There is perhaps no more luminous incarnation of Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism – the notion that under capitalism, the social relations that underpin production are disguised behind seemingly objective measures of commodities’ economic value – than football. Born in the industrializing maelstrom of mid-19th century Britain, forged in the working-class crucible of professional sport, dispatched to the far corners of the planet by an expatriate army of British mariners, merchants, educators, and railway workers, football’s history has married the global arc of industrial capitalism from the very start.
But the fetishism at work here invests football with a metamorphic power far greater than that envisaged by Marx. Not only is the labor that creates value in football made invisible, as the German social theorist would have it, but the game’s very status as a commodity is itself concealed beneath the passions of fandom and the ludic framework of sport. We tend to think of players in many ways – as athletes, artists, standard-bearers for their teams, gladiators, heroes, cultural icons, sex symbols, temperamental divas, and undeserving millionaires – but rarely as wage laborers. In the same way, supporters’ varied modes of identification with their teams, whether mediated through familial, neighborhood, ethnic, class, political, religious, or national commitments, mask their own role as consumers in football’s labor-capital-commodity nexus.
More impressive still, football has found a way to commodify not just the fixtures that are the organizing principle of professional sport – by selling match tickets and, more recently, television and digital streaming subscriptions – but virtually every other aspect of itself. Licensing agreements have remade clubs into floggers of team kit and football tchochkes; stadium deals have turned them into real estate developers. The youth academy model has over the past 30 years transformed the formation of professional footballers into a veritable industrial process. These academies supply clubs the skilled workers who not only sell their labor-time to perform the sport’s commodified spectacle, but are now themselves commodities; that is, players who can be bought and sold on the increasingly lucrative transfer market (recall that Paris-Saint-Germain purchased the rights to Frenchman Kylian Mbappé, named by FIFA the best young player at the 2018 World Cup, from AS Monaco for €180 million).
As a competition between nation-states, each represented by their best players, the World Cup holds out the promise of world-class football beyond the market. But it was only ever meant to be a truce in the capitalist give-and-take of professional football (in contradistinction, say, to the Olympic ideal of aristocratic amateurism). Its founder was
Jules Rimet, a grocer’s son steeped in social Catholicism who, as president of France’s Football Federation, pushed professionalization in order to open the game to working-class men. As FIFA’s chief between 1921 and 1954, Rimet imagined the World Cup as a tournament played by professionals that might foster goodwill between nations. Efforts to bend this truce to political ends began almost from the start, Benito Mussolini seizing upon the second World Cup in 1934 to showcase fascist Italy. And in the lucrative episteme of corporate sponsorships, television deals, slush and skullduggery ushered in by FIFA strongmen João Havelange and Sepp Blatter, the market has found a way to subsume virtually every nook and cranny of what the organization’s attorneys would now have us call the FIFA World Cup.
Indeed, this fetishizing sleight of hand – passing off an industry as something else, whether beloved pastime or sacralized spectacle – is precisely what makes the business of football possible. Fans of the game like me should know better – indeed, we do know better. About the reserve army of boys recruited from around the world into training academies, from which a tiny fraction are selected and polished to earn a living on the big stage. About how unequal access to capital and the law of comparative advantage have reduced professional clubs on football’s economic periphery, from Portugal to South America, to glorified training grounds, production facilities feeding elite players to wealthy European clubs in what amounts to a global supply chain of human footballing capital. About the transnational capital flows that grease the wheels of this commerce, allowing American hedge funds, Russian oligarchs, Persian Gulf potentates, and Chinese conglomerates to buy up European clubs. About the opaque world of players’ agents and shadowy intermediaries who broker these deals and take their cut. About the corruption that, it is alleged, guided FIFA’s attribution of the most recent World Cup to Russia and the next to Qatar. About Vladimir Putin’s tyranny. About the Dickensian labor conditions in which the workers building Qatar’s stadiums toil. Dwell too much on how the beautiful game’s sausage is made, and one’s enthusiasm for it cannot fail but dim.
But football doesn’t just force supporters into a kind of false consciousness, the better to ignore, or at least rationalize, its messy nature as commodity. The dense web of competing and often contradictory logics that invest it with meaning beyond the balance sheet occasion still other dilemmas. What do advocates for football artistry do when their team wins ugly (as Brazilian admirers of o jogo bonito had to ask themselves when confronted with the defensively-oriented Seleção that won the 1994 World Cup)? How should promoters of fair play react when their club or country triumphs on a refereeing error (Argentinians after Diego Maradona’s 1986 Hand of God goal, say)? Must the historical sins of nation-states be revisited on the teams that represent them when we discern our football affections (like Belgium’s past as a colonial empire)? How can the tribal attachments constitutive of supporter culture be reconciled with the ethical demands of human fraternity (the dark history of English hooliganism offers one unfortunate answer)?
The impossibility of ever squaring all these imperatives makes for great drama and barstool conversation, but it also creates a conundrum. To think critically about the game is to stare its vices and contradictions squarely in the face. To embrace football – that is, to take visceral pleasure in watching a match, or to share in the collective effervescence that comes with supporting a particular team – is, at least for a moment, to suspend critical judgment. Fandom is, necessarily and without exception, an exercise in bad faith.
For those pulled between lucidity and love for the game, irony offers one of the only ways out, a means to reconcile football’s sins with its promise of the sublime (however construed). This is why some of the best football writing today, to be found in venues like So Foot and Les Cahiers du Football in France, or The Blizzard and When Saturday Comes in the UK, adopts precisely this stance. The only way to write a sincere love letter to football that eschews jejune cliché is to temper giddy enthusiasm with ironic detachment and sardonic humor.
The Greatest World Cup Ever?
