to ask, what has been the most dangerous emotion of the last two centuries, one possible answer might be: the nostalgia for community, the yearning, in an age of mechanization and eclecticism, for the sort of powerful sense of group identity that will enable you to hold hands with people and sing along, your lucid individuality submerged in the folly of collective delirium, united in a common cause, which of course implies a common enemy.
This desire for close-knit community at any price was no doubt an important factor in the rise of National Socialism, fascism, communism, and a range of recent and dangerous fundamentalisms. Football fandom, as it developed in the same period in Europe and South America, might be seen as a relatively harmless parody of such large-scale monstrosities, granting the satisfaction of belonging to an embattled community, perhaps even the occasional post-match riot, without the danger of real warfare. The stadium and the game have become the theater where on one afternoon a week, in carefully controlled circumstances, two opposing groups, who at all other moments of life will mingle normally, can enjoy the thrills of tribalism. Hard-core supporters of the competing teams occupy opposite ends of the stadium generating a wild energy of chants and offensive gestures that electrifies the atmosphere.
On the field, the extraordinary skill of the players, their feints and speed, the colorful pattern of their rapid movements, the tension as one waits and waits, heart in mouth, for that goal that never comes, create a collective enchantment that prolongs the stand-off between the two enemies, at once determining the rhythm of insults and keeping the crowds apart. At the end, if the police are efficient, and nothing too inflammatory has happened during the game, we can all return home with perhaps only a couple of stones thrown.
"The civilizing passage from blows to insults," wrote the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, "was no doubt necessary, but the price was high. Words will never be enough. We will always be nostalgic for violence and blood." Soccer, it has often occurred to me, offers an ambiguous middle ground between words and blows. The game appears to be most successful when constantly hovering on the edge of violence, without quite falling into it. Occasionally, of course, things will go wrong.
But whether innocuous or otherwise, the spectacle of opposing fans insulting each other is definitely not welcome at the World Cup. Nothing terrifies the organizers of the sport's biggest event more than the sentiments most ordinarily expressed at weekly league matches in the major participating countries. For alongside the nostalgia, as it developed in the nineteenth century, for the tight-knit local community springs the contrary ideal of the universal brotherhood of man, of a world where no one will ever express hatred for anyone. Having read Tom Brown's Schooldays, having decided that English notions of gentlemanly sportsmanship were among the highest expressions of the human spirit, in the early 1890s, just as football clubs were forming in industrial towns all over Europe, Pierre Coubertin decided that mankind could best be served by a festival of sport where national identity would be expressed in pageantry, folklore, and athletic prowess, all political antagonisms forgotten. In 1896 the first Olympic Games of the modern era were held. Soccer was included unofficially in 1900, officially from 1908. For many years it has been the Olympic sport that draws by far the largest number of spectators.
Coubertin had his enemies, chief among them the nationalist and monarchist Charles Maurras, who was hostile to the Games, fearing the degeneration, as he saw it, into cosmopolitanism. But on attending the Olympics in Athens and watching the behavior of crowds and athletes, it came to Maurras that in fact such international festivals might work the other way: "When different races are thrown together and made to interact," he wrote, "they repel one another, estranging themselves even as they believe they are mixing." In short, the internationalist theater might become the stage for expressing not universal brotherhood, but the fiercest nationalism.
Maurras's reflection raises a question: What happens when a team sport, particularly an intensely engaging, fiercely physical sport like soccer, a game capable of arousing the most intense collective passions, is transferred from the local to the national level? What happens when very large crowds, many of whom are not regular fans and thus not familiar with the game and the emotions it generates, find themselves involved in the business of winning and losing as nation against nation? For the soccer team comes to represent the nation, indeed the nation at war, in a way the single athlete cannot. Before England's decisive game with its old enemy Argentina, the London Samaritans announced that their staff would be at full strength to deal with misery if England lost. After Japan beat Russia —another old quarrel—the people of Tokyo danced in the streets, while in central Moscow, where giant screens had been set up to show the event, there was serious rioting and one death. The TV in the home is safe enough; in the stadium there are fences and police. But a crowd in a public square watching their nation lose against an old enemy with nothing between themselves and, for example, a Japanese restaurant (one was seriously vandalized in Moscow) is a dangerous thing indeed. These events serve to remind us that globalization has done nothing to diminish nationalist passions. Perhaps the reverse.
The tension between the different visions of international sport—the embattled community on the one hand, the brotherhood of man on the other —reached its height at the 1936 Berlin Games. At the opening ceremony the crowd sang "Deutschland über Alles," after which a recorded message from the then aging Coubertin reminded everybody that "the most important thing in life is not to conquer." Two years later at the World Cup in Rome General Bacaro in his inaugural speech announced that the ultimate purpose of the tournament was "to show that fascist sport partakes of a great quality of the ideal stemming from one unique inspiration: il Duce." Whatever that might or might not have meant, the next competition would not be staged until 1950 and was held in Brazil, far away from a still exhausted Europe.
