• Football is Everything (Which is to
    Say Soccer)

    David Goldblatt on the Biggest Cultural Phenomenon the World Has Ever Known

    Football is first.
    The craziness around football is second.
    Then there is the rest of the world.

    –Carlos Monsiváis


    Carlos Monsiváis, the late essayist and critic, was referring to the mental and emotional priorities of the Mexican press and public during the World Cup, the tournament invariably coinciding with elections to either the Senate or the Presidency itself. Extraordinary as this is, that the fate of the national football team should, for even just a month, eclipse such important political moments, and true as this is for many polities and publics, Monsiváis’ epigram speaks to a more general and even stranger truth.

    Football is first.

    First amongst sports themselves, first amongst the world’s popular cultural forms. The game is able to command the allegiance, interest and engagement of more people in more places than any other sport. The World Cup has superseded the Olympics as the spectacle of all spectacles. The NFL might just remain the biggest single-­sport league financially, but European football alone has entirely outstripped its revenues and global reach, and the gap is only going to get bigger.

    In the three most populous nations of the earth—China, India and the United States, where just 20 years ago football held a very peripheral place in the sporting and popular cultural landscape—it has now arrived for good. In China the party has made the game the measure of the nation’s development. In the United States it gathers a coalition who see a version of the nation that is normal, not exceptional; playing others rather than dominating them. In India it is emerging from beneath the blanket obsession with cricket of the last few decades as a new marker of cosmopol­itanism and class distinctions.

    If football’s place in global sporting culture has become almost unassailable, its weight, relative to other cultural forms and industries, has also sharply risen. It bears comparison with the world’s religions, not as a system of belief or alternative metaphysics, but in the scale, regularity and profundity of its cycles and rituals. Its economic footprint is hardly titanic, but European football now turns over more revenue than the European publishing or cinema industries. The game’s attraction to global corporations as a vector for their brands seems unquenchable, ensuring its presence and imagery is multiplied many times over.

    It is an object of desire for television networks across the world. Indeed, even Amazon and Facebook, recent purchasers of football media rights, have decided that they need football more than football needs them. The level of mainstream and social media coverage accorded the game is simply vast and unending. The game attracts, at its peak, audiences that dwarf other sports, shows and genres; and when it does so, it gathers eyes and minds in acts of collective imagining like no other spectacle on offer.

    Football fever can serve as a collective insistence that there are other moral logics and priorities in this world.

    Everywhere, as it has for over a century, football creates and dramatizes our social identities, our amities and our antipathies. No other sport, no popular cultural form, has been subject to this degree of adulation. Football is first: the most global and most popular of popular cultural phenomenon in the 21st century.

    In Monsiváis’ reading of the game, football serves primarily as a distraction from the “real world” of Mexican politics and the country’s economic and social problems. Worse, it evokes hysteria rather than the clear-­eyed reasoned thinking the latter demand. This is not an unreasonable interpretation of Mexico’s relationship to football, or the rest of the world’s. Football is often a distraction; in some ways that is the point: the game’s locus as a place of emotional refuge, escape and otherworldliness has long been part of its purpose and pleasures.

    Certainly, there is no shortage of irrational, myopic, deluded and obsessive behavior in the football world. Interpreted in this light football is rendered as a 21st-­century version of the Roman Circus, a crude but effective instrument of rule that distracts and disables popular consciousness.

    True, but the idea that the real world is actually sealed off or absent from the worlds of football and the craziness around it cannot stand. In fact, the real world of economic and political power is more present in football than ever before and, though it hides itself in a thousand ways, there is actually no greater or more transparent public theater for exposing these forces at work. At the same time the craziness around the game should not be understood as just self-­consciously ignorant hedonism and reverie.

    One can also read the game’s irrationality not as a form of madness, but as a deeply felt refusal to accept the presence of the real world in the game as legitimate, or to allot it the seriousness it commands. Football fever can serve as a collective insistence that there are other moral logics and priorities in this world, different from and more human than the ones we so blithely award the soubriquet of the real.

    Guy Debord, the melancholy kingpin of the Situationist International, recognized that presence of social relationships inside the modern media spectacle. Indeed, in his brilliant, aphoristic Society of the Spectacle, he came to define the phenomenon in precisely that way. The media spectacle, whatever its content, would, he predicted, bind great networks of people and institutions together by the mere consumption of imagery, and in so doing establish new relationships of domination and control.

    The spectacle would not just distract but commodify, blind and stupefy too. Moreover, whatever spontaneous authenticity and lived reality the subject of the spectacle might possess to begin with—be it a musical performance, religious ceremony or game of football—it would inevitably be reshaped by the forces of commerce and power to create a simulacrum, an ever more perfect and ever more fabricated, deracinated version of the real.