So what does it mean to declare Russia 2018, as Fox Soccer’s pundits did to American audiences before the group state was even complete, “the greatest FIFA World Cup ever” – a verdict repeated by FIFA president Gianni Infantino at the closing trophy ceremony? It’s easy to dismiss this as the breathless boosterism it is, but organizers’ and broadcasters’ efforts to promote their showcase and maximize return on investment is as much a part of football as anything else. Forgive them their hucksterism: it’s all in the game.
Which begs the question: by what metrics can a World Cup be assessed? quality of play? number of goals scored? tactical trends? surprise outcomes? controversies? individual players’ performances? the run of one’s favorite teams? the economic bottom line? the tournament’s political resonance? the novel ways it is appropriated in popular culture? As with football more generally, making sense of a World Cup requires deciding what, in this multidimensional historical phenomenon, merits retelling, and what can be left out. In the end, it’s always a matter of perspective.
Composed as they typically are of catalogues of high points, World Cup postmortems draw on the same storytelling raw material, mined from on-pitch exploits, out of which traditional football narratives more generally are woven. My own Russia 2018 list would look something like this:
• Favorite moment: Sénégal’s joyous dancing warmup before their match against Japan.
• Best supporter culture moment: French fans singing N’Golo Kanté’s praises to the tune of Joe Dassin’s 1969 hit Champs-Élysées.
• Most memorable matches: Mexico’s dispatching of Germany, as clinical as it was swift and spectacular; Croatia’s tactical master-class against Argentina, an awesome display of purposeful ball movement and goal-mouth opportunism.
• Pleasant surprises: a talented generation of Belgian players finally gelling into a thrilling side; a young England, shed at long last of hubris and tactical ineptitude, nary a WAG in sight, playing serviceable football and become almost likable.
• Standout player: Luka Modric, whose selfless play as a covering low-lying playmaker with Real Madrid had for too long been overshadowed by teammate Cristiano Ronaldo’s celebrity, shining with Croatia and, in what is, at 32, surely the twilight of his career, finally winning the recognition he deserved.
• Heartbreaks: courageous Japan’s defeat in the waning seconds against Belgium; Sénégal’s elimination on a senseless fair-play tiebreaker.
• Most memorable goal: Uruguay forward Edinson Cavani’s header against Portugal, concluding a pinpoint crossfield give-and-go with Luis Suárez.
• Guilty pleasure: watching the Mannshaft‘s elimination in the group round, thereby putting to bed any residual illusions concerning German invincibility.
• High point: seeing France win the World Cup for the second time in my lifetime.
Product like all such exercises of my own particular football subject position, this list tells you more about me – French, with the attendant animosities for Germany and England, as well as a taste for aesthetic play and a soft spot for underdogs (except where France is concerned) – than it does about anything else.
To be sure, this proved a better tournament than most anyone expected. The stadiums looked good. Rundown provincial cities like Nizhny Novgorad put their best foot forward, spiffing up their downtowns, creating what French sports daily L’Équipe dubbed a Potemkin-village effect. Visiting fans reported warm welcomes and a convivial atmosphere. In a country whose club football is plagued by racism, homophobia, and hooliganism, the worst fears of a violence-marred, hate-filled tournament proved unfounded. The capacity to enforce order is one of the advantages of holding an international sporting event in a police-state, I suppose.
By most measures, however, there was little new in Russia under the football sun. This was by no means the first World Cup to be hosted by an authoritarian regime, nor the first to be attributed in irregular circumstances (if recently-surfaced evidence concerning Germany 2006 and South Africa 2010 is to be believed). And like its recent predecessors, this World Cup was big business: Russia spent €10 billion to build the infrastructure to host the tournament (a large share reportedly siphoned off in bribes); the Cup drew three million tourists (twice as many as for the Sochi Olympics), who spent $1.5 billion.
Advocates of the proposition that this was a great World Cup made much of the upsets: alleged heavyweights Germany and Spain failed to make it out of the group stage; Argentina and Portugal were gone by the round of 16; Brazil and France were the only teams left in the quarterfinals who had played in a final in the last half-century; and this was the first World Cup in history in which neither Germany, nor Brazil, nor Argentina were in the final four.
But this was by no means the first World Cup to be marked by upsets. In Brazil four years ago, Spain, Italy, England, and Portugal all failed to make it out of the first round. So insistently do coaches and pundits repeat the mantra “there are no small teams anymore” that the fact that only five of the 32 teams qualified for the 2018 World Cup ranked lower than 50th in FIFA’s power ranking comes almost as a surprise. To be sure, now that football’s reach has become nearly global, no national squads come to World Cups technically, physically, or tactically unprepared anymore. Blowouts are no longer the consequence of yawning gulfs in quality, as they tended to be up until the 1990s, but of psychological or tactical breakdowns – like host Brazil’s epic 1-7 semifinal collapse against Germany in 2014. Upsets distract from an enduring reality: the Jules Rimet Trophy remains a prize reserved for heavyweights.
The hard truth of the matter is that the football on display in Russia was not particularly distinguished – witness the unusually high proportion of goals scored on set pieces, evidence of the poverty of open play. The teams that wanted the ball and built up from the back – Germany, Spain, and Argentina most notably, but also Japan, who bravely exited Russia loyal to their risk-taking, short-passing game plan – were all punished by sides who preferred to surrender the ball and pounce on the counterattack. Spain completed a World-Cup-record 1,114 passes versus Russia’s meager 290 in La Roja‘s loss to the hosts – a monstrous caricature of sterile ball possession that for many heralded the passing of the era of ambitious football incarnated by Spain and Germany’s international success since 2008.
