There won’t be much disputes if someone argues that football aka soccer is the most influential game of the world.Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan journalist in his fabulous work ‘Soccer in Sun and Shadows’ calls it as the only religion without atheists. In the book, which is the combination of a fan homage and social insights about soccer, he equates football with God, pointing to the devotion it imbibes within believers and the unbelief among the intellectuals.
After its emergence in England during the 1860’s, modern football made its way into African and Latin-American countries with the advent of colonialization. A game which was privileged by the upper class whites in the earlier period, it became the game of commons, when it percolated into factory workers in the colonies and Latin American black citizens.
The democratization of the football is related to the historical background of struggles against European colonialism over Latin America.
Gradually, football became an important element in their everyday lives, which can be seen as why football has interacted in the socio political background of Latin America.
Football reflects its humanitarian nature at multiple levels. It has been able to rise as a power of liberation, transgressing the race-class divisions and linguistic dominations to an extent, proof of which can be seen in the history of the evolution of the game in centuries.
Traditional intellectuals had seen worshipping football as superstitious which people deserves, while left intellectuals perceived it as an opium that pushed workers into self-oblivion, thereby destructing the possible revolution.
But towards the beginning of 20th century, certain left intellectuals had thrown up these conclusions and celebrated football, probably after realising its revolutionary potential. Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci describes football as “an open air kingdom”.
Discourse of football is located in the universal experience, hence it breaks the boundaries of language, culture and nationalism and becomes what Gramsci calls as the “open air kingdom”. It has an emotional field too- of football and the footballers- over which the game unifies the entire world.
Football and Race
Football brings in a common visual language, breaking the barriers of existing language and its structures. Exemplary movements made by the players around the ball, in the rectangular ground filled with green grass, transforms into this particular visual language.
Though marked with different racial and ethnic identities, players in various football clubs build a new empire of inclusions, outside their differences. World Cup football can be considered as one among those situations.
It is important to analyse the responses of Football as a sport form on racial discrimination. One can see that it travels by defending many of those discriminations.
There is much evidence that football’s constituency has reserves for not repeating the cruel history of discrimination and the contributions from African, Arab players and immigrant players in the same are noteworthy.
Revolution within football has become possible only through rectifying xenophobia and prejudices of European nations towards the Arab- African Population. Racism in football is often problematized only by the charisma of renowned players.
Daniel Haxall deals with the case of Zinadine Zidane, in his work “From Galáctico to Head Butt: Globalization, Immigration and the Politics of Identity in Artistic Reproductions of Zidane”.
Haxall examines how Zidane became an Algerian alien, representing the wounded yet most important social and political issues of post-colonial French colonies based on Geoff Hare’s observations on French football.
The political situation in France during the 1998 World Cup was extremely troubled. France’s victory, who were also the hosts in the World Cup, surprised everyone and turned out to be one of the challenges against the social discrimination and racism in the country. The victory worked in accordance to redefine France’s nationality as a whole.
French national football team inclusive of various people’s lives, shared the creation of a new unified identity. This team was also characterized by the social mobility of the bottom sections of society. Undoubtedly, Zidane was the main articulator of this revolutionary beginning.
In 1998, he became an iconic defender of racism in front of the world. That’s why Haxall writes that the question of ‘Who is Zidane after 98’ echoed the question of What is France, in his above mentioned work. The French national team began to be known as Black Blanc-Beur (Black-White-Arab) from Les Blues.
We have seen that the same diversity is celebrated once again when France lifted the World Cup in 2018. It is magnificent to note that the migrants like Paul Pogba, Engolo Kante and Kilian Embappe served as the backbones of this victory. This doesn’t intent to argue that the racial discrimination would be eliminated completely, however, the expectations offered by this celebrations of diversity isn’t minimal too.
Football as an Antidote to Islamophobia
The latest example of using football to defend Islamophobia is from the Egyptian footballer Mohammed Salah. Let’s look at an incident that happened before Salah arrived in Liverpool club. Liverpool fans insulted some Muslim football fans, infuriated for performing Namaz at Anfield stadium.Though the club quickly turned to condemn the event, it became an everlasting stain in club’s history.
However, as Mohammed Salah left AS Roma to sign up with Liverpool and emerged to be one amongst the top players in the tournament since then, the football fans of England have had tremendous changes. Existing hostilities and prejudices against Muslims began to be problematized, when football fans brought Salah to their heart, while he prostrates after scoring goals.
The Middle East Eye had reported on Social Media that he has made huge changes in the approach of European fans to Muslim community and they even set up a prayer room, not to mention the famous chant,” If he scores another few, then I’ll be a Muslim too”.
Salah has become a symbol, whose ball kicks have begun to rectify the Islamophobia of Europe. It can be understood as a defensive method which caters to the beginning of a social transition.
Hence, the history of football should be re-interpreted through these defences. History of football carries racial and ethnic conflicts as well. Many players protest these real conditions through the magic of their legs, to the astonishment of spectators.
Karim Benzema had to say that he was accepted as a French player only when he scores while otherwise he was reduced to his Arab identity. Romelu Lukaku becomes the “Belgian striker with Congolese descent” when he goes out of form, which shows the signs of racial and ethnic conflicts as it gets reflected in football. Mesut Ozil has retired from the German national team recently, protesting against many such discriminations.
Even in the face of such problems, the approach of football world in general towards the issue is comforting. Networks such as Fans Against Racism which was formed against racism locates these resistances at an organisational level. Never ending solidarity can be seen brimming in the gallery, for players who are subjected to discrimination. Aesthetics of football world works in this way.
The writer is an Integrated Master’s student in Sociology at University of Hyderabad.
Afnan Hussain, a Master’s Student of English at University of Hyderabad translated it from Malayalam