With the eagerly anticipated football season underway, tranquillity has been restored, provided your team has inaugurated their campaign with three points. Regardless of your respective team’s fate, football is back at the forefront of both our minds and our television screens (did it ever leave?). With renewed hopes and dreams soon to be either fulfilled or shattered, is there a more befitting time to write about football than right now?
The face of modern football is an ugly one. Disfigured from years of greed and corruption, where allegiances are broken as quickly as a cheque can be signed, admirers of the sport are becoming increasingly disillusioned with a game that has come to take loyalty for granted and ludicrous wages as a given. As morose as this may seem, fear not, for football, despite its recent shortcomings, remains an espousal of raw, untainted beauty, of brotherhood, and of emancipation from the ills of everyday monotony to which most of us are reluctantly subject. If a group of fifty people were asked to define utopia, each would be unique. And I doubt any would refer to football as a starting point. Reaching a consensus on a utopian vision is, ironically, a fantasy. And so, for me, football is front and centre of my own personal utopia. To me, football in its purest form represents the most virtuous facets of socialist philosophy. A realm of equity, companionship and benevolent competition awaits those who dare to kick a ball, be it on a grass pitch, a concrete schoolyard, the beaches of the Costa del Sol, or even in one’s own living room; the medium need not matter.
The negative connotations of socialism are many. The notion of a utopian society founded on ‘harmony, association, and cooperation’ sounds all well and good, and I highly doubt that the vast majority would aspire for a socio-economic system that embraces anything to the contrary. Voyage to Icaria, the work of socialist thinker, Etienne Cabet, envisions a society whereby homogeneity is demonstrated through numerous aspects of everyday life, including clothing and property. To many, this entails a disagreeable level of conformity, by which freedom of expression and differentiation are curtailed utterly. Whether or not you agree with a state-oriented economy, property rights, or utopian visions, all of this becomes irrelevant when it comes to football, where socialism denotes a different paradigm. The antidote to capitalism’s venomous talons lies not in the hands of Karl Marx, but in the gloves of David De Gea, or the right foot of Kylian Mbappé.
A dead-cert to feature in Liverpool FC’s Mount Rushmore, Bill Shankly, an unassuming man who hailed from humble origins, instilled his political beliefs into the teams he managed during his time at the helm of the scouse juggernaut. Unprecedented levels of success ensued. Shankly was an avid proponent of simple, team football, a style which reflected his socialist principles:
‘The socialism I believe in is not really politics. It is a way of living. It is humanity. I believe the way to live and to be truly successful is by collective effort, with everyone working for each other, everyone helping each other, and everyone having a share of the rewards at the end of the day’
It is this perception of socialism and its applicability to football that I am to abide by for the remainder of this thought piece for it provides the precise nexus between political thought and team sports. From an initial inference, it would appear that football exhibits a number of traits adhering to Shankly’s socialism; players play for each other, subservient to the common good of victory. Certain individuals may strive to establish their own personal legacies, yet their individualism is curtailed by their dependence on their fellow teammates’ capabilities. The semantics of football display an inherent socialist nature. It should come as no surprise to hear that eighteen clubs in the top five English leagues bear United in their name. This is no coincidence. Unlike far left political regimes, however, where meritocracy can often play a subdued role, football is ‘the one arena in modern life where the only qualification for success, regardless of race, class or gender, is ability.’
Where the cult of the individual has garnered prominence, namely the Premier League, the collective good has been damaged. Germany’s domestic leagues serve as a fitting case study on how collectivism can succeed in breeding success by quelling the potency of individualism. Take a look at FC St. Pauli, the first professional football club in Germany to implement a list of fundamental principles that transcend the presumption that football is merely a sport. They read as follows:
“In its totality, consisting of members, staff, fans and honorary officers, St. Pauli FC is a part of the society by which it is surrounded and so is affected both directly and indirectly by social changes in the political, cultural and social spheres.”
“St. Pauli FC is conscious of the social responsibility this implies, and represents the interests of its members, staff, fans and honorary officers in matters not just restricted to the sphere of sport.”
“St. Pauli FC is the club of a particular city district, and it is to this that it owes its identity. This gives it a social and political responsibility in relation to the district and the people who live there.”
“St. Pauli FC aims to put across a certain feeling for life and symbolises sporting authenticity. This makes it possible for people to identify with the club independently of any sporting successes it may achieve. Essential features of the club that encourage this sense of identification are to be honoured, promoted and preserved.”