Indeed, it would be a mistake to draw any conclusions about broader tactical trends from this World Cup. The time when national sides were laboratories for innovation – Hungary’s “Golden Team” in the 1950s, the 4-2-4 formation with which Brazil captured the 1958 and 1970 World Cups, or Dutch Total Football in the 1970s – is long past. The 1980s was probably the last moment when national sides, like the Brazil of Falcão, Sócrates, and Zico, incarnated the best football of their era.
The Financial Sinews of the Beautiful Game
The moment the sport’s center of gravity began to shift from international to club football, helped along with a forceful shove from neoliberalism’s not so invisible hand, can be dated with great precision. In 1992, Rupert Murdoch’s Sky network won the television rights to the Premiership for £304 million, heralding an era of profligate broadcast contracts for Europe’s top leagues. That same year, with a small group of wealthy clubs threatening to break away and start their own closed superleague, the European football association (UEFA) demolished the longstanding straight knockout architecture of its three European club competitions to create the less open Champions League.
The European Court of Justice’s 1995 Bosman ruling lifted most restrictions on player transfers, striking down the rule limiting clubs to only three foreign players on the pitch at a time. And the Russian oligarch Roman Abromovich purchased Chelsea in 2003 from Ken Bates, who had already transformed the club into a closely-watched innovation incubator for football capitalism – high ticket prices, luxury boxes for corporate clients, frenetic buying of foreign players and coaches, and the construction of a hotel-residential-shopping complex around its stadium. Media conglomerates waged vertiginous bidding wars for broadcast rights in Germany, Italy, Spain, and above all England; clubs competed for top players in an increasingly frenzied and ever more global transfer market; some clubs, hungry for capital, went public; and global investors became increasingly interested in the sport’s potential to generate big returns.
Football thus found itself catapulted from the patriarchal age of industrial capitalism into the liquid modernity of financialization. Historically, club owners went in knowing they would lose money: wealthy men acquired teams as costly pastimes, akin to racehorses or yachts; industrial giants used them to keep their workers amused and out of trouble, as Peugeot did with FC Sochaux and Fiat with Juventus; and magnates on the make bankrolled teams to advance their political ambitions, as Silvio Berlusconi did with AC Milan and Bernard Tapie with Olympique de Marseille. Chelsea was by no means the most successful of the new behemoths, but it was the first – first in the Premiership to field a starting 11 with no English players, first to use high ticket prices to drive working-class fans out to make way for a better-heeled crowd, first to transform their stadium into an antiseptic Disneyland. The first, in short, to abandon the paternalist noblesse oblige ethos that had long governed football management for a primarily economic rationality.
When this new class of investors looked at grand old clubs, seemingly secure in their history, in their fans’ adulation, and in their mighty steel, brick, and concrete stadiums that were themselves awesome, albeit beer-, sweat-, and urine-stained monuments to the industrial age that had spawned them, they saw not just archaic holdovers from a dying past, but an opportunity. Clubs could be reinvented as brands, fans reborn as consumers, stadiums rebuilt as incandescent glass-and-steel way stations along the speedways of global capital, and a game rooted in the parochial transubstantiated by television’s intercession into a globalized spectacle. Football, in sum, could be monetized. In the brave new world of “soccernomics” (to borrow the term invented by journalists Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski), the global accounting firm Deloitte’s annual report on the business of football is now as much required reading as, say, the oracular tactical pronouncements of the visionary Argentinian coach Marcelo Bielsa.
The wealthiest clubs in the wealthiest leagues that emerged victorious from this neoliberal revolution now had the freedom and the means to attract the world’s best players, hire deep-thinking coaches, and give them the time, resources, and staff to experiment with increasingly sophisticated tactical ideas. It is this more than anything else that has made ours a golden age for exciting, innovative football, as anyone who has marveled at Pep Guardiola’s sides can attest. The form of play at every historical juncture always bears some mark of its means of production; the superstructure of tactics and spectacle is, we might say, shaped by its material base.
Few would challenge the proposition that today’s Manchester City or Liverpool FC are stronger than any national side. No national team coach has the time to drill elaborate tactical systems into their squads, and only a handful have anything like the depth of talent that the superclubs can boast. Facing criticisms for his team’s lackluster play in the run-up to last year’s World Cup, France’s coach Didier Deschamps retorted that, for players “to develop affinities, that’s already difficult, but as for automisms, pffouu, me, I have just ten matches a year to build all that.” Little surprise that most national teams opt for defensive, counterattacking orientations – easier for coaches to put in place in a short period of time than possession-based approaches. Because a high, aggressive pressing game like that prosecuted by Jürgen Klopp’s teams requires great tactical discipline and takes time to teach, little surprise too that almost no sides pressed high in Russia. Passive defensive systems are the weapons not only of the weak but also of the hurried.
What’s more, the sport’s top coaches – who, like the founder-leaders of tech giants or celebrated restaurant chefs, incarnate the neoliberal charism of exceptional individual achievement (imagine a Guardiola Ted Talk!) – are no longer interested in managing national teams. There is far more money to be made and grander tactical visions to be realized at the club level. For the first time at a modern World Cup, not a single national side present in Russia was coached by someone who had managed a Champions League winner.
It is this that creates a strange paradox. The World Cup is football’s biggest stage, the most widely and intensely followed sporting event on the planet, the ultimate prize for any professional footballer. And yet it is also a sideshow to what is, in qualitative and economic terms, increasingly the main event: club football in the European super leagues. It is a showcase that but faintly echoes the tactical and technical spectacle on offer each week in the Premiership or the Liga. So central is the transfer market to the dynamics of the sport today that it has become a gripping drama in its own right, one whose latest episodes – French forward Antoine Griezmann releasing a 30-minute documentary modeled on Lebron James’s narcissistic “The Decision” to announce he was staying with Atlético Madrid rather than join Barcelona, or the news that Real Madrid had sold Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus for €100 million – repeatedly threatened to upstage the World Cup itself.
