The End Of Football

How profit trumped passion in the beautiful game

Indian fans of the Argentinian football team worship before a painting of Diego Maradona in Kolkata in June 2006, shortly after the 2006 FIFA World Cup kicked off. STRDEL / AFP / Getty Images
01 June, 2014

FRANCIS FUKUYAMA ADVANCED HIS THESIS of an end to history in an essay in 1989, before East Germans tore down the Berlin Wall with their bare hands. The USSR soufflé was still a couple of years away from folding in on itself, but for Fukuyama the runes did not need much deciphering. He declared the “unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism ... the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.”

Whether or not Fukuyama was right about history, his theory holds true for football. The twentieth FIFA World Cup begins on 12 June in Brazil, the spiritual home of the beautiful game, and the only nation to have won the tournament five times. Sadly, not even Brazil, its team a shill for Nike since 1996, can present a viable systematic alternative to the unedifying corporate jamboree that now masquerades as the World Cup.

Not that FIFA cares much for romance or edification. In Soccer in Sun and Shadow, the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano noted with sardonic economy the cosiness between football’s governing body and Argentina’s military junta at the 1978 World Cup: “General Videla pinned a medal on Havelange”— João Havelange, FIFA’s president at the time— while “a few steps away, Argentina’s Auschwitz, the torture and extermination camp at the Navy School for Mechanics, was operating at full speed. A few miles beyond that, prisoners were being thrown alive from airplanes into the sea.” Havelange was not a squeamish man. By 1978 he had been FIFA president for four years, and turned the World Cup into a cash cow funded by such ethically untroubled sponsors as Coca Cola, Gillette and Seiko.

A game played and watched by the working classes, commandeered to turn profits for plutocrats and dictators? What a surprise. At least in 1978 there was still character on the pitch. If FIFA bureaucrats hobnobbed with Argentinian fascists, there was solace in the fact that the country’s team was coached by a rakish, chain-smoking Communist. But by the 1990s, the players, managers and fans had all been co-opted into FIFA’s vision of football as apolitical, anodyne, commercial entertainment.

Fukuyama, in that 1989 essay, affects sorrow, or at least ambivalence, about the turn he believes history has taken. The “worldwide ideological struggle,” he writes, “that called forth daring, courage, imagination and idealism will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems ... and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.” Is there a better description for the current state of professional football, dominated since 1992 by a handful of clubs in Europe? These clubs—multinational corporations with cosmopolitan players, staffs, owners and fan bases—have transformed the way football is followed.

Being a football fan used to be about being local, about sublimated parochialism, about pride in your team and, synecdochically, your neighbourhood, your city, your country. Supporting a football team was an expression of solidarity, an assertion of community. Football culture was by its nature insular, and this was as true in India as, say, in Britain. Take Celtic and Rangers in Glasgow, Al Ahly and Zamalek in Cairo, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan in Kolkata: all local rivalries with attendant histories of identity, immigration, belonging, class, even food; rivalries made piquant by proximity. It was a culture built on shared experience, on being at the stadium with your people, on active partisan support. There is no need to gloss over the violence such insularity can breed—the deaths of sixteen fans in Kolkata in 1980, for instance, when a derby unravelled into a riot—to acknowledge how intrinsic football once was to fans’ understanding of their place in the world.

Early in Dev Dutta Roy’s An Incredible Tale from the Beautiful Game—an awful novel made endearing by the author’s affection and enthusiasm for Kolkata football—is a throwaway sentence that encapsulates what it once meant to be a football fan. “It was a Sunday morning of September,” he writes. “All the newspapers of Calcutta, of which Dadu used to buy three—Anandabazar and Juganter in Bengali and The Statesman in English—were talking about a great match that was going to be played four fifteen that afternoon ... I and Kakka never missed such a big match. We were morally bound to be there.”

Morally bound to be there. A football supporter’s duty was to go to the game.

Until 1982, the lack of televisions in poor countries like India meant that, for many of us, international footballers were remote creatures of myth, ideas rather than pixellated facts. Live football telecasts were vanishingly rare, restricted to the finals of major tournaments such as England’s FA Cup. Dutta Roy includes a scene in which the narrator buys a colour television with his grandfather so that they can watch the 1986 World Cup, being broadcast live and in its entirety for the first time in India.

Fans may not have watched many international matches, but they knew what they liked. The football historian Novy Kapadia, in a blog post just before the last World Cup began, attributed the long-established Bengali love for Brazil, even though local fans never saw the team play before 1982, to “an anti-colonial tinge.” Brazil’s victories in 1958, 1962 and 1970, he wrote, “in which black and mixed race players such as Didi, Garrincha, Pele and Carlos Alberto (a mulatto) showed that they could win in style appealed to people in Bengal. It helped to cock a snook at the supposed superior discipline and professionalism of the Europeans.”

