The Allure of Football and Flags
Milli Gazette Online
A fascinating feature of the
captivating spectacle of the recent World Cup is the way in which it
illustrates that modern sport has assumed an existential and political
function. The performances of national teams in such competitions
occupy an imperative role in lives of millions of spectators, providing a
special dignity and meaning.
The role of the individual as spectator of the sporting event, whether
viewing directly in the stadium, or from a further vantage point via mass
media coverage, has great social significance. Football has lent a
hand to the foundation of a burgeoning spectator culture. In the Western
hemisphere where community and family relationships are in turmoil, the
person-to-person closeness engendered by being part of the crowd has
provided a valuable surrogate companionship.
Identification with other compatriots and the nation state represented by
the team one supports is an essential component of this modern sporting
experience. The creation and development of this collective
identity, manifested by united and contemporaneous experience of the same
event, serves to augment and intensify feelings of wider national
consciousness and unity.
All citizens of the state are as welcome as any other in this milieu,
irrespective of their ethnic or other origins, it is said. In
countries where tensions have been apparent between ethnic groups,
football has been seen as a stimulant to harmony between them. The
nation's colours, arms and flag become a marker for the national team, a
ubiquitous uniform for all, worn to exhibit devotion and integration.
Football has maintained a role in symbolising the struggle to achieve the
respect and recognition of others in the global community. Aspirant
nations, states with their independence only recently granted, or
countries with a weak sense of nationhood have looked to football to
strengthen their resolve against both international and internal rivals
and project an image of the values and potential power and glory of their
An illustration of this is 2006's victors, Italy. Throughout the 20th
century, football competition served to aid the awareness of Italian
nationhood, from a position in the early part of the last century when it
was acutely compromised by factionalism and regional allegiances.
Turning the tables
Against a backdrop of pervasive global injustice and the inequality
between states, football contains the possibility of destabilising the
political status quo, with teams representing nations from lower down the
geo-political order able to compete, seemingly, on a level playing field
and able to exact defeat on more powerful foes or friends on the pitch.
Such victories against the mighty are almost unthinkable in other realms
of competition between the developed and the developing, especially within
the political, economic or military domains. One recalls the
singularity of USA's loss to Iran in the 1998 World Cup and the French
team's ignominious defeat to its former outpost in West Africa, Senegal,
four years later.
An important historical example of such a subversive capacity in the
colonial environment was the formation of the football team of the Front
de Liberation National (FLN), which struggled against French dominion
in Algeria. The President of the provisional Government in the aftermath
of French rule explained the higher goals of the team:
"They [the French] rule us with guns and machines. On a man to man
basis, on the field of football, we can show them who is really
The FLN team played against other sides from around the world, travelling
to fourteen countries. They were hugely successful, emerging victorious in
a clear majority of the games they participated in, and thus strengthening
steadfastness against the occupation at home.
Some regard the competition between nation-states exhibited in football
contests as a safer arena inside which global rivalries can be thrashed
out and peaceably discharged, quelling popular feelings which can
otherwise lead peoples to pressurise their leaders to go to war against
others. If conflict between man is inevitable then at least, as G.B.
Shaw remarked, "serious sport is war minus the shooting".
Football, they contend, can ultimately exert a calming influence in a
turbulent world, potentially putting a stop to conflict, and evincing how
similar we all are. The official slogan of the recent World Cup 'A time to
make friends' was suggestive of this aim.
For many, a function of sport is to provide a form of therapy:
football is a diversion from the harsh realities and complexities of life,
an escape into a dream-world where heroic characters delight and inspire
with their skill, ingenuity and success. In a world where moral
decisions can be complex, and the avoidance of automatic allegiance to
one's own side exceedingly hard and painful for many, football culture
offers a simple answer: support your own team. Everything appears
The psychological benefits of sport's consolation have often been most
sought at times of crisis. After the Israeli military disconnected the
electricity supply from much of Gaza during the recent World Cup, after an
earlier sabotage of the Palestine national football stadium, the
Palestinians were outraged. Farid Khatib, Director of the Rafah
football club in Gaza, told reporters of the salutary role the world game
fulfils in their lives:
"The Palestinians need soccer to forget their problems if only for a
night. It's better for our kids to watch soccer than turn to drugs,
smoking and extremism."
