Saturday, December 15, 2007

Football Romantics

So. Starting to come down from a few weeks worth of work which should qualify as torture under the Geneva Convention, I have been reading a new book called Football in the Americas: Futbol, Futebol, Soccer, a collection of essays by primarily Latin American authors (plus, inevitably, a theoretical piece by Richard Giulianotti).

I'll review the book as a whole later; what I want to draw everyone's attention to one particular essay by a Mexico City-based anthropologist named Roger Magazine, entitled Football Fandom and Identity in Mexico: The Case of Pumas Football and Youth Football Club. I'll go out on a limb here and say that this is probably the most kick-ass ten pages of academic writing on football ever.

It opens with a very nice overview of the nature of the rivalry between the country's four "national" teams (i.e. teams with national followings). This is an excellent primer, and one long overdue: of all the world's major football leagues, the Mexican league probably gets the least coverage in English-language press and literature. He briefly enumerates the club identities of America (the club of modern big-business), Cruz Azul (the club of the organized urban proletariat) and Chiapas (the club of indigeneous Mexicanos, sort of a ibero-American version of Athletic Bilbao) before moving to his main subject, the youth-oriented Pumas UNAM.

If there's a slight failing to this article, it's that he doesn't dwell sufficiently on Pumas' intiguing past or that of Mexican football as a whole. The sport developed relatively late in Mexico. Unlike Argentina, Brazil, Spain and Italy where the sport took hold between 1890 and 1920, the blossoming of Mexican football really didn't take place until the 1930s. It was preceded, of all things, by American football, which still has a signifcant following in Mexico (a trip from the airport to downtown Mexico City will take you past at least two gridiron fields). The Universidad National Autonoma de Mexico's sports teams had been initially been given their blue-and-gold colours by American sports coaches from, of all places, Notre Dame.

In any case, Magazine's central insight is that football supporters' groups - known in Mexico as porra - belong ideologically to the Romantic movement. While they belong to the Age of Reason and exist to support teams which operate in the classic rationalist framework of a football league, their behaviour is driven by a love and passion which is fundamentally irrational. And he highlights the romantic nature of football support by showing what happens when a supporters' group tries to modernize itself.

In the mid-90s, the UNAM supporters' group
Orgullo Azul y Oro was still old-school. Leadership rested in one man, who chose the songs, the banners, etc. As part of the overall democritization of life in Mexico last decade, the orgullo Azul y Oro also underwent a change, with new leadership asking for democratic elections and more member participation in terms of things like choice and order of songs.

This, not to put too fine a point on it, was a disaster. Elections mean formal memberships (otherwise, how do you know who can vote?) which in turn requires a bureauracy. Taking members' suggestions requires making choices among suggestons, which in turn means some people will be aggrieved and - in this case - make accusations (whether justified or not) about clientelism at the top. In short, democracy and the critical framework it provided led to the fracturing of the porra.

Intriguingly, all this occurred at the same time that the effects of sponsorship was making itself felt. Nike offered free shirts to all porra members provided they wear them to every game. Part of the porra (including the new leadership) thought this was a great idea since the "uniform" would give their tifo a more uniform look. Others felt that requiring them to wear team colours was an insult as wearing the team colours should always be seen as a choice born of devotion.

True fandom, like Romanticism, is emotional, heartfelt and passionate and stands opposed to tradtional hierarchies and to democratic and scientific rationalism. It doesn't matter if the team hasn't scored for 800 minutes - we bleed for them nonetheless.

The loyalty this romantic attitude engenders is admirable, of course, but it clearly has its dark side, too. Romanticism can lead to a lack of critical space (it emphasizes the use of the heart, not the head) and an over-relaiance on charismatic leaders (orgullo members never complained about their song suggestions not being adopted under the old hardline regime). And clearly, the attraction of being part of a supporters' group lies in a deep tribal instinct which has echoes of in some of history's less pleasant mass movements.

Fandom, like all romantic movements, lies with all its collectivist emotional baggage on a knife-edge between good and evil. And it's a very thin edge indeed.

Looking back here, I realise that as usual I haven't really done my subject justice. All I can say is - find the book and read the thought-provoking article yourself - you won't be disappointed.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

China 2018

Anybody who’s ever been to China knows that this is not a country that does things by half. That’s why a Chinese bid for the 2018 World Cup, should it materialize, will be need to be taken very seriously.