So utterly irrelevant has the World Cup become to the beating economic heart of the sport, it is no longer even a proving-ground for assessing the market value of players. As the head of recruitment for a leading Premier League team told the New York Times last July, “If you are waiting for the World Cup to make decisions, you’re not doing your work well enough”.
The Digital Episteme
That isn’t to say there were no signs of change afoot in Russia. While this isn’t the first World Cup in which teams from Asia have met with success (think South Korea’s semifinal run in 2002), Japan and South Korea both showed quality and tactical ambition in Russia, the latter knocking defending-champion Germany out in spectacular fashion. Though the most important actor driving the rise of Asia as a locus of football power hadn’t even qualified for Russia 2018, its growing influence was visible everywhere, from the sideline advertisements in Chinese to the early match kick-off times to accommodate viewers in China.
Admittedly, Asian sponsors had stepped into the breach when many western multinationals, shocked, shocked! to discover corruption in FIFA’s ranks, had turned their backs on what, as one prominent sports marketer put it, had “become a toxic brand”. But make no mistake: with China investing massively in player development, its young domestic league, and European club ownership, it is only a matter of time before its national side will be a force to be reckoned with.
With its promise of a technological cure for fallible referees’ errors of judgment and an end to the officiating controversies that have been a part of the game from its inception, VAR was the most significant novelty on offer in Russia. In many instances, video review provides definitive answers to questions born of the fog of live play: did, say, a ball cross the goal-line? Declared a success by football’s powers that be, and currently in the process of being adopted in domestic leagues around the world, VAR’s failure to meet the impossible bar of scientific infallibility was evident to anyone who had eyes to see.
Rather than ‘solve’ the refereeing ‘problem’, however, it simply defers the moment when human judgement intervenes, mediating it through a set of protocols for determining what types of actions qualify for video review, under what circumstances the video assistant referee can intervene, and when the referee himself can examine the replay. VAR ultimately still turns on subjective assessment – of whether a handball in the penalty area was intentional, or a muscular tackle merits a yellow card, or even whether a play merits video review at all. Just ask Brazil fans, still fuming over the failure to review Belgian defender Vincent Kompany’s late challenge on Brazilian forward Gabriel Jesus inside the penalty area in the Auriverde‘s quarterfinal loss to Belgium.
What’s more, VAR has delivered a serious blow to football’s historical edifice. Up until now, the rules of the game and its material and human infrastructure were simple, even rudimentary, roughly replicable everywhere and at all levels at minimal cost. Michel Platini elevated this very replicability into sacrosanct principle when as UEFA president he opposed video review, before being brought down in the FIFAgate scandal. Cynics will argue that the pros in the top flight who play in high-tech cleats, on luxuriant grass manicured by sought-after groundskeepers, tended to off the pitch by an army of trainers, physical therapists, doctors, nutritionists, chefs, and psychologists, were already practicing a sport apart. VAR has all but finalized the divorce between a sphere of sporting luxury very different from the muddy, mundane, clean-your-own-cleats version familiar to the rest of us.
That VAR is here to stay is a testament not to its efficacy, but to how profoundly television has reshaped football and the way we experience it. Football was already very much a mass sport in Europe and South America before the first match was broadcast in 1937 (an English club friendly – it was not be until 1954 that a World Cup was televised live). But the age of televised football it heralded broadened the sport’s reach well beyond stadium crowds.
Since the 1980s, deregulation and the advent of cable and digital television made it possible to monetize TV coverage, and the sale of broadcast rights has become an increasingly important revenue stream for professional clubs. Thanks to a £5.1 billion contract covering the 2016-19 period, half the clubs in the Premiership would have still been profitable concerns if they had forgone gate revenues altogether and played in empty stadiums. In a world increasingly mediated by flat screens and financed by commodified data flows, stadium crowds will increasingly be necessary only as colorful backdrops, a televised token signaling that passion is the appropriate affect for relating to the sport.
Television didn’t just rewrite football’s business model, it reinvented the way people saw the game. Just as the first printed texts to come off presses in the late 15th and early 16th centuries imitated the look and layout of handwritten manuscripts, television coverage long strived to reproduce the stadium spectator’s gaze – typically a camera positioned at as neutral a location as possible high up midfield, filming action wide to capture most of the pitch, panning back and forth to follow the action. This wide-angle perspective allows the viewer to grasp both teams’ tactical shapes, to see the game unfold in space, and to follow ball movement. Like the view from high up in the stands, long shots in turn obscure much: it can be difficult to recognize individual players, or discern the subtleties of a dribble or touch (as anyone who recalls squinting at, say, Serie A broadcasts in the 1980s, trying to make out play through the smoke from ultras’ flares and the snow and scan lines of analogue TV).
Beginning in the late 1980s, the French cable station Canal+ used improved camera technology and its broadcast monopoly on France’s first division to pioneer an entirely new way of covering football. Producers now called upon a multitude of cameras distributed at various positions around the pitch to intersperse traditional wide angle images with a myriad of other perspectives: field-level views of live play, tight shots on individual players in mid-dribble, slow-motion replays and languorous close-ups of players’ and coaches’ facial expressions in the heat of battle. Canal’s approach, increasingly the dominant broadcast model around the world, makes for spectacular coverage. But it is also one that constructs match narratives very different from the stories told in traditional broadcasts. Its gaze emphasizes individual players – their technique, their exploits, and their emotions – as well as coaches – their gesticulatory sideline exhortations standing in for their supposed tactical and leadership genius – feeding a broader story about a game defined by superstars and their superhuman talent.