Soccer and Western hegemony
The expression of rebellion by the developing world towards the West
through the medium of football is ironical, however, in that the game is a
European cultural invention, and was largely disseminated across the globe
thanks to the efforts of colonial administrators and Christian
missionaries. Football's early advocates believed that the sport
would instil in its players what they saw as admirable Christian and
The desire to be free and different from the West has perversely led to
the willing acceptance of this form of cultural imperialism, where the
battle for respect and the recognition is played out on Western terms.
Tacitly, this only serves to underline how dominant and enveloping the
culture of the West can be.
The upshot of the popularity of Western sports throughout former colonies
has been that indigenous games and forms of physical education and
exertion have had their central role supplanted, and in many cases have
been wrecked. It is with lament that one witnesses the decline of
horsemanship and archery among the Arabs. There have been a few notable
successes in resurrecting games native to the culture, for example the
resurgence of Gaelic sports in Ireland or Lacrosse in North America, but
by and large Western games, which offer brilliant performers the promise
of bountiful riches and a ladder out of poverty, have won the contest.
International football does not occur in a vacuum, but rather is
reflective of the broader political context in which we live. The
national teams themselves reflect the global territorial atlas, which in
the case of the developing world meant that states were created and forced
upon the subjects under European dominion, often without reference to the
location of traditional homelands. The manufactured countries and
their frontiers are accepted and validated by participation in world
soccer, and by fans' support for them.
The supremacy of an elite is also evidenced on the field of play.
Footballing countries outside of the powerhouses of Europe and South
America have invariably performed poorly in World Cup tournaments.
No one realistically expected an Asian or African team to take home this
year's trophy. A team from outside the two dominant football continents
has never reached the final of the competition.That a handful of national
teams wield power in world soccer is the product of economic disparities
and the failure to nurture talent in the developing world because most of
the first rate players leave to enjoy lucrative careers for European
It is questionable whether the idea that football encourages peace
between nations and peoples rings true. The stoking of pre-existing
nationalist sentiment can all too often lead to confrontation with others.
In many European countries there exists a notorious sub-culture which
fuses far-right ideologies, violence and football, with racist disorder
ensuing and minority groups being the principal victims. Sport may
act as a form of catharsis for hostile feelings, but it just as easily
heightens sentiments which lead to conflict. In 1969, for example, El
Salvador and Honduras waged war on each other, shortly after a World Cup
qualifying game erupted in riots. Although the causes of the war lay
beyond soccer, the ugly scenes at the match inflamed tensions.
From an ethical perspective, the nurturing of an outlook that prizes
allegiance to one's own nation is perilous. Such unconditional
nationalism cultivated in the football crowd, irrespective of who is
in the right, can lead to unconditional and immature support for other
institutions and policies of the nation-state potentially causing great
damage to the 'other side'.
The World Cup victory of a multi-ethnic France team in 1998 was seen as
testimony of football's capacity to infuse harmony between different
cultural groups within a society. The esprit de corps of the squad
under the French tricolour was said to have brought the nation together.
However, this was a transient victory for ethnic harmony at best, for the
real problems in French society continued to exist, culminating in the
2002 strong electoral display by the openly racist Front National,
and the outpouring of fury from minorities that we saw in late 2005's
The public amity between citizens that football can bring to bear is a
merely a meagre substitute for the genuine community relations that have
broken down in much of Western society. A culture of spectators may
also encourage an inert attitude to a wide range of issues, including
political engagement when active participation is the key.
Football is a distractive pastime, which satiates a human need for
amusement and leisure, especially in hard times, yet has no power of its
own accord to change the world. Many claims are made about its qualities
to ameliorate or redeem the lives of its devotees, yet sport reflects the
problems of life and the world rather than posing a resolution to them. We
ought to enjoy the display of excellence, creativity, contests and
challenges which the game exemplifies, but be suspicious of the emotions
it ignites, the passions it arouses and the ease which it has usurped
native culture. With 'World Cup fever' behind us for another four years,
it is time to compose ourselves and realise that football and its
attendant flag-waving are not the panacea.