A non-partisan journal of the left.

More than just a Game: football as the modern opium of the masses

Wed 20th Jun 2012

So far this summer - during the 2012 Euro Cup - football mania has gripped many nations across Europe. The underlying premise of international sporting events like the Euro Cup and the 2012 London Olympic Games, later this summer, is to bring people together in a spirit of fair competition and good will.

Europe is a football-loving continent. Football competitions draw large crowds and are extensively covered in the media. Men and women alike fanatically support a football club and their national team. The masculine identity is especially reinforced through participation in sports.

The spectacle of sport, like the Euro Cup, is the primary medium through which nations and national identities are re-imagined. Of course, not only are hooligans turned into chauvinistic nationalists but many others are genuinely drawn in. In the context of football, flag-waving nationalism- even chauvinistic, anti-foreigner, flag-waving nationalism- is acceptable. National symbols often bear uncomfortable overtones of racism for some. These nationalistic emotions are permissible when a football team is playing precisely because they are impermissible at most other times. There are few places where you can sing your national anthem until you lose your voice without causing a riot. National flags fly from fans’ cars on the day of a big match, or are sometimes painted on supporters' faces. Football is probably the only game Europe really cares about. There are few other sports that evoke and display the image of the nation with such uncritical optimism and celebratory zeal.

This is exactly the kind of banal nationalism that Michael Billig described in his seminal work in the 1990s. For 90 minutes you are focused on your nation, believing you are a part of it. However, it is disputable how far this extraordinary practice can explain the perceived binding and enduring quality of national identity and whether this practice is constitutive of national identity, or whether it is merely ornamental. Afterall, the desire to belong to a community is part of human nature.

From Anderson’s notion of ‘imagined communities’ and Hobsbawm’s ‘invention of tradition’ we know that sport and national identities have long been intertwined. Sport and its portrayal in the national media, has played a crucial role in the construction of a national identity.

Karl Marx famously argued that religion plays the role of the opium of the masses. It makes them forget the inequality between classes. It acts as a major distraction to their suffering.

On the continent, where an increasing number of young people are adopting Atheism or Agnosticism and openly questioning the existence of a God, sport is definitely the new opium of the people.

It is attracting their attention another way. Though it is distractive, it is highly amusing at the same time.

Poland and Ukraine, until recently within the Soviet sphere of influence, have spent an enormous amount of money on the necessary infrastructure needed to host the Euro Cup. A few of the construction companies have already declared bankruptcy. To host the Euro Cup, each country needed to have a required number of modern stadia that met certain standards. Both Poland and Ukraine had to built new stadia as well as refurbish the existing ones.

The Polish and the Ukrainian taxpayers will be in debt for decades, like the Greeks who are still paying for the 2004 Olympic Games. The legacy of the Games for the host country is often many vacant, fenced off and barely used venues.

We see thousands of people travelling from all across Europe in order to watch their national teams competing in the Euro Cup. I wonder how many young Spanish people travelled last week to the beautiful Polish port of Gdansk to watch their national team playing. I wonder if all of them belong to the 50% of ‘lucky and privileged’ Spanish people that actually have a full-time job nowadays. The same point applies to the thousands of Greek fans that are going to travel to Gdansk to watch their team play against Germany in a quarter-final match. Aside from the game of chicken that Greece has been playing with Germany over the past few months, the fans will now have the chance to see a different kind of game bound to be more amusing. In the political arena, Germany argues that either you pay or you die while Greece’s emerging political situation suggests that if we die everyone dies with us. In the end, the more determined player will emerge victorious in both ‘games’.

Football is a marketing business rather than a sport. Politics is also a business. Football stadia are micrographic representations of societies. The more we are aware of that, the more we can be frank about it and the better we can deal with issues that arise from the psychology of the masses, such as racism. Racist attacks are becoming increasingly vociferous and are gaining a momentum in the stadia. A number of black football players have been at the centre of horrific racist assaults. Authorities should not tolerate these phenomena. They are wholly unacceptable and we should take decisive action.
You must be logged in to post comments on the site or you can use Facebook above.