Like the great printers of Renaissance Venice and Antwerp who reinvented the book’s very form, Canal brought about an epistemic shift in the way live matches were visually narrated. Eager to make its sport more telegenic and star-dazzled, FIFA-mandated teams put players’ names on the back of their jerseys for the 1994 World Cup – an acknowledgment that the spectacle that mattered was now on screen, not in the stadium (where no one can read players’ names on their shirts anyway). Television has trained the fan’s eye so well that many lucky enough to be in the stadium today prefer to follow action on the giant screen rather than the pitch.
Television not only provided a small handful of clubs the capital with which to better themselves and a global platform on which to shine, its tight gaze has in turn thrown the spotlight on a small handful of top players, using high-definition images and supersaturated colors to transform athletes into eroticized superstars. Celebrity can now weigh as much as footballing prowess when clubs assess their transfer targets. Shortly after purchasing Paris-Saint-Germain, Qatar Sports Investment signed the then 37-year-old English icon David Beckham to play a mere half-season in a move manifestly designed to boost their new club’s global notability; likewise, in the 24 hours following the announcement of Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Juventus, the Turin club sold over 500,000 jerseys emblazoned with the player’s name and number – proof that the value to the Vecchia Signora of the 33-year-old would be as much commercial and promotional as competitive.
There is a certain irony in how these pixel-rich video capabilities are wielded in ways that obscure precisely what makes this a golden age of creative play. By pushing all the players off the ball out of view, they tell a tightly-focused story about individual virtuosity that comes at the expense of another wide-angle story about teamwork and collective organization. Chopped up by rapid-fire switches between the nearly 40 cameras located around each stadium, the Russia 2018 broadcasts proposed a vertigo-inducing caricature of the Canal+ style. Building up play from the back is a staple of the champagne football preached by the likes of Guardiola and practiced by quick-footed keepers like Brazil’s Ederson or Costa Rica’s Keylor Navas, but you wouldn’t have known it from Russia 2018 coverage, which preferred to run replays rather than show goalkeepers restart play.
Increasingly interventionist video editing has also profoundly disrupted the temporal physiognomy of games, slicing and dicing their continuous 90 minutes of play (plus extra time) with a relentless staccato of camera shifts and replays. When in 1994 US broadcasters proposed introducing television time-outs to matches to make room for commercials during the first World Cup to be hosted in the United States, FIFA swatted them aside, determined to protect the sanctity of continuous play. That VAR was welcomed without nary a batted eyelash – injecting the same lengthy interruptions during video review that fans of professional rugby have had to endure since 2001 – is testament to how accustomed football watchers had already become to rapid-fire discontinuities during match broadcasts. It’s not hard to imagine the next step. Indeed, sponsors are reportedly already exploring the possibility of introducing advertising during VAR stoppages with FIFA and domestic leagues.
The digital turn has also accelerated the sport’s globalization. During my adolescence in football exile in the US in the 1980s, I depended on the kindness of family back in France to mail me the latest issues of France Football to follow my club’s travails. Today, it’s possible to follow the European top flight in real time from almost anywhere. Some sample this cornucopia from the comfort of their widescreen televisions and costly digital subscriptions. Those priced out of this game-day bonanza search anxiously moments before kickoff for dodgy web sites relaying grainy, pirated broadcast feeds with commentary in Russian or Arabic (up to 20% of the viewers of Champions League matches watch via pirated streams). Like glitches in the matrix, the digital pipelines’ periodic hiccups are reminders that today’s glittering football public sphere has come at great cost. On the crowded café terrace where I watched France’s World Cup opener against Australia on a glorious Paris summer day, we knew Les Bleus had scored several seconds before we actually saw Griezmann drive his penalty shot home, thanks to the cheering at the café across the street equipped with a faster feed.
Football has become ever more mediated by digital technologies. Where fandom was once instantiated in the material culture of posters and Panini stickers, it is now experienced through social media. Real-life footballers have embraced enormously popular video games like FIFA Football, thus generating a noisy feedback loop of football life imitating video game art. Many players borrowed their Russia 2018 goal celebrations from the video game Fortnite. Of Mbappé’s opening goal in Les Bleus‘s quarterfinal victory over Argentina, French backup defenseman Adil Rami remarked that “Kylian, he showed us just like in FIFA: L1, acceleration, and double joystick right!” – proof that ludic simulations now offer a language with which to make sense of what really takes place on the field. Russia 2018’s official ball, the Adidas Telstar 18, whose pixelized black-and-white panels were imagined as a tribute to the Telstar used at the 1968 Euro and 1970 World Cup, showed that today even football nostalgia has to be filtered through a digital lens.
Adidas’s star-packed World Cup television commercial last summer fashioned football’s supersaturated aesthetic and its cult of the superstar into a veritable ideological manifesto. Football as MC’ed spectacle, part hip-hop concert, part fashion show, part cage wrestling match, part tribute to the 2001 martial arts parody Shaolin Soccer – as if the game were nothing more than a theater for virtuosic expression, a neoliberal proving ground for individual success, a space where, as Pharrell Williams’s voice-over proclaimed, “creativity is the answer … put your own spin on things”. As long as you are shod in Adidas, I suppose.
The star system that now drives the narrative at World Cups and other major competitions also places impossible burdens on players’ shoulders and flattens out the game’s complexities. American viewers of Fox Soccer were treated last summer to endless odes to the superstars who, seemingly singlehandedly, define the game and dictate its course – one commentator remarking during Belgium’s nailbiter against Japan, “If this game opens up, Hazard is the one player that can turn things around” for a Belgian squad that was in fact stocked with talent and offensive possibilities. Victory brings outsized encomia – witness Time‘s cover devoted to Mbappé. Defeat brings ignominy – blame for Argentina’s early exit was laid on Lionel Messi, rather than the Albiceleste‘s dearth of quality and team discipline or inept coaching. Many on French Twitter mocked Griezmann, whose defensive and playmaking responsibilities left him less opportunity for goalscoring during the World Cup, for being more visible in shampoo commercials than on the field.
