Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Workers of the World, Unite!

An intriguing historical correlation: the death of the gentleman amateur years of football, symbolized by Old Etonians 2-1 loss to Blackburn Olympic (pictured) in the 1883 FA Cup final, and the rise of passing and teamwork.

Going back to the early 1880s, passing was not thought of as being an especially manly way to play the game. As David Goldblatt recounts: Passing was only considered as a last resort and indicated failure, even dishonour. During the 1877 England Scotland game, Alfred Lyttleton , when challenged about his failure to pass the ball, remarked to his team-mate... "I am playing for my own pleasure, Sir!" Of course, given that the standard formation at the time was 2-1-7 it's not obvious that it was even possible to develop a passing game since there was hardly anyone to whom a pass could be made.

This all changed in the early 1880s when the northern English and Scottish working-class began to take over the game. It was they who developed the idea of a serious midfield, dropping two forwards back to create the 2-3-5 that would become standard until the early 1930s. It was they who began to emphasize passing and crossing. It was they who started to created the first professional teams, using gate money to partially liberate themselves from proletarian physical work and give them time to perform the drill and practice necessary to make the game work. And so, fundamentally, it was proletarians that changed the game from being one of 11 players individualistically pursuing a common goal (which is not a bad description of cricket, actually) to a true team sport.

(And yes, that's an intriguing paradox: it was capitalist exploitation of physical culture that created the surpluses necessary to allow proletarians to take over the game. Chew on that one, Workers' Solidarity Movement!)

Some other obvious working-class correlations: in Latin America, football's shift in the early 1900s from being a toff's game to a working class game was synchronous with the shift from the game being one of English and foreigners to being a domestic game. Intriguingly, it is in Latin America where the link between revolutionary leftist parties have been most grounded in nationalism (as opposed to the internationalist leanings of the European left). In India and Africa, the same was not true because a) the local Brits who brought the game to these were soldiers, not engineers or public school boys and b) neither India nor Africa had a proletariat to speak of at the time.

It speaks volumes about the priorities of Communist parties around the world that none of them liked the game much despite its obvious working class affiliations. Among the old Warsaw Pact countries, it was track and field, gymnastics and weightlifting that attracted the money and prestige. Football had its adherents of course, and was so popular that it could not be suppressed entirely - except of course in Maoist China, where all football leagues (and indeed all competitive sports) were suspended between 1966 and 1972 during the height of the cultural revolution.

But football was simply never sufficiently martial to attract the active support of leading communists. Or, arguably, it simply required too much imagination and individual initiative for communists to handle. Is it a coincidence that the only team sport ever to be given cred from a major Communist leader is baseball, a sport so authoritarian and manager-centered that it is considered an excellent metaphor for labour-management relations in Japan of all places?

Now, of course, the game has been colonized by the great emerging global middle class. Ticket prices swell, and proletarians have been priced out of the grounds. Some have blamed the rising wealth of the masses to the decline of European footballing skills: not enough desperation and poverty to make kids want to spend hours practicing dribbling outside rather than on the Playstation (this argument is made most forcefully in Brazil, where famously only two middle-class players - Zico and Kaka - have ever made a real impact on the game). This is debatable, of course: most of the Italian team is of stubbornly middle-class origin and they've done OK recently.

But what's not debatable is that among football players, the ones that stir the emotions most are the proletarian ones. Cruyff may have been Maradona's equal in many ways, but while Maradona, the pibe d'oro, is worshipped around the world, Cruyff is merely admired. In Italy, the aristocratic Vialli is respected for his accomplishments with Juve, Samp and Chelsea, but he receives non of the adoration reserved for, say, the two Roman working-class heroes: Totti and DiCanio.

To sum up: it was the English proletariat's genius for common work that made football the team sport we know and love. But a win for the proletariat is not a win for internationalism: it is, famously, a place where national passions and hatreds can be expressed, not reconciled. Nor is it about class solidarity. What is club football if not an expression of the fundamental chimpanzee origins of human nature: my troop against your troop, competing for land, spoils and mates?

But, to quote Roland Barthes, football is not merely two teams facing one another, but rather two teams facing each other through the medium of the ball. Since only one player at a time can control the ball or shoot the ball, football is a fundamentally individualist medium even though it is embedded within a collective team experience (the oft-used jazz analogy for football is quite imprecise in this respect). And so, rather like in cycling, teams provide ways for individuals to shine - and more often than not in football, regardless of what kind of people are in the stands, those who shine and receive the love and adulation are working class.

That doesn't mean that the team is unimportant, or that football teams can only have one star (not even true of cycling: anybody remember the la Vie Claire team of 1985-86, with Hinault, LeMond, Hampsten and Bauer? Wow). But it does mean that football is a very complicated way of bringing individual skill to the fore, of using collective power to engineer the most favourable conditions possible for person-to-person confrontations of energy and creativity. The point of the team is to allow each individual to shine as brightly as they can. Football thus levels the playing field not for the proletariat as a whole, but for individual proletarians, it creates as democratic and meritocratic forum as is imaginable.

Or, in the words of the great socialist Arsene Wenger, "the act of playing for the team makes every individual stronger".

Amen.

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