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Tearing up the Pitch: The Battle for the Soul of Soccer

By Guest Contributor Isaac Oommen

Players hold up a banner saying “Say No To Racism” before the FIFA World Cup match pitting Uruguay against Ghana. Image via Zimbio.

Soccer was an unstoppable force in the Gulf Middle East, where I grew up. One of my earliest memories is of my dad teaching me the basics of ball control in our gravel back lot in Buraimi, Oman (my dad maintains to this day that the essence of playing good soccer is to understand that the ball is actually metaphorical, making the game the only one that can be played with no equipment whatsoever). These were soon followed by actual games at school, tournaments and watching the dubbed Arabic anime Captain Majid.

When I first came to Vancouver, playing pick-up games of soccer was one of the few ways in which I felt that tiny slice of home. Even now, my game-days are spent at packed Commercial Drive cafes where groups of brown men from all over the world switch between spells of silence and uproar while staring at high definition televisions.

Interacting with large transnational populations wherever I went, I found, as sports writer Matt Hern says in One Game at a Time, that there was rarely a site of greater integration, tolerance, generosity and undermining of racial stereotypes than sports.

Watching the FIFA World Cup means watching the biggest arena where all of the above come together, alongwith a slew of problems that accompany the monetization of the game of the global South. As Eduardo Galeano says in Soccer in Sun and Shadow, “When the sport became an industry, the beauty that blossoms from the joy of play got torn out by its very roots.”

Galeano goes on to say that the real beauty of soccer is in finding the rebels that break the rules and do something daring, “all for the carnal delight of embracing the forbidden adventure of freedom.”

In a game where race is central, rebellions occur often. Whether it takes the route of Maradona’s “hand of God” goal or Zidane’s controversial retirement game, race plays a huge role in both team and match dynamics. Soccer after all was one of the key elements that fuelled the Arab Spring. The game even has the ability to build and transform national identity, such as that of Black Ecuadorians within that state.

This year’s World Cup is no different, and actually exemplifies this spirit to new levels. Very quickly, some of the major European colonial powers (England, Spain, Portugal and Italy to name a few) got knocked out, drawing visible guffaws from fans in the global South. Meanwhile, there was strong showings from countries that were not deemed to do well, such as Algeria and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Nothing says freedom like beating the colonial masters. Even in defeat, the powerful resistance of teams such as Costa Rica (which fended off the Netherlands for a full 120 minutes and only met defeat in the penalty shootout, where their twice-injured goalie went up against a fresh Dutch substitute) show that European dominance in the game is waning in favour of the South.

These showings may be one of the reasons why people cram into small cafes and other venues to watch the games around the world: from farm laborers and bros watching the game together in a small town on the west coast of Canada, to revolutionaries and vendors doing the same in Algiers. This is the sort of serious attention and thinking that Hern says can create an embodies epistemological basis for undermining racialized thinking.

Moreover soccer, and particularly world class soccer, is a site of massive migration patterns, which is worth examining on its own. In 2010 the Economist tracked how European soccer clubs depended heavily on players imported from the global South. Players from countries such as Cameroon and Brazil are present in large numbers in European clubs. A more recent graph illustrated player migrations for this year’s World Cup, showing especially how first-generation immigrants go back to the nation of their parents’ origin to play. The presence of immigrants on these teams consciously challenges anti-immigrant sentiments in the North, including the U.S.

At the core of all this is that immigration plays a central role in what these teams look like. Without immigration, the teams playing (and the results of matches) would be vastly different. A quick look at how key players on the Belgian team are first generation immigrants from the Democratic Republic of Congo (which Belgium colonized) illustrates this. Other European teams like Germany and France do the same with their former colonies. Watching these teams means watching the DRC, Cameroon and Algeria at play.

The U.S. team, especially, is a melting pot of immigrants from many places in the South — Mexico, Columbia and Haiti to name a few. Looking at the U.S. as a place with hundreds of years of immigration, the only real native player is striker Chris Wondolowski, who is half Indigenous Kiowa.

Image by Thierry Ehrmann via Flickr Creative Commons.

Rebellions such as these may be why FIFA has finally started setting up banners that read “Say No to Racism.” Outside the stadiums, there is also more critical coverage than ever of the World Cup. Well ahead of the actual matches, I found reports detailing how FIFA and the host nation Brazil’s government were ripping apart impoverished areas to make space for stadiums and tourists. Reporters provided on-the-ground coverage of the protests as well as comprehensive analyses of how the Cup is a tool of neo-liberalization. This reporting included that of the resistance movement around Brazil, including Indigenous resistance, with live updates via blog as well as through the popular hashtag #RioCupWatch.

Sometimes critical analyses of the Cup even made it onto mainstream television networks like Comedy Central. And there has already been coverage and critique of Qatar’s 2022 World Cup for corruption and mistreatment of migrant workers.

In all of this lies the untamed soul of soccer: the game that is so simple and raw that it cannot be covered up with FIFA pomp. This is why those protesting the World Cup set up a People’s Cup to demonstrate the simplicity of the game, as well as the concerns they have with FIFA ripping apart their communities; this year’s was the second People’s Cup. It is also why one of the most powerful protests during the World Cup took place at the opening ceremony, when a boy chosen to represent Indigenous Brazilians unfurled a banner saying “Demarcation” in Portuguese, calling for the protection of Indigenous lands. The soul of the game is far from crushed. Rather, in the protests inside and outside the arenas, and in the playing of soccer itself, the rebellious heart beats on.