Players have had no choice but to adapt to the scrutiny. Surely the extreme care they devote to their hairstyles come match time, or Cristiano Ronaldo hiking up his shorts before taking free kicks in Russia, the better to show off his well-waxed and admittedly impressive quadruceps, owe something to their keen awareness that television cameras are tightly trained on them. Polemics arising from on-field incidents captured on camera (recall the fallout when Cristiano Ronaldo winked after his lobbying the referee helped Wayne Rooney get sent off in the Portugal-England quarterfinal in 2006) have taught caution. Players and coaches now cover their mouths when they speak, lest lipreaders eavesdrop. It is only when broadcasters began marching cameras in front of team lineups as national anthems played that controversies in France and elsewhere over who does or doesn’t sing became possible.
The differences between Stéphane Meunier’s remarkable documentary on the 1998 World-Cup winning French team, Les Yeux dans les Bleus, and the TF1 documentary, Les Bleus 2018: Au Coeur de l’épopée Russe, offer a telling measure of how much the football mediascape has changed over the past 20 years. Granted extraordinary access, Meunier used footage of practices, coaches’ speeches, heated locker-room discussions, and down time in players’ rooms, free from any voice-over narration, to construct an authentic-seeming snapshot of a team’s private life. Though TF1’s documentary slavishly imitates Meunier’s model (why break with a commercially winning formula?), it’s hard to imagine today’s players, schooled as they are by public relations experts and chastened by media-driven scandals – France’s disastrous 2010 World Cup campaign in South Africa, say, or Karim Benzema’s alleged role in blackmailing a teammate over a sextape – displaying the same unguardedness in front of the camera they did in Les Yeux dans les Bleus.
What’s more, where the 1998 film introduced viewers to a behind-the-scenes world they had never seen before, last summer fans who had followed players’ carefully curated social media accounts had already seen everything by the time TF1 aired its documentary (French defenseman Presnel Kimpembe’s Instagram feed was the one to watch). Players have seized on social media to shape their own narratives, crafting tightly-controlled self-images that offer fans the illusion of proximity.
Most recently, big data has begun to transform the way football is played and how we make sense of it. For clubs with pockets deep enough to bankroll teams of quants, analytics have become a crucial tool in the quest for a competitive edge (ever first in innovation, Chelsea created football’s first analytics department in 2008). To feed their models with data, they subscribe to match statistics packages from outfits like Opta (assembled, as the French daily Libération revealed, by a poorly-paid proletariat of Stakhanovite beancounters who catalogue upwards of 2,000 different events per match). Postgame shows and specialized websites break down tactics with data and visualization tools dubbed “augmented reality”, promising to uncover a footballing truth somehow hidden to the naked eye. The New York Times reported that Liverpool’s director of analytics, who holds a PhD in theoretical physics from Cambridge, hadn’t watched a single match of a team coached by Klopp when he recommended that the club hire the German on the basis of data alone. In this new episteme, the real match won’t be the one we can see on the pitch, but rather the hidden hand of the mathematical models that dictate tactics.
More than simply another weapon in football’s escalating financial arms race, analytics represents a whole new language for describing football, one whose mathematical grammar is antithetical to poetry and metaphor. This isn’t to say that data-driven coaching will necessarily produce ugly play – Klopp’s Liverpool is as exciting a side as you will watch today. Instead, it threatens the traditional, essentially literary, ways people speak about a sport whose aspirations to beauty are baked into “The Beautiful Game” moniker. As one of the great lyricists of contemporary football Jorge Valdano wrote in the Guardian during last year’s World Cup, data can tell us how far a given player ran during a game, but can it answer the question: did he “play well? That’s another story.” Moreover, given how tightly harnessed these algorithms will be to the profit imperative, it’s likely this kabbalah of upward redistribution of wealth will display not the formal beauty of quantum mechanics, but rather all the aesthetic qualities of a hedge fund’s model for arbitraging nickel futures.
In the moment, France’s victory had an air of inevitability to it. Thanks to exceptional talent, depth, work rate, and tactical discipline, Les Bleus advanced through the tougher of the two knock-out brackets with apparent ease. They won when they played well, dispatching heavyweights like Belgium; they won when they played poorly, overcoming perhaps the best team in open play of the tournament, Croatia. Consecration for a golden generation of players, many of whom had already won the under-20 world championship in 2013, this is a young and formidable side whose best may still lie ahead. For their part, advocates of the dismal science could claim vindication from France’s victory: before the tournament began, the Transfermarkt web site evaluated the market value of Les Bleus at €1.08 billion, the highest of any team in Russia.
But it is inscribed in the World Cup’s very DNA that every winner must inspire polemic: this one focused not on whether France deserved to win, but rather on how it won it. If in the first round, commentators in France complained that Les Bleus‘s play was static, uninspired, ugly, by tournament’s close pundits the world over were asking why so talented a side had relied on so defensive a posture. It is a debate almost as old as the sport itself, opposing those who believe that teams should strive not just to win, but to play beautifully, and those who preach a footballing realpolitik prizing results over the manner in which they are obtained.
The French football imaginary has long been stamped with a decidedly aesthetic sensibility. Fans who, like myself, came of age before France’s first World Cup victory in 1998 watch football through the lens of France’s semifinal runs in the 1958, 1982, and 1986 World Cups – glorious, flamboyant sides led by attack-minded creators like Raymond Kopa and Just Fontaine, Michel Platini and Alain Giresse, but who all fell short in dramatic fashion. In 1958, Les Bleus played the last hour of its semifinal against Pelé’s Brazil a man down (due to injury in an era when substitutes were not yet authorized). During the 1982 semifinal in Seville against a pedestrian but determined West Germany, the Mannschaft’s keeper Harald Schumacher sent French defender Patrick Battiston to the hospital with an egregious foul, before France surrendered a two-goal lead in extra time and lost the penalty shootout. And in 1986, an exhausted France, drained by its magnificent quarterfinal triumph over Zico’s Brazil, did what it could against West Germany, to no avail.
