What’s the Radical Potential of Playing Football?

by Graham Jones

11 July 2018

Grassroots Groundswell/Flickr

When, after a gruelling 120 minutes and penalties, England beat Colombia to enter the World Cup quarter finals, a switch seemed to flip on the left: time to talk about football. The usual takes:

‘It’s reactionary and nationalist!’

‘No, it’s about community and belonging!’

‘It relies on a toxic form of masculinity!’

‘No, it’s an expression of working class joy!’

‘It’s full of fascists so we should avoid it!’

‘No, it’s full of fascists so we can’t afford to avoid it!’

But whilst debates around the political potential of football rage on, these almost exclusively frame football as a spectator sport, ignoring the playing of football. According to FIFA, 270 million people play football worldwide, and the Sport England Active People Survey found 1.8 million people in England play football at least once a week. Whilst this is largely as a leisure activity, why couldn’t it play a role in political education? What says – other than cultural snobbery – that music making and dance can be edifying and educational pursuits, but football can’t? If we can repurpose mindfulness to teach class struggle, yoga to teach feminist economics, or theatre to teach power and privilege, perhaps we can do the same with football.

Each of these are collective practices that engage the whole body. The body is an important issue not just in health but in learning. As contemporary cognitive sciences are increasingly coming to see, our minds are not reducible to the brain; thought is a whole-body process, and we learn through action. We therefore need to centre the body in our politics if we hope to create powerful and persuasive images. Whether it’s communicating the violence of borders or stirring strong emotions around climate change, our failure to build popular movement speaks to our failure to engage people’s bodies.

Left wing education largely shies away from the body, whether in quietly listening to academic lectures, statistic-packed debates on social media, or painfully dry reading groups. These also focus inwards, rather than out of the bubble. This dullness and insularity leaves us ill-prepared for struggle in the field of popular culture.

Recent discussions around Acid Corbynism reignited interest in embodied practices, particularly the role music, art, and dancing play in consciousness raising. The argument goes that 60s counterculture, in making ‘the plasticity of reality’ a popular idea, created a sense that the future was open, that a new world could be created. Mark Fisher saw in this the potential to break neoliberal ideology, with its insistence that There is No Alternative. Acid Corbynism (or acid communism) doesn’t mean looking backwards, returning to tie-dye shirts and bad LSD – unless that’s your thing – but more broadly means finding new ways to engage and develop people’s consciousness.

What could football bring to this? Thinking back to my days of playing in local youth teams, I remember how educational and empowering a well-coached training session could be. They’re often based around short activities that practice techniques like passing and shooting, set pieces like free kicks and corners, or for exercising certain parts of the body. This could form a point of contact, where we develop football training into a consciousness raising experiment; where instead of framing activities around fitness or technique, they’re introduced to demonstrate aspects of social organisation.

It might sound strange, but hear me out. Through football we can highlight how a team is not a set of individuals, but is more than the sum of its parts, the different positions of goalkeepers, defenders, midfielders and strikers each playing a different but vital role. This model of the emergence of collective power can then be used as a metaphor, to demonstrate how organisations, communities and social movements can be brought into being. We could show how from the moment of kickoff a game develops in different directions, whole new possibilities of play opening up with each move, the future of the game always radically open. We could even emphasise how the outcome is shaped through ‘struggle’, one side shaping the other’s movements on the pitch and vice versa, action coming in waves and falling away again – precisely like the dynamics of class struggle. What we’re doing essentially is teaching a kind of popular philosophy, but instead of poring over Marx and Engels’ dense discussions of materialist dialectics, we demonstrate these ideas on the pitch, for young or old alike. Getting people to notice what their bodies are doing allows football to become a contemplative practice like any other, without the orientalist baggage of westernised yoga or tai chi.

Even on the topic of nationalism there’s potential, by drawing an analogy between social identities and football teams. If our ‘plasticity of reality’ is used to look at changing allegiances during the transfer season, of how players exist on both club and international levels (sometimes creating contradictory relationships where teammates on the club level are rivals on the international), or even your own shifting five-a-side lineups, we can show how identity need not be static or exclusionary. We can guide people to see others not as a simple fixed identity, neither just ‘English club player’ or ‘Egypt player’, nor just ‘immigrant’ or ‘Muslim’, but as always multiple and complex, and as potential allies in one forum if not in another. In the right hands, football could actually work against the rigid national identities underlying racist border control.

Crucially, football is embedded in shared national and global practices. As tension builds or as a goal is scored, emotions spread throughout the stadium and the country, everyone watching from their homes and pubs becoming synchronised in their bodily experience across vast distances. Demonstrating that our visions of the future involve precisely this communal joy, not just in spectacular sporting moments but permeating throughout people’s lives, can help leftist visions seem exciting again.

Once we see football as a participatory and not just spectator activity, the problems in its culture change from a barrier to entry to a site of education and struggle. And if we are to effectively fight against rising nationalisms and kickstart the delayed emergence of global identity, we need all the tools we can get.

Graham Jones is author of The Shock Doctrine of the Left.

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