A Chinese bid will fundamentally be built around the country’s three obvious strengths.

First, China – as every marketer knows – is an enormous market that football’s powers-that-be would like to make more pro-football. Right now, football is not a particularly popular sport in China. Attendances at Chinese Super League matches are often MLS-sized. Basketball (and even ping-pong) get a lot more exposure at a day-to-day level in the country and the NBA at least is making serious hay of this.

But no other sporting event engages the Chinese like the World Cup final – tens of millions of them stay up through the night to watch it. The trick for the sport of football is to convert that enthusiasm for one-off events into a more lasting passion. The experience in USA 94 shows that this can happen – given enough time.

Second, the country already has a lot of very modern stadia which will require little renovation in 2018. The country has hosted two major tournaments in the last four years (the 2004 AFC championships and the 2007 Women’s World Cup) and has a great deal of infrastructure to show for it.

Shanghai’s 80,000 seat stadium (picture, above) is only ten years old; Guangdong’s 80,000 seat stadium is of even more recent vintage. Qingdao, Nanking, Wuhan, Tianjin, Chongqing and Dalian all of have stadia that are less than ten years’ old and seat over 55,000. In Beijing, the 66,000-seat Workers Stadium may be nearly sixty years old in 2018, but it had a major facelift in 2004 for the AFC Championships in 2004 and no doubt the newly-built “Birds Nest” Olympic Stadium can be pressed into service as well.

Third – and this is the important one – if there’s one thing the Beijing Olympics has already proved, it is that the Chinese government will do absolutely anything to make sure that large, prestige infrastructure projects go off well. Money? No problem. Labour? No problem. Given the infrastructure worries already dogging the run-ups to 2010 and 2014, the importance of this factor shouldn’t be underestimated.

On the flip side, China doesn’t have a stellar football culture as we would understand it. When it comes to professional sports – still a relatively new concept in the People’s Republic – the Chinese are phenomenally fickle. Attendance at top flight games correlates rather sharply with the home side’s league position. The attraction is to the aura of winning rather than to the club itself. This probably won’t affect the World Cup much, but it speaks to the shallowness of the game’s roots in the country.

A more troubling issue for the country is the lack of a substantive World Cup record. Given that the host team gets a free pass to the finals, this is not an academic matter: they have to at least be able to put on a good show, and that’s not guaranteed with the squad they currently have. Indeed, in the postwar era no country has ever been awarded the World Cup without qualifying at least twice for the finals under their own steam – and China is still one short of this modest requirement.

The prevalence of local gambling syndicates will also presumable be a source of concern. Agents of these syndicates have fixed or attempted to fix games as far away as Scandinavia and England and the domestic league is still haunted by a series of refereeing scandals in 2001 known as “Black Whistle” which eroded much of the league’s credibility with fans. Given the country’s addiction to betting – all of it illegal outside of Macao – there would have to be considerable attention paid to the possibilities for outside parties to influence to flow and outcomes of games.

Then there's the perennial concerns about human rights and pollution. Given FIFA's track record of coddling to dictators and insisting that "politics and sports are separate", I doubt very much the former will be an issue. Pollution is likelier to cause problems for China, but I'm not sure that's as big an issue in football (where teams compete against each other and will be equally handicapped) as it is in athletics (where individuals are at least in part trying to break world records set in other, more pristine environments). Mexico City has nearly as miuch particulate matter floating around as do smaller Chinese cities, and the complaint of visiting teams is usually altitude, not pollution.

In any case, most of these issues are comparatively minor compared to the larger geopolitical issues involved in FIFA’s decision for 2018. By then, Europe will have gone without a World Cup for a record 12 years. It may well be that the powers that be will simply decide that the game must return to its heartland. If so, China’s chances are doomed regardless of the quality of its bid.

But if the bidding is in fact open – watch out. As long as the Chinese FA learns to play politics well over the next four years and courts its CAF counterparts properly (perhaps in conjunction with Chinese companies who are making real inroads all across Africa), a potential Chinese bid has to be seen as one of the front runners.

A version of this article was published earlier today at (if you don't already visit this site regularly, you're missing out) where some of my work will be appearing over the next few months.