    Written in the mid-­1960s, an era of deep somnolence in French football, Debord’s work gives no indication that football would furnish the pinnacle of the modern spectacle. Had he done so, he might not have drawn such bleak conclusions, for Debord and the Situ­ationists were alert to the subversive potential of play and games. His Danish colleague, the artist Asger Jorn, invented the notion of three-­sided football as a challenge to ludic orthodoxy, and as an experiment in non-­binary models of social interaction, while Debord’s own Game of War was an avant-­garde satire on the table-­top board game. Football can and does nurture monomania, ignorance, atavistic loathing and mindless stupefaction, but that does not exhaust its repertoire.

    First, it remains the case that a crowd cannot, as yet, be simulated and then banished. The spectacle that we have chosen to prioritize, above all, still needs a real crowd in a real stadium, where the social relationships, networks and identities established amongst those present offer an indissoluble humanity in the face of the game’s commercial transformation and control.

    The world of football is not entirely unfamiliar with the undead—some might even suggest that the game has been run by them.

    Thus, a place remains, right at the heart of the football spectacle, where resistance to the intrusion and overweening importance of economic and political power can survive, joined by a public beyond the stadium for whom the game is more than mere consumption.

    Second, football, in the end, is just a game. Games, and the logic of play that animates them, are premised on the notion that the point of play is just that: play. It is a realm, amongst many things, of experimentation, pleasure, curiosity, and one in which neither money nor power should determine who can play or how to play. If they do, we are no longer merely playing, but in some way fighting or buying or bullying. Thus, almost universally in football cultures, there is a sense that games should not be fixed; that victory should follow virtue, not wealth or power; that glory bought is glory turned to ashes; that the game is not about me or you, but about us; that success and failure are collectively made and shared; that we are only as good as our weakest link, our must vulnerable team mates and citizens.

    Despite its commercialization, despite its capture by the global culture industries, despite every move to make over and manicure its staging, despite every effort to make the game pay homage to power on this earth, it remains a place in which, albeit dimly, a different world can still be imagined.

    It would be recondite but illuminating to take the ghosts of these two gentlemen, Monsiváis and Debord, to a game of our era; to chew the fat, to watch the match; to show Monsiváis the ineradicable and instructive presence of the real world at the heart of the game; to suggest to Debord that the digital, global might of the spectacle has yet to entirely close down the space for real human relationships and critical thought.

    We would be a motley crew: Monsiváis, incapacitated in later life by respiratory illness and killed by it in 2010, might well have to come in a wheelchair; Debord himself, consumed by alcohol and despair, shot himself in 1994. I imagine he will have a hole through his heart, draining away whatever wine he can find in the afterlife. Debord and I could take turns, assisting Monsiváis when needed, but perhaps you could help too? Reliability was never Debord’s strong suit.

    And if we were to go to just one game, we should go large: Sunday, July 13th, 2014. Estadio Maracanã: Rio de Janeiro, the 2014 World Cup final. Yes, accreditation might be difficult, but the world of football is not entirely unfamiliar with the undead—some might even suggest that the game has been run by them. Either way, I’m sure our Brazilian hosts would make an accommodation for two such venerable visitors. No, I don’t think they’ve had a connection to the internet in the afterlife. So, while we are waiting for the game to start, plenty of time to bring them up to date.

    For sure, Carlos. Football is first . . .

    At 7:30 p.m. GMT, Germany will play Argentina in the final of the World Cup. We’ve come early to avoid the crush, to take in the moment, to find our tiny place in the spectacle’s spider’s web. One billion people will watch this game; 3.2 billion, more than half the adults in the world, have watched some of this tournament. Sure, it’s not a precise cross-­section—more male than female, more urban than rural—but no shared moment will come closer to who we are demographically. For a month, humanity has gathered in front of screens, crowds have taken over public and private spaces, factories have rescheduled shifts and states have changed school hours, all to accommodate the football.

    In rural southern China, a forklift truck driver goes to bed straight after work, so he can rise at midnight in his shack and watch the games on his laptop. In Northern Chile, the copper mines’ schedule has been changed to accommodate La Roja  ’s games, the miners gathering to watch in the works canteen. In South Korea, even at five in the morning, hundreds of thousands of Red Devils have been eating breakfast in front of the national team’s matches. In Beirut, where the Lebanese have no team of their own to back, whole neighborhoods are strung with foreign flags, rooting for Argentina or Germany.

    Complex narratives, rooted in the texture of economic and social life, have given the World Cup the range of a multi-­authored international collection of short stories and essays.