Though the same team lifted the 1984 European Nations Cup, Seville has come to function as a defining tragedy, a dramaturgical yardstick against which all subsequent French teams must be measured. Romantic, swashbuckling France, ever deprived of silverware by cruel injustice, ever a moral victor. Better to loose pretty than win ugly.The 1998 World Cup victory brought both euphoria and, to those with long enough memories at least, a certain discomfort.
This was a team assembled from a gifted generation of players, who as part of the post-Bosman vanguard left the hexagon to cut their teeth in the top European clubs competing in the still-young Champion’s League. There was nothing romantic about a squad that, built atop a formidable back line and nursed on the defensive, win-at-all-costs ethos of the then world-leading Serie A, had learned the “lesson of Seville” and was determined not to repeat it. The more attractive side that captured the 2000 Euro made it possible to nurse the fantasy that “French flair” was still somehow a Gallic footballing birthright. So too Les Bleus‘s epic run in the 2006 World Cup, led by a Zidane playing not in fits and starts, as he had in 1998, but with ethereal grace, until he damned his own team with his infamous head butt. If Seville was football tragedy, Berlin was its farcical reprise.
Baptized into the cult of Seville and sustained by the veneration of saints Kopa and Platini, we have a hard time seeing our football selves as the rest of the world now sees us: as a global powerhouse, whose pioneering youth formation system continues to churn out an embarrassment of human footballing riches, and whose clinical, sometimes cynical, national sides play to win. Gary Lineker, the marvelous former England midfielder who with characteristic wit coined the phrase “Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win”, tweeted at Russia 2018’s close, “France is the new Germany.”
Belgians saw their team’s semifinal defeat against France in precisely the same aesthetic, even moralizing, terms we did our losses in 1982 and 1986. “They played nothing but anti-football,” lamented the Diables Rouges‘s keeper, Thibaut Courtois, “They have the right to play that way … But it isn’t pretty to watch. This team isn’t better than we are.” After the final, Croatia’s Dejan Lovren (who knows France well for having played at Olympique Lyonnais) repeated the refrain: “France didn’t play football … we played much better football than they did.”
While showing all the respect due opponents still smarting from their loss, French players challenged this schematic opposition between possession-based virtue and defensive vice, insisting instead that there are many ways for one team to play “better” than another. As Griezmann deftly pointed out, it takes a certain bad faith for a player like Courtois, who matured into one of the world’s top keepers under the tutelage of two of the recent era’s greatest prophets of football realism, Diego Simeone at Atlético Madrid and José Mourinho at Chelsea, to claim defensive play to be somehow illegitimate.
And though I didn’t say so to the Belgian friend with whom I watched the semifinal, France was manifestly the better team on the day. Belgium’s normally mesmerizing creators Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, and Dries Mertens were rarely dangerous, stymied by France’s defensive effort. By almost any measure except possession (Belgium held the ball 60% of the time), France, who played with greater pace and direction when they had the ball, took more shots, put more on target, and was the more menacing side. And the match’s one fleeting moment of grace – when Blaise Matuidi managed a short pass to Mbappé in traffic in the Belgian penalty box who, back to the goal, executed a roulette back-heeled pass to Olivier Giroud – didn’t even result in a goal. This is a team that has earned pride of place in the dark genealogy of great defensive sides, alongside the Inter Milan squads piloted by Helenio Herrera in the 1960s or Mourinho in the late 2000s.
It’s tempting to credit the forging of this Gallic catenaccio to France’s coach – to see in this defend-first-and-ask-offensive-questions-later side one made in the image of Deschamps the player. In a career that spanned the French, Spanish, Italian, and English top flights, he used a tireless work ethic, a sharp understanding of tactics and the ebb and flow of match time, and an insatiable hunger to win to become one of the most accomplished defensive midfielders of his epoch. Awarded the captain’s armband at Nantes at age 19 (he also captained in 1993 the first French club to hoist the Champions League trophy, Olympique de Marseille, as well as the 1998 World-Cup- and 2000 Euro-winning teams), Deschamps manifested a gift for leadership from the very start, and it was a foregone conclusion that he would go on to coach himself.
But it would be a mistake to conflate Deschamps the player with Deschamps the coach. Like everyone who came up through FC Nantes, he was deeply marked by a club whose pioneering youth system, visionary coaches, and affirmed philosophy of movement, short passes, and attack produced some of the most attractive teams of their eras (eight French championships between 1965 and 2001). As its more recent struggles to stay in the French first division demonstrate, this Gallic analogue of Ajax of Amsterdam is one of the losers in the Darwinian landscape of post-Bosman football capitalism – discarded onto a mounting ash heap of formerly great clubs, for want of capital.
In a fascinating conversation published in France Football in 2012 between Deschamps and former FC Nantes player and coach Jean-Claude Suaudeau (who brought Deschamps up into the first team), Deschamps made clear just how much he admires the jeu à la nantaise (Nantes style of play). Putting these lessons into practice in his first major coaching job, he piloted a stylish AS Monaco to a Champion’s League final in 2004 (losing to Mourinho’s FC Porto, the last club from outside Europe’s big four leagues to win). In 2014, he sent a forward-leaning French team to the World Cup in Brazil, where he left Griezmann considerable liberty to roam forward. And heaven knows that in the run up to Russia 2018, Deschamps tested any number of lineups in an effort to put France’s current plethora of world-class strikers to good use.