The World Cup developed as an offshoot of the Olympic Games and deploys the same idealistic, internationalist rhetoric. But the decision to set up a competition separate from the Olympics came largely as a result of cheating. Olympic soccer teams were supposed to be amateur, but many players were clearly professional. England, who had deigned to participate and won in 1908 and 1912, withdrew over the issue in 1920. In 1924 and 1928 Uruguay won with virtually professional teams, at which point the only possible response for the offended pride of the other competitors was to acknowledge a fait accompli and get FIFA to set up a competition for professionals. The circumstances in which it was born thus belied the principles the competition claims to uphold.
More than anything else, it has been the growth of television that has shifted the balance of power in favor of Coubertin's internationalist, pageantry-rich vision of the sport. In the space of a few years soccer's main paymasters became the TV networks, not the ticket-buying fans. Experienced away from the stadium, the game loses its local, community-building functions. The possibility of collective catharsis is lost. At this point the antics of hard-core fans are merely disquieting. Often they look disturbingly like the choreographed extremist crowds of the Thirties. Now every gesture that threatens the sort of positive vision of the world that can be delivered into households where children and grandmothers sit around the TV must be rooted out and eliminated. The Asian World Cup looks like being the first absolutely hooligan- free event, in situ that is. Tokyo and Seoul are at a safe and expensive distance from Moscow and Manchester and Berlin and Buenos Aires. Opposing fans are not coming into contact in any numbers. How Coubertin would have rejoiced over that extravagant opening ceremony, with all its colorful Asian pageantry, the charming faces of elegant Korean dancers.
And yet... With the ugly crowds tamed, at least in and around the stadium, the TV cameras free to concentrate entirely on the game, what do we see on the field of play? I know of no other sport where cheating is so endemic, condoned, and ritualized as soccer, where lying and bad faith are more ordinarily the rule. Every single decision is contested, even when what has happened is clear as day. A player insists he didn't kick the ball off the pitch when everybody has seen that he has. Another protests that the ball has gone over the line when everybody has seen that it hasn't. Passed by an attacker in full flight, a defender grabs the man's shirt, stops him, then immediately denies that he has done so. Unable to pass his defender, the striker runs into him and promptly falls over, claiming that he has been pushed.
Only a few minutes into the Denmark– Senegal match the players were exchanging blows. During the Turkey– Brazil game, with play temporarily stopped, an angry Turkish player kicked the ball at the Brazilian Rivaldo, voted best player in the world in 1999. Hit on the knee (by the ball!), Rivaldo collapsed on the ground pretending he had been violently struck in the face. The referee sent off the Turkish player, eliminating him from the game. In an interview afterward Rivaldo claimed this was a normal part of football. The organizers, who had said they would be tough on such dishonest behavior, fined Rivaldo $7,000, perhaps a day's pay for a soccer star, but they wouldn't suspend him for even one game. It is crucial for TV revenues that Brazil make progress in the competition.
One of the curiosities of soccer is that while on the part of the fans it arouses the kinds of passions that once attached themselves more readily to religious fundamentalism and political idealism, one must never forget that for the organizers it is merely a business. There are few who believe that refereeing decisions are not sometimes made to favor rich teams; FIFA itself and its president, Sed Blatter, in particular are currently accused of large-scale corruption. When two apparently legitimate Italian goals were disallowed in their game against Croatia, many Italians immediately began to wonder if there wasn't a conspiracy against them. And when Italy was eventually eliminated by South Korea after yet another goal was disallowed, even some of Italy's most prominent sportswriters and some politicians suggested the referee was taking orders from FIFA.
After the pomp and idealism of opening ceremonies, then, what could be less educational than the spectacle itself and the suspicions that surround it? Or more exciting, more likely to inflame the passions? Infallibly, it seems, the overall frame of the brotherhood of man contains a festival of bad behavior on the part of the players, and paranoia, resentment, and Schadenfreude on the part of the fans. Far from diminishing people's interest in the sport, ironically it is precisely the unpleasant incidents and negative sentiments that fuel its vigorous growth. The genius of FIFA, at least in public relations terms, has been to stage an apparently violence-free positive event in Asia (the brotherhood of man!), while shifting, via television, the riot of emotions, and the occasional riot on the street, thousands and thousands of miles away. We are having our cake and eating it.
That said, soccer definitely makes more sense and is more fun when experienced at the stadium in the delirium of the local crowd, when it is our community fielding our team, here and now, ready to rejoice or suffer. After Italy's inevitable victory over Ecuador, experienced by almost everybody who cared about it through the medium of television, a fan wrote to his club's Web site:
Italy won convincingly...but the elation I feel when I watch Verona play from the terraces is something the national team can never give me, not even if they win the World Cup. It's a competition where hypocrisy and piety reign supreme. Come on Hellas!
The name of this local team, of course, suggested by a schoolteacher of the boys who founded it a hundred years ago, was the ancient Greek word for homeland.