“Tolerance and respect in mutual human relations are important pillars of the St. Pauli philosophy.”
To operate a football club founded on socialist principles is not de rigeur, of course, and as we witness on a weekly basis in England, myriad football teams adopt a significantly different outlook to the one manifest at FC St. Pauli. This is the reality we are faced with, whether we like it or not. But on the pitch it is a whole other story; a story that promises a happy ending for all.
Success in football necessitates a cocktail of pre-requisites, adorned with a sprinkle of luck for good measure. Who would have genuinely thought prior to the 2015/16 Premier League season that Leicester would be hoisting the trophy come May time? Certainly not the bookies. Yet they did, and henceforth Leicester has made an indelible mark in the footballing history pages. The source of their success derived from the team’s unparalleled level of cohesiveness, fostering an unbridled collectivist psyche that sought to rupture conventional expectations. A mutual understanding of what needed to be done in order for success to materialise was seemingly acknowledged by the Leicester City players and subsequently acted upon. The team knew that by working as a symbiotic unit rather than a collection of individuals yearning for personal glory, the prospect of success for Leicester City would be greatly enhanced. Mahrez and Vardy may well have bathed in the spotlight, but without Kante pulling the strings in midfield, or Huth and Morgan’s impregnable centre-back partnership, would they have stepped proudly into June as Premier League champions?
Rarely is one more sated than after having experienced a well-worked team goal, whether by contributing to it or simply observing it unfold from the stands. The founder of Loaded magazine, James Brown, who continues to play 5-aside on a weekly basis, possesses a fond appreciation for a goal created from the inputs of multiple agents. A thirty-yard screamer may well be a reflection of the aptitude of a single player, yet before that ball fell into the path of the eventual goal scorer, ‘someone else helped that ball along the way, changed its direction, cushioned it back’ prior to it crashing into the back of the net. Subordination is a repellent word, often filling people with thoughts of trepidation. No one wants to be ruled with an iron fist. No one wants to be prevented from doing what they want on account of the actions of others. This is why collectivism is branded as a taboo; those who fear it suppose it poses a threat to individual expression and latitude. I am not in a position to tell these people that they are right or wrong. The complexities and nuances of everyday life are so overwhelming that one ponders them too strenuously at one’s own peril. With optimism and conviction, I can proclaim, however, that football harnesses the energies of collectivism and individualism in a way that satisfies both.
You will have to bear with me on this, but it works. I promise. The great, late Jean-Paul Sartre defined the ‘free action or activity’ of an individual, in this case, a football player, as praxis. It is the actions – or praxis – undertaken by every player that is subservient to the collective will of the team, though only to an extent, for this collective entity is a pragmatic one, one that acts as an accomplice in individualism’s endeavour. In the words of Simon Critchley, ‘what is taking place in an organised time is a never ceasing dialectic between the associative, collective activity of the group and the supportive flourishing individual actions of the players whose being is only given through the team’. In essence, without an existing structure such as the collective anatomy of eleven players, the scope for individual expression is severely constrained. A degree of predetermination is in place, in terms of what is expected of a certain player to carry out in his or her role as, for example, a left winger. But In carrying out his or her role successfully, and in accordance with the collective agenda of the team, that individual’s freedom of expression is in fact bolstered by his or her presence in a collaborative unit. Why else is it that we associate certain playing styles with certain teams? Italian football, with its ‘door bolt tactics’ reflects both the individual and collective identities of Italian players, while Brazil’s flamboyant, decorative approach to football is equally distinctive. Possibly my favourite footballer of all time, the late Socrates, a person I admire for his exploits on and off the pitch, conveys my point with such refined eloquence:
‘In our passes, dribbles and flourishes with the ball there is something of dance and capoeira that rounds out and at times sweetens the game invented by the English. Our football, with its creativity and joy, is an expression of our social formation, our rebellion at excessive internal and external order, against excess of uniformity, of geometrisation, standardisation, and the totalitarianism that do for individual variety or personal spontaneity’
I know what you’re thinking. A professional footballer could in no way possess the intellectual capacity to say something like that. I was surprised myself. Yet I can safely say that I have in no way shape or form embellished those words to suit my narrative. The man was simply a genius. Socrates has proven useful in my quest to elucidate the ties between football and socialism, endowing me with an abundance of quotes I could only dream to have come up with myself. Captaining the Brazilian international team in the 1982 World Cup finals, Socrates was a man possessed, having even quit his beloved cigarettes in the lead up to the tournament in the hope that this would augment his chances of success. Branded as the greatest team to have never won the World Cup, Brazil were eventually undone by a stubborn Italian side, who showed far less promise than Brazil prior to their clash. Nevertheless, it was Italy who came out on top while Brazil, invariably heartbroken, was shown the door. Their dreams now in tatters, most of the Brazil players were lost for words back in the changing room, but one man stood tall. The indomitable, 6ft 4 Socrates, o capitão consumado, was there, with grace and poise, to remind his teammates what they had won in spite of defeat: ‘People, we might have lost the game but let’s not lose what we have here, this incredible unity we have is going to be ours for the rest of our lives. That’s what matters’. And he was right.