    World cities, home to communities from almost every participant nation at the tournament, have been buzzing with diasporic gath­erings and parties: Italians in Toronto, Nigerians in London, Mexicans in Los Angeles, Ivorians in Paris. In Berlin, hundreds of thousands are gathering and dancing along the Love Mile. In the eastern half of the city where they prefer things a little more sedate, 4,000 have brought their own sofas to Union Berlin’s stadium, now decorated as a living room, with a vast TV screen at one end.

    In Yemen’s capital Sana’a, a hiatus in the Saudi bombing campaign has allowed crowds to gather to watch the games, but tonight they still cluster under a huge concrete bridge for protection. People go where they can and do what they can to watch the game. An ancient battery-­powered set serves the rubbish pickers of Cairo; a precariously rigged satellite dish catches the signal in a Syrian refugee camp. In Antarctica, British scientists gather round a short-­wave radio. In Earth’s orbit, 200 miles above the surface of the planet, astronauts in the International Space Station watch NASA’s HD-­quality feed.

    Everyone has been watching, and everyone wants their say. For the first time, Il Papa—in this incarnation Jorge Mario Bergoglio, AKA Pope Francis, a known and serious Argentinean football fan—has sent a video of greetings and blessings to the tournament. Fidel Castro, hitherto only on public record talking about baseball, made his correspondence with Maradona public, telling El Pibe de Oro that “Every day I have the pleasure of following your program, on Telesur, about the World Cup of soccer; thanks to that, I can observe the extraordinary level of that universal sport.”

    America’s President Barack Obama and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani may have been preoccupied by the terrible events unfolding in Iraq that month—amongst other things, the declaration of a new caliphate by the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-­Baghdadi—but both men found time to use social media platforms to signal their support for their respective national teams. Obama went with Facebook and Vine; Rouhani tweeted his support along with a picture of himself dressed, most uncharacteristically, in a football tracksuit rather than his customary clerical robes. Iran’s delegation at the Vienna nuclear talks took time out from diplomacy to watch the TV broadcast of their national team playing Nigeria.

    In a fragmented media world, national teams’ games have been attracting truly exceptional mass audiences everywhere, breaking the TV record for a football match in the USA, and topping the ratings league in Brazil, Germany, Japan and Britain. Today, the game will be live on 430 channels, in dozens of languages; another 300 audio feeds will serve thousands and thousands of radio stations.

    Only North Korea’s screens will not be showing the game, but then state television there has released a musical montage of old football artworks in a program that suggests the country has already won the tournament. That said, you can bet your life that the elites of Pyongyang will be watching today’s game on their own private streams.

    Simultaneously, the global digital chorus has been immense. The semi-­final between Brazil and Germany generated 35 million tweets, peaking at more than half a million a minute when Germany’s fifth goal went in. Today’s game will make this Twitter’s busiest day ever. Facebook announced more than a billion World Cup-­related inter­actions during the first half of the month-­long tournament. In the first week alone, the 459 million World Cup exchanges exceeded those reported for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Oscars combined.

    Over the whole tournament, 350 million people have made 3 billion posts. Even FIFA’s own website, perhaps the least informative of all available outlets, has received a billion visits. No event—not a man on the moon, not the opening ceremony of any Olympic games, nor any coronation, inauguration or funeral—has held humanity’s attention like this.

    The craziness around football is second . . .

    On the pitch below us, the players stretch, warm up and juggle the ball. Smartphones and the innumerable big screens and advertising boards demand our attention. The stands are finally filling, but it still doesn’t quite feel like a crowd. Then you notice how the white shirts and the striped shirts cluster, how the gruff chants and snatches of old songs in Spanish and German rise above the mundane music from the PA; how people are finding each other by ear and eye; and you, like everyone, float in the exquisite, lightheaded zone of the unknown. It’s a football game: anything can happen, and who knows how we will react when it does.

    Germany, finally emerging as what it has been for decades—the pre-­eminent European power—has a football team to match its ambitions and its character.

    In Bogotá, Colombia, the national team’s opening victory against the Greeks initiated a city-­wide bacchanalian spasm of dancing, drinking and flour-throwing that descended into multiple incidents of violence. Mayor Gustavo Petro imposed a total alcohol ban for subsequent games. At the end of the group stages, the final whistle blew in Porto Alegre and an ocean away, amongst the ancient Roman ruins of Algiers, a delirious crowd celebrated Algeria’s victory over South Korea, engulfed in smoke, fireworks and magnesium flares.

