Beautiful game, pity about the nationalism

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

In the future, in a real human community, there will surely be football. The elimination of economic and military competition from the basis of society does not imply that people won't still want to play team games, and football has proved itself to be the most compelling team game of all.

But there won't be any nation states, so the World Cup in its present form will have been consigned to the Museum of Football History (possibly the one in Preston).

That's if we reach such a society - which we absolutely need to do if humanity has any chance of surviving and flourishing.  And if we don't, the continuing grip of nationalism will certainly be one of the factors that will have doomed us to sink into an inferno of endless wars and ethnic conflicts.

International sporting events like the World Cup are the perfect vehicle for stirring up nationalism. As in the current Carlsberg TV ad, the ghosts of Agincourt and Bobby Moore are conjured up from the dead to lead ‘11 English men' to victory over the foreign foe....Meanwhile (at least until England get knocked out) the country will be awash with flags of St George and the likes of the English Defence League will seize the day to step up their marches against the imminent danger of our country being taken away from us by Islamic terrorists (or just Muslims, or blacks, or foreigners in general).

Some will reply: lighten up. It's all good harmless fun. After all, not everyone who waves the Crusader's flag is a xenophobe or a fascist. There will be plenty of black people and Asian people supporting England.

And indeed, it's not likely that the World Cup itself will have a very deep or lasting impact in Britain, or that the nationalist hysteria it generates will end up in much worse than a few sordid examples of racist bullying and violence against those perceived as the non-English. But there are plenty of examples to show that football, or rather its manipulation by the media and political factions, has been a key factor in whipping up real and very bloody conflicts.  Last year's qualifying match between Egypt and Algeria for this World Cup is a good example. Six Algerian fans were killed in the chaos that followed the match in Cairo and 21 Algerians injured. 23 Egyptians were injured in Khartoum, and on top of this 14 Algerians died and hundreds were wounded in Algeria in post-match celebrations. In addition to the violence around the actual match many of the 15,000 Egyptian workers living in Algeria were attacked and felt forced to flee. Thousands of Egyptian supporters also fought running battles with the police in central Cairo, resulting in 11 police and 24 protesters being injured, 20 people arrested and 15 vehicles damaged. Some fans, unable to reach the Algerians, pelted the nearby Indian Embassy with stones. In addition to this there were widespread clashes between North Africans living in France.

Although the bourgeois media condemns events like this the very tone that they take shows a completely different reaction to the one they had at the time of the massive strikes in Algeria two years ago. Then the full fury of the state, and all its repressive apparatus, were turned against the working class, showing the fear within the ruling class. After the football match there were a few gentle words of condemnation and appeals for calm.

This is far from the worst events that we have seen at a football match though. Back in 1990, one of the events that was part of the build up to the wars in ex-Yugoslavia was the match between Dynamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade. Of course wars are not started by football matches. Nevertheless such public demonstrations of nationalist hatred are used as a way to mobilise the working class for war. The match ended up in a pitched battle between rival Croatian and Serbian nationalist gangs, the Serb one led by Arkan, a Serb nationalist later indicted by the UN for crimes against humanity. The police were quickly overwhelmed by the large numbers, but later returned with reinforcements, armoured vans and water cannons to join in the violence. After an hour with hundreds of injured, some shot, some stabbed and some poisoned by tear gas, the fighting subsided. The wars, in which over 60,000 people died were about to start, and Arkan's Tigers, a militia based on Red Star supporters, played a role in some of the worst cases of ethnic cleansing. Zvonimir Boban, later to achieve massive fame with AC Milan, caught the limelight that day by attacking a policeman during the rioting. He later said he loved Croatia more than anything, and that he would die for his country. He didn't, but unfortunately tens of thousands of workers did.

Going back to 1969, to the 1970 World Cup qualifiers in fact, El Salvador and Honduras fought a war commonly know as the ‘Soccer War'. The match was the spark that turned an already tense situation into war. Following the second-leg match the media in both countries reported, exaggerated, and incited attacks of workers from the other country, and within a month the countries were involved in war, which although it only lasted for four days left over 3,000 dead, the vast majority of them civilians, and 300,000 refugees.

In the future, if we have a future, there will surely be football. But it won't be used to sell us back our own dreams, to turn respect for skill into the worship of stars and idols, to bind us to a false community where the exploited and the oppressed have the same interests as those that exploit us and oppress us, just because they were born inside the same national borders. 

Amos/Sabri 31.5.10