Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Why is football/soccer so popular? "Panem et circenses" may be it.

Why is football such a world-wide phenomenon?

Well, the most obvious reason is that it is a game anyone can play, even the poor – it does not require any equipment (not even a bal) and you can learn it in the streets. As such, football gives a sense of empowerment to the disadvantaged or the impoverished like no other sports.

Then, more than most other sports, football is as much about individual glory as it is about the ethic and collective of the team.

It also subverts the usual racial and political hierarchies of our day and age. It is not necessarily the most powerful nations which are the stars – look at Brazil. It can thus be perceived as a unique form of meritocracy. That's particularly true with the World Cup - unlike with the clubs, you cannot buy in players for the national team.

It is no wonder that football serve as an expression of identity with the city or the nation people relate to. In the international games, such as the World Cup, it is a soft expression of strong nationalism. After all it is better than making real war. (this may be rather worn-out cliché but it may nonetheless be true). In fact, ESPN, America's leading sports network, has been running a series of spots voiced by Bono on that very same cliché:

Soccer "closes the schools, closes the shops, closes a city and stops a war," the lead singer of U2 says in those lush Irish tones as your giant HDTV fills with images of children in war-torn rubble playing keep-me-up and women in burkhas having a kick around in front of the secret police. (here)

Paradoxically though of all sports, football should also be the one most associated with violent expression in the stadiums. We all know of the Hooligans of course, but this is hardly a new phenomenon - the infamous 1969 "Soccer War" between Honduras and El Salvador that left 6,000 dead was kicked off by fan disturbances during a World Cup qualifying game. Better yet, back in the Roman times, supporters of chariot racing teams were frequently involved in major riots. A notable example is the Nika riots of 532. Nothing new under the sun!

In the last few decades, it has become a sort of opium for the masses, it seems. It is the modern version of the circuses (panem et circenses, the Romans would famously claim). But is that necessarily bad? The jury is still out:

On the one hand, it may be seen as a socially acceptable way to discharge built-up aggression, like a safety valve.
On the other hand, it produces excessive anxiety, and aggressive behavior. The ugliest side of football is definitely the violence and racism that may come with it:

Spectators often derive a sense of social identity and self-esteem from a team. Emulation of favorite players is an element of this identification. Group solidarity with players and coaches leads to a view of opposing teams as enemies and fosters hostility towards the "outgroup" and, by extension, its supporters, geographical locale, ethnic group, and perceived social class. (here)

Such negative feelings may also be reinforced by the overweening hype and made-for-TV packaging that surrounds football nowadays. Paradoxically, that’s precisely why some American intellectuals prefer soccer – because in America, there is no so much buzz and money involved with soccer.

Like it or not, what is cerrain is that there is definitely a political, economic and social dimension to this competition, and you can't ignore it any more than you can ignore the world.

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