    In Lyon and Lille, the kids from the banlieues torched cars and buses. In Grenoble, they were scattered by riot police with tear-­gas gren­ades. The following day Mexico beat Croatia in Recife and the Chicano boulevards of downtown Los Angeles and Huntington Park filled with a sea of Mexican tricolors and a party so large that the panicky LAPD called out the riot squad. In Santiago, the partying that accompanied Chile’s run to the quarter-finals reached such heights that the government asked its citizens to refrain from barbecuing to protect the city’s already fragile air quality.

    For a month, football has functioned as a vast, polymorphous set of rituals and a global public theater, connecting those inside the stadiums, the crowds occupying public space in the cities of the world and the billions more watching on screens in their homes, all telling and retelling, inventing and interpreting the stories it has been generating. At times, the multi-­character, multi-­layer narratives that the tournament produces, and the mad chatter of the public running commentary on the players’ characters and private lives, have made the World Cup feel like a great global soap opera.

    Cameroon and Ghana were consumed by fights over money between the players and their notoriously rapacious football officials. When the Uruguayan Luis Suárez lost control and bit the Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini, he was globally lampooned and lauded in his home country.

    On the other hand, more complex narratives, rooted in the texture of economic and social life, have given the World Cup the range of a multi-­authored international collection of short stories and essays. England’s dismal ejection from the tournament seemed a textbook exposition of the private opulence of the Premier League and the public squalor of the national team. In Iran, it was the women who came through strongest.

    Officially banned from viewing football with men, they followed the national team surreptitiously in mixed cafes and then paraded through central Tehran in defiance of the theocracy. On the other side of the world, hundreds of thousands of ecstatic Colombians welcomed home their team as if they were champions rather than defeated quarter-­finalists. The team’s best ever World Cup performance served as a suitable marker for a nation finally moving beyond the protracted drug wars of the previous three decades. Argentina’s and Germany’s stories are not yet concluded.

    Germany, still described in the hapless clichés of efficient machines and ruthless, clinical finishing, have been dazzling: precisely the word that the French press used to laud the Brazilians at the 1938 World Cup when they surprised the world and showed us what the new football looked like. Now the continental positions are reversed. Germany, finally emerging as what it has been for decades—the pre-­eminent European power—has a football team to match its ambitions and its character: brilliantly organized but highly flexible; individually accomplished but telepathically networked; technically superior to the Brazilians in touch, positioning and anticipation.

    Their 7–­1 demolition of the hosts in São Paulo in the semi-­final earl­ier in the week is unlikely to be bettered. The backdrop to the Argentinians’ almost impregnable nerve and defensive concentration on the field is President Kirchner’s bitter fight with US-­based vulture funds over its rescheduled debt obligations. Under immense economic pressure and looking a major debt default in the eye, the country still aims to cock a snook at the international order. Meanwhile it waits for its football messiah, Lionel Messi, finally to come alive at the World Cup, to replicate Maradona’s brilliance in 1986 when they last won the title, then he too can ascend to divinity.

    Then there is the rest of the world . . .

    Other people’s World Cup stories have been more abruptly termin­ated. On Sunday, June 15th, the Somalian jihadi group Al-­Shabaab sent two minibuses of gunmen to Mpeketoni, a small Kenyan town on the Indian Ocean. There, they machine-­gunned a crowd watching France versus Honduras in a television hall, as well as attacking a hotel, bank and the police station, leaving 50 people dead. In Adamawa state, in the troubled central belt of Nigeria, they had been expecting the same from Boko Haram, and big screens and public gatherings had been banned.

    Nonetheless, two days later, as Brazil played Mexico, a bomb went off in a motorized rickshaw parked next to a viewing party in the capital city Damaturu; the local hospital received 21 corpses and dealt with 27 serious injuries. All through the tournament, the forever war between Israel and Gaza’s Palestinians has raged. On July 9th, a group gathered at the Full-­Time beach cafe in Gaza to watch the semi-­final between Argentina and the Netherlands, and was struck by an air-­to-­ground missile, leaving eight dead.

    Just one of seven-hundred fifty locations hit by the Israelis in a forty-eight-­hour aerial assault, just eight lives from a death toll of at least seventy-eight. As one survivor recalled, “We were watching news on the television, waiting for the match to begin. I heard a terrible boom and felt myself suffocating. I woke up to find myself here in hospital.”

    The warm-­ups are ending. Time to wake up. Time to look around.


    Excerpted from The Age of Football: Soccer and the 21st Century by David Goldblatt. Copyright © 2019 by TOBACCOATHLETIC LIMITED. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

    David Goldblatt
    David Goldblatt
    David Goldblatt is the author of three acclaimed books about soccer, including the international bestseller The Ball Is Round. His podcast, Game of Our Lives, has recently been nominated for a Webby Award. He teaches at Pitzer College in Los Angeles and lives in Bristol, England.

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