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Capitalism can’t kill football – World Cup passion proves it

About a week before the 2022 World Cup kicked off in Qatar, I was walking through the coastal town of Zihuatanejo, in the state of Guerrero, in southern Mexico, when I came across a group of children playing soccer with a plastic Coca-Cola bottle. They were as cheerfully animated as any group of kids playing football anywhere, while the Coke bottle was, I thought, sadly appropriate in a world ruled by corporate toxicity.

It was particularly appropriate, perhaps, given that Coca-Cola and football go back a long way. The company, which has been an official World Cup sponsor since 1978, entered into a formal association with FIFA in 1974 – although its logo has saturated World Cup events since 1950. The partnership was initially meant to promote the youth development programs, because there is clearly nothing better for youth development than ingesting a sticky brown liquid that is bad for human health.

Of course, this alliance is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of global capitalism’s efforts to suck the soul out of football and eradicate any remnants of primal joy by monetizing and commodifying everything on and off the pitch. Given the deluge of corporate propaganda we call “sponsorship”, the uninitiated football viewer would be forgiven for thinking that Adidas was a football team – or that matches are played between the airlines Emirates and Etihad.

And there’s nothing like sponsoring football’s biggest competition to improve your international brand image. Chinese companies have also gotten the hang of it – they are top spenders for the World Cup in Qatar.

In his book, El Fútbol a sol y sombra (Football in the sun and in the shade), first published in 1995, the famous Uruguayan writer and die-hard football fan Eduardo Galeano remarked that every footballer has become a ” moving advertising” – but not everyone was happy with this arrangement. In the mid-1950s, he recalls, when prominent Montevideo club Peñarol tried to impose company advertising on their shirts, 10 team members obediently took to the pitch. with the updated shirts while black player Obdulio Varela refused: “They used to drag us blacks with nose rings. Those days are over.

To be sure, it’s never just fun and games when obscene amounts of money are involved. Take the case of Horst Dassler – the son of Adidas founder Adi Dassler, himself a charming ex-Nazi party member – who in 1982 started a company called International Sports and Leisure, which quickly acquired exclusive marketing rights and broadcast on FIFA operations, including the World Cup. This was done by paying bribes to FIFA President João Havelange – the same Havelange who graciously appeared alongside Argentine dictator Jorge Videla at the 1978 World Cup in Buenos Aires.

This dictatorship was ultimately responsible for the murder or disappearance of some 30,000 suspected leftists in a dirty seven-year war that was lit by – who else? – the United States, which has always been keen to have more evil right-wing regimes on board in its quest to make the world safe for capitalism.

In 1998, Havelange was replaced by Sepp Blatter, who was also accused of widespread vote buying and manipulation of financial data and who, according to Galeano, made Havelange look like “a sister of charity”. Galeano died in April 2015, a month before the US Department of Justice sensationally charged fourteen FIFA officials and corporate executives with corruption, with US Attorney General Loretta Lynch lamenting that the individuals had “corrupted the activity of world football to serve their interests and enrich themselves”.

But as the United States well knows, corrupt personal enrichment and corporate impunity are business as usual in capitalism – which has also produced a “gentrification” of sport itself, as evidence has shown. researchers. A study published by the Royal Society in December 2021 found that the “excessive monetization of football” had led to growing inequality between teams in major European leagues and increasing predictability of match outcomes. Even though sports governance officials claim to globalize football, in reality the process reproduces the inequality endemic to corporate globalisation.

Indeed, the very spirit of professional football has been corrupted by the sport’s transformation into an industry – resulting in a regimented, technocratic game that aims to turn players into robots. As Galeano put it, this approach to football “forbids all fun”; in the interest of maximized productivity and increased profit, it “denies joy, kills fantasy and forbids audacity”. Magic, after all, is not profitable.

Fortunately, however, there have always been people who refuse to follow the program. According to Galeano, the Brazilian footballer Mané Garrincha, born into poverty in Rio de Janeiro in 1933, was by far the player who brought the most happiness to the public in the whole history of football, transforming the game into an “invitation to a party”. . Too bad for the doctors who ridiculed the prospect of a sporting future for “this deformed survivor of hunger and polio… with an infant brain, an S-shaped spine and both legs bent to the same side”. (Capitalism eventually won, and Garrincha died, poor and alone, in 1983.)

Argentinian football virtuoso Diego Maradona, also on the wrong side of the track, has also defied borders – notably by denouncing the tyranny of television in sport, defending the rights of workers in football, demanding the financial transparency of football clubs, supporting the Palestinian cause and generally driving the powers that be into the wall. On the pitch, he continued to inject old-school magic into modern mediocrity until he was kicked out of the 1994 World Cup.

Meanwhile, more recent resistance to football’s descent into soulless, money-driven depths was seen last year, when furious fans in the UK helped force the collapse of a Super League program designed to further line the pockets of elite club owners.

Of course, capitalism has certainly scored a major goal with professional football.

But sport remains a source of popular passion and an assertion of collective identity for countless people, on sports fields, grass pitches and dirt courts from Mexico to Mozambique – a far cry from the billions of dollars swirling around the world. football industrial complex.

As the 22nd World Cup kicks off today in Qatar, Galeano would no doubt have criticized the whole TV spectacle. And yet he would have undoubtedly watched it on his television, beer in hand, hoping for a glimpse of forbidden pleasure – a moment of pure brilliance and beauty. Because like with the kids kicking the Coca-Cola bottle around Zihuatanejo, there’s something about football that capitalism just can’t kill.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.

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