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What political lessons can we learn from football? A lively chat with Brian Eno, Ken Loach & Roger Waters (plus a short text on the politics of football)

16/07/2021 by

On this, the 6th edition of LET’S TALK IT OVER, the whole gang (Brian Eno, Ken Loach, Yanis Varoufakis & Roger Waters, chaired as always by Frank Barat) is on stage – to chat about lessons progressives must/can learn from… football. It turned out a fun, and possibly, insightful, hour. Whatever the quality of our musings (which I leave to use to judge), there were also two funny moments:

When Ken Loach was stood on his head, reminding us lefties of what Marx did to Hegel: And when Mowgli decided I had said enough and it was time to take him to the beach:

After our chat was over, I felt sufficiently inspired after our chat to put down some of the thoughts I had tried to express. For what they are worth, here they are:

Contemporary societies, comprising atomised persons, deny men and women the experience of solidarity. Importantly, football is the last bastion of solidarity. It actually provides solidarity in oodles, sometimes to the point of shared frenzy.

And, yes, it is the beautiful game. Football’s beauty at times reaches the heights of an art that can take your breath away.

Moreover, football offers excitement, a simulation of bloody war, or at least skirmishes that would otherwise cause the police to step in. It provides people with an opportunity to experience tribal rituals and, at once, community festivals. It even brings on moments of ancient Greek tragedy – in the form of the penalty shootouts English fans know so well.

And then there is the special relationship between fans and players – a unique relationship that ordinary people cannot have with Hollywood stars or outsized basketball players: footballers look and sound very much like them. And that’s why they celebrate them: as their alter egos.

Football is also a little like Greek or Catholic Easter: It is uniquely able to bring under the same roof fascists and the leftists they seek to exterminate. On the terraces, we find neofascist white supremacists and Marxist trades unionists. On the pitch, sophisticated leftists like Socrates and Cantona and Tory icons like David Beckham.

Time for a personal story: I was ten. It was 1971. Panathinaikos was playing Red Star Belgrade in Athens in the European Championships semifinals – which they won, earning a place in the final, at Wembley versus Ajax.  Those were bleak days in the midst of the fascist dictatorship (1967-1974). Our fascist rulers were in the stadium, cheering. I remember watching the match in television with my mother, both of us cheering the Greek team’s victory despite knowing full well that at a stone’s throw distance from the stadium there was a torture chamber (run by ESA, the feared military police) were democrats were being tortured and maimed, including my mum’s brother. I mention this story as the best example I can think of the paradox that is football.

Football is too complicated politically to portray in black and white terms. Yes, football affords the working class the illusion that their rituals are better than the bourgeoisie’s. But, beware: this is NOT a revolutionary feeling, but one that makes exploited workers more willing, even enthusiastic, to endure their exploitation – it makes them more reluctant to become agents of change.

Even worse, football is a breeding ground for outraged populism – recall the recent revolt against corporate bastards who tried to take over the beautiful game with their plans for a Superleague. The same fans who celebrate when a rich bastard buys their club and promises to spend millions to buy star players!

Yes, football is the opium of the people. But, like the most effective mind-altering drugs, football offers humans invaluable comfort in the midst of a cruel social order – and it captures much that is human. Because I agree with Karl Marx who once said that ‘Nothing human is alien to me”, I feel I have no right to be a stranger to football.

So, with this excuse, let me declare my undying commitment to Panionios, my struggling Greek team founded by refugees who arrived here in 1922. And let me finish with a “Come on you Reds”, meaning both socialists and Liverpool, an association whose credibility we owe to that great socialist Bill Shankly.

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