Shankly’s socialism is further manifested by football’s eclectic nature. Playing football at Durham University granted me a stark contrast to the football I was accustomed to back at home. I found myself playing alongside Etonians, people who I once thought were from a bygone era. My prejudices were swiftly turned to misconceptions. My love for the sport of football was rekindled. It had gifted me maturity, impartiality, empathy, and most importantly, a sense of reality. What is real about football in the same way as life is that it is universal. It is the crucible that unites us. In a world where ‘so many of us increasingly work alone at a keyboard’ football is a platform, a gateway to something we yearn for on a daily basis. How often have you resorted to football as a topic of conversation with someone you’re not well acquainted with? It’s a safe bet that it will pay dividends. Take homeless football for example, where the Homeless World Cup has gone great lengths to alleviate the woes of the many vagrants of the world. When I was educating myself on the Homeless World Cup, one tangent of thought particularly struck me: ‘When you’re homeless, living on the streets, you only think about today, and how to survive till tomorrow. You are only concerned with yourself, not with anyone else. But when you play soccer, and pass the ball to someone else, you’re starting to relate to other people. You’re suddenly becoming an integral part of a team’. That, to me, says it all about football.
Charles Fourier believed in a socialist utopia ‘founded on feelings, passions, and sexuality,’ citing society as the route of all evil. By creating a mismatch between natural human desires and the way in which society is formulated, there exists a perennial tension between what humans want to do and what society deems us able to do. If something vexes us, it’s frowned upon by society for us to react by screaming aloud in the middle of the street. It’s not illegal, no, but how often do you do it? When you’ve received some great news, when was the last time you took your shirt off and ran down your street wailing in pure delight? Maybe when I was eight, perhaps. We’ve been conditioned to act moderately in almost all day to day circumstances. I don’t want to exist in a world of moderation. I want to prosper in a universe of extremities. Here are the words of Nick Hornby, the author of Fever Pitch, who evidences football as the cure for all sentiments of insignificance:
‘There is this powerful sensation of being exactly in the right place at the right time; when I am in Highbury on a big Saturday night, or, of course, Wembley on an even bigger afternoon, I feel as though I am at the centre of the whole world. When else does this happen in life?’
‘Whichever nightclub you go to, or play, or film, or whichever concert you see, or restaurant you eat at, life will have been going on elsewhere in your absence, as it always does; but when I am at Highbury for games like these, I feel that the rest of the world has stopped and is gathered outside the gates, waiting to hear the final score’
It may only act as a distraction, but surely it is better than nothing? Whether or not you agree that football represents what socialism should entail, football is about liberation. All life consists of is the incessant need for stimulation; what else has your undivided attention for 90 minutes other than football? You may have had a shit day at work, you may be in the doghouse, but none of that matters if you’ve bagged a hat-trick for your local Sunday league team. It’s unbelievably nourishing, so organic that you leave the pitch wanting more. The bonds you make on the field are there waiting for you off it, and that is how it should be.
I’ll end with this. The words of Phil Neville describing Ryan Giggs’ goal versus Arsenal in the Second leg of the 1998/99 FA Cup semi-final. One of the best goals there is, there was, and ever will be:
‘it was like slow motion. In and out, gliding in and out. He was like a Gazelle. He had this grace about him and he was making body movements without even touching the ball. That was Ryan Giggs; whether he was playing on Lower Broughton Road, Littleton road, Carrington. That was what Ryan Giggs was all about’’
Written by Joe Tomsett