On Football and Significations: Brazil, Messi and Image Making in Sport

The contradictory movement in Messi should also be analysed: that of an emotional and passionate Latin American footballer. For Europe, he conquered everything, but for Argentina, he became a vulnerable, primal being. This being the consequence of the socio-symbolic struggle against the domination of the Other: being part of the Global peripheries and grappling with the immediate reality of exploitation and deprivation. It garners in Messi a value as the bearer of immense social weight, a messiah, a supra-subject.

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The domination of finance capital over other forms of production relations (still tied to them intrinsically) in the last 20 to 30 years made football a commodity par excellence. While ‘forms’ of the nation, ‘race’, sexuality, Christianity, etc were tackled on the scale of ‘global’ that the idea of ‘fluidity’ became significantly unassailable, and any form that ‘materialised’ into rigidity, conditioning, rootedness lost its charm or were tied up to history or the past. Finance capital made it possible for the domination of ‘content’ and subjectivities over time and space.

On a global scale, European club football began to dominate as the most mesmerising of all spectacles. There was no dearth of finesse and talent, no limits to specialisations, tactics and bodily performativity. It mastered the continuous flow of players, technicians, managers and fans by sailing in the flow of vast investments. The domination of a field of subjectivity over the limitation of the form (loyalty, structure, images from history) meant that global fans could be part of a free market of choices. They changed their clubs with whims without the peril of attracting scorn for dishonesty. Each player was associated with multiple sets of identifiers, each providing intricate details/meanings to every game. The reach and ability of any player to convert the field into a sea of possibilities (attackers defending, defenders with shooting skills) begot large values in the transfer market and made the fans ecstatic. Messi, Ronaldo or Latin American football should be placed in this fantasy of the game, to the free-floating of loose signifiers.



The reading here utilises aspects of the libidinal economy to understand football and peripherality rather than using postcolonial theory’s simplified and naive tenets. A beautiful paradox of necessity about Latin American football is that its inculcation in the universality of the Symbolic order is mediated through Western capital and its values of professionalism, lack of the ‘signified’ and the potential to become ‘floating signifiers’ and supra subjects; while at the same time, having to resort to the history of the Real-the condition of their home countries, the passion of their fans and to become a performative statement of historical injustices. Football players from Latin America or elsewhere have to overcome the very concept of dissolving the form of national identity, values of commitment, sincerity, etc. By becoming a universal subject, at the same time, a Latin American player, Messi has successfully mediated both. Marooned in Barcelona for years, he could overcome the very necessity of being valued by the symbolic Other by not subjecting himself to the flow of capital. He became an ideal form of the ‘imaginary’ against the fragmenting reality of the ‘symbolic’, as much as, a European gaze inwards at its own ‘messi’ness. The image of Messi was created in the form of an ideal family man, a real man of moral values and a Catholic white (more powerful than the Pope himself, who, incidentally, is from the same country). Cristiano Ronaldo signified, on the contrary, a different movement. In contrast to Messi, he was adorned for his professionalism, breaking records in the transfer market, dominating club football from the best of clubs in every European nation, and embodying the very ‘lack’ of the social context. The recent transfer of Ronaldo to Al Nassr for a record sum demonstrates not just the crisis in Europe but capital finding new bays to anchor. When Messi fostered a connection deep into the unconscious real of Europe, Ronaldo conjured the spirit of the immediate symbolic (his disavowal of Coca-Cola reflected a very Europeanised meaning). For it was Messi they desired, but Ronaldo they produced.


The contradictory movement in Messi should also be analysed: that of an emotional and passionate Latin American footballer. For Europe, he conquered everything, but for Argentina, he became a vulnerable, primal being. This is the consequence of the socio-symbolic struggle against the domination of the Other: being part of the Global peripheries and grappling with the immediate reality of exploitation and deprivation. It garners in Messi a value as the bearer of immense social weight, a messiah, a supra-subject. Contrastingly, Brazil has become the very form of its national identity. It becomes the very representation of the haunting realities of class, race, ethnicity and power. It doesn’t abstract itself to the level of the sublime. Still, it questions the very necessity of getting fragmented by the symbolic order- a politics that Brazil has always dared to perform in football history. While Messi subjectified the universal, Brazil essentialised the contradictions in that universal- both movements gave meaning and purpose to Latin American football, that it’s pointless to demarcate each as negating the other. The mask of fantasy of finance capital- its subtleties, spectacles, extreme demands, etc., in club football, becomes an arbitrary, tentative subterfuge to the real coming together of the Brazilian ‘team’ in its very formation, unfolding the truth of the Other. They join the team from different European leagues, only to realise a potential to transcend the abstraction. While Messi embodies the transcendence in itself, for Brazil, it’s not just an appeal to universalism but to its understatement. For it, the necessity is not just to overcome the fragmentation of finance capital but to open up the contradictions in European capitalism’s domination process. Thus, Brazil becomes a pure synthesis of pleasure and plays, culminating in the beauty of the Samba.