Such sentiments are natural in a state where the fondest football memory remains barefoot Mohun Bagan’s win over leather-booted Englishmen in the IFA Shield in 1911. Equally, you don’t need to have read Aimé Césaire or Frantz Fanon to see why Maradona, who knocked England out, first with a sly hand and then his bewitching feet in Mexico City’s Azteca stadium in 1986, became an icon of the “global South.” In an essay titled ‘Why do Bangladeshis love Maradona?’ in the Daily Star two years ago, the sportswriter Quazi Zulquarnain Islam was still waxing lyrical:

Gil-Scott Heron had lied. The revolution had just been televised ... To explain the implications of that second Maradona goal at the Azteca on the psyche of a generation of young men in a poverty-stricken country thousands of miles away, would be akin to writing a course paper in globalisation, psychology and sociology ... Here was a generation of youths who had grown up hearing tales of suppression from their fathers and grandfathers and to see the English beaten in the grandest stage of them all, set loose a wave of Schadenfreude that carried Maradona on a crest of a wave from the banks of the Ganges to a hallowed seat in Olympus.

Islam focused on the second goal, but that first goal, the “hand of god” goal, was arguably more liberating because it was manifestly not a thing of beating the English at their own game. The Trinidadian intellectual CLR James wrote in his cricket memoir Beyond A Boundary that he had been “brought up in the public school code”; that while he and his friends “lied and cheated without any sense of shame” in other spheres, on the playing field they “kept a stiff upper lip ... Eton and Harrow had nothing on us.” Maradona didn’t bother to play by English rules. He lied and cheated on the field with impunity, exposing English cant about the Corinthian spirit for the self-serving, hypocritical bullshit it was—as if playing by the rules on the pitch masked stealing, lying and killing off the pitch to maintain power over people, their land and their wealth.

Mexico 1986, Maradona’s World Cup, was the last great World Cup, the last in which glory still mattered more than money. By the end of the 1990s, the commercial makeover of the game in Europe, with the transformation of the English first division into the Premier League and the amalgamation of the European Cup and UEFA Cup into the Champions League, was complete. The financial muscle of football’s “G-14” (the name reveals their pretensions)—such clubs as Juventus, AC Milan, Inter, Liverpool, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich—and the relaxing of regulations around hiring foreign players, meant that every footballer with ambition and ability now wanted to play in Spain, Italy, England or Germany. In the decade between 1982 and 1992, the transfer fee of the most expensive player in the world rose from £3 million to 13 million. In 2001, Real Madrid paid £47 million for Zinedine Zidane. Last year, Madrid paid £86 million for Gareth Bale. The best players no longer prove themselves in the carbuncular glow of World Cup competition, but week upon week in the Champions League.

India liberalised its economy in 1991, at the perfect time for a new breed of football fan to emerge, a fan who had to make no greater effort to follow international football than turning on the television. Widely published figures from the media research agency TAM Sports show that football has an audience in this country second only to that of cricket. Except, all 155 million of us watching are tuned into European teams. Officials of the All India Football Federation boast to journalists that more people watch the English Premier League in India than in England. Meanwhile, Bengaluru FC, a one-season-old team recently crowned the new Indian champions, attract average home crowds of just 7,500. What football means in India is exemplified by the Indian Super League—an exhibition tournament slated to debut in September, with reports of retired or semi-retired superstars such as Hernan Crespo and Thierry Henry planning to slum it with players of an altogether inferior standard for a last gigantic payday. Run by IMG Reliance, the ISL is a sop to the new Indian fan.

This new fan does not, as Dutta Roy did, feel “morally bound” to support a local team. Arthur Hopcraft, in The Football Man, wrote that the “football fan is not just a watcher. His sweat and his nerves work on football, and his spirit can be made rich or destitute by it.” But the new Indian football fan is happy to be “just a watcher,” indeed, he knows no other way. What can the World Cup mean to such a fan? An extension of the Champions League? A chance to add a Spain shirt to the Barcelona one in the wardrobe?

Star Sports gives us the answer in a new advertising campaign that urges viewers to “footballify” themselves. The feat is easily achieved, the ad suggests, by buying lots of replica jerseys, posters and scarves, and the latest football (with a retail price of over Rs 6,000); by getting a Neymar haircut; and sitting on your couch in front of your television. Alone. “Footballify” is an unknowing distortion of Galeano’s evocative description of Uruguayans as a “footballised people.” For the footballised, the game is a way of life, seeping into their language, customs and daily rhythms. For the footballified, the game, bleached of collective identity, is globalised consumer slurry—the same teams watched on the same televisions in the same pubs by the same people wearing the same clothes in the same cities, everywhere.

“In the post-historical period,” Fukuyama writes, “there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of history.” What we’re left with, then, is nostalgia. Because in the twenty-eight years since the 1986 World Cup, football has eaten itself. We are a footballified people gorging ourselves on the congealed remains.