To contextualise, Latin American football brings various contradictions in the capitalist notion of progress and crisis. Theories in late capitalism have undermined the idea of progress as a linear -meta-narrative, and any notion of universality was deemed conta-subject. The real problem is to question how it is possible to place subjectivity against universality itself rather than undoing the latter without questioning the other. From the early 2000s onwards, economic crises have impaired both Argentina and Brazil. The financial crisis of 1998-2002 was the most debilitating, bringing poverty, devalued currency and reduction in agricultural production values combined with urban overgrowth and expansion of slums. Further economic slumps took place with the global recession of 2008. Brazil re-elected the left-wing Workers Party under the presidency of Dilma Rousseff after an impressive, radically uplifting term under President Lula da Silva.

However, the 2014 recession culminated in the impeachment of Rousseff. It is worth noticing that these economic turmoils coincided with Brazil’s 2002 World Cup win and Messi’s rise to stardom. The many undulating waves of crises in capitalism created the potential to fight back and be stable. This social necessity is reflected in football, too. It is reflected in the strong, stable performances that Brazil and Argentina produced throughout the past World Cups. Contingency does not adequately explain such historical self-fashioning but a layering of historical subjectivity with radical desiring. For instance, the greatest Brazilian team under Doctor Socrates came to the 1982 World Cup questioning the Military dictatorship of Brazil, and Argentina won the 1986 World Cup under Diego Maradona after the military dictatorship (both famously sponsored by the United States) came to an end in 1983. The 1980s marked a radical redefining of Latin American (football) history, trying to overhaul the last traces of European political influence when Europe proclaimed an ‘end to history’ itself. Thus, when Messi raises a finger against Van Gal in the finals of the 2022 World Cup, Riquelme of the 2000s will haunt the football field. For it is against the overhaul of historical subjectivity by European Finance capital, an emotional Messi is protesting.

Vamos in Spanish means “let’s go”, and Viva in Portuguese means “Long Live”, both interjections representing Argentina and Brazil, respectively. The marked difference is that for Argentina, it is the marker of the present in action, the confidence of the leading hero, and the satisfying quest for glory and retribution. In contrast, Brazil upholds the idea of history, a rhythm of desire in the heartlands of domination and injustice, to seek the object petit a (the end of history by reaching the plateau of World Cup wins) and turn the history of the Real with real political implications. For both work in tandem: Messi- the mask that’s turned against Europe and Brazil the fantasy of the Real under the eyes of the Other.

Nevertheless, to conclude, the construction of the idea of Messi as a universality bereft of the immediate ‘rootedness’, raised to the level of the sublime, as a tragic hero and a redeemer, as the bearer of the expectations of fans throughout the world (regardless of their particular affiliations) must also be understood as the birth of a new era. The arguments made above illustrate that such image-making is possible only through the free association of capital with cultural symbolism that has the potential to transcend any restrictive forms that preceded neoliberalism and finance capital. Winning the World Cup in 2022 became a poetic justice, an act Nietzsche calls an aesthetic phenomenon that eternally justifies existence and the world. Messi conjures up the spirit of Dionysius, the primordial, passionate archetype of human existence restricted by Apolline forms of everyday life- nationality, race, identity, etc. The success of Messi then is the aspiration of even the Brazilian fans who, inadvertently, celebrated him under the outstretched hands of Messiah in the streets of Rio. Messi opens up as a ‘tragedy’ the pandora’s box of seamless expansion of capital as a powerful image that straightens up even the most passionate forms of antagonism. Through Messi, a new form of the transcendental signified is established, outrightly beginning in the very deconstruction of the metanarratives and solidifying the particularity of identities. The future of football and image formations will certainly rely on such circular, contradictory movements while we wait for the rebirth of a new Real.

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