Deschamps is no Mourinho, but rather a consummate pragmatist, his drive to win trumping any attachment to a style or philosophy. In Russia, he appears simply to have given his players the green light to follow their own defensive inclinations. It is striking just how committed the entire team appeared to be to defend together “like warriors”, as Paul Pogba put it in his spirited locker-room exhortations. It’s hard to imagine Cristiano Ronaldo ever telling reporters, as MBappé did, “I couldn’t care less about the Ballon d’Or. I want the World Cup.”
If France’s matchups against Belgium and Croatia were studies in contrasts, its quarterfinal against Uruguay was a meeting of the defensive minds. La Celeste is doubtless the national side that has elevated the defensive posture to the highest form of art, codified and taught at all age levels by its remarkable coach Óscar Tabárez, and energized by the country’s gritty garra charrúa spirit. Defense has offered this small country a means to project its profoundly egalitarian and democratic ethos onto the global stage and punch above its footballing weight.
Between his taste for maté, his support for the great Montevideo club Peñarol, and his friendships with former Atlético teammates José Giménez and Diego Godín, godfather to his daughter, Griezmann has never hidden his admiration for Uruguay. Nor has he spared praise for their play: “They give everything together for their teammates, it’s beautiful. It’s what I live every day with Atlético”. Though Suárez sought before the match to put Griezmann back in his Gallic place – “he doesn’t know what it is to feel Uruguayan” –, the Frenchman still refused to celebrate his goal against Uruguay, a gesture typically reserved for players who score against their former clubs. During his post-match massage captured in the TF1 documentary, Griezmann reveled in beating La Celeste at their own game: “Didn’t we play just like Atlético? … everyone back, there we go, we keep the lines tight, and a goal on a set piece, and we close up shop .. these are the kinds of wins I love … that’s my style of play”. The way Griezmann played, tackling Messi in the match against Argentina, defending on his own goal line against Belgium, you could believe it.
Griezmann also spoke to a more general truth: teams that refuse possession, rely on precise positioning and self-abnegation to protect their goal, awaiting an opportunity to pounce on the counterattack in a carefully choreographed dance of calculated risk can evince their own stark grace.
Still not convinced by this encomium to the beauty of winning ugly penned by a child of Seville who, only two years before, bristled like very other French supporter at the injustice of losing the 2016 Euro final to a Portugal that, refusing play, had gambled everything on the penalty shootout? Recall the Seleção’s then coach Fernando Santos’s retort: “beauty and ugliness are subjective concepts, all depends on the eyes that look”. Which is just another way of saying that all assertions about football are ultimately grounded in bad faith, mine included.
Pride Goeth Before the Fall
Football has been one of the last refuges of patriotism-peddling scoundrels for so long that it is easy to forget just how recently the French national team became politicized. To be sure, François Mitterrand was on hand at the Parc des Princes in 1984 to hand the shiny European Nations Cup to France’s captain Platini – but his strained smile, distant gaze, and vague remarks to journalists suggested that the president, whose tastes ran more to literature than sport, wished he were a thousand kilometers away. We have Jacques Chirac, a man profoundly indifferent to any sport other than sumo, to thank for investing a game that the French political class had long regarded as beneath them with political valence. Left for dead after the disastrous 1996 legislative elections, Chirac began his long presidential reelection march during the 1998 World Cup, cheerfully donning the national team jersey and dexterously inserting himself into every locker room photo op he could.
Politicians have ever since tripped over themselves to use the sport’s increasing popularity as a platform. In his defence, Emmanuel Macron’s passion for football, and for his club Olympique de Marseille, appears sincere. But the current president has also shown himself to be a skilled craftsman of his own image, and he played the World Cup for all it was worth: the photo capturing him in mid-celebration of France’s opening goal in the final – his svelte, youthful body, suit jacket dropped, leaning back, his right arm tensed, ready to pump forward in exultation – spoke for itself.
But in his eagerness to follow Chirac’s example and harness Les Bleus to his own ends, Macron ended up hoisted by his own petard. The day after the final, 300,000 people gathered on the Champs-Élysées in Paris to acclaim the victors, along the same route that the 1998 and 2000 teams had traveled as they brandished their trophies atop open-roofed double-decker buses, before stopping at the Hotel Crillon to pursue the celebration from the hotel’s balcony. Last July, in contrast, the crowd on the Champs was penned off at a safe distance by barriers, ostensibly as an anti-terrorism precaution, and players and trophy remained ensconced inside the team bus as it sped down the avenue surrounded by a phalanx of heavily-armed police, skipping the Crillon altogether in order to head straight for the Élysée palace.
As news reports revealed in the days that followed, it was the president’s office that had hustled the bus along to be sure the team made a photo op timed to be broadcast live on the evening news. Where Chirac had employed a light touch in 1998, Macron’s stunning act of hubris left an enormous crowd disappointed and transformed a festive communion into a public relations disaster, thus helping weigh down his already sagging political fortunes on the eve of the gilets jaunes protests.
The Racial Politics of the World Cup
A competition between national teams – composed only of citizens, wearing team kits borrowing national flag’s color schemes, playing for national pride rather than mammon, competing in matches kicked off with the singing of national anthems, and cheered on by fans animated by a kind of patriotic fervor – is by its very nature a performance of national identity. It is an affirmation of the nation-state as a legitimate and commendable thing, self-evident and beyond question. This is why the newly independent states that emerged from the breakup of the USSR and Yugoslavia – Ukraine or Croatia, say – were so quick to seek recognition from FIFA and field national teams.
That national teams were meant to stand in for the nations they represented was clear to all concerned from the very moment when England and Scotland faced off in the first international match in 1872. What it was precisely about players that made them vehicles for the nations they represented, however, has always been considerably less clear. In the first decades of the World Cup’s history, for example, many players switched national teams in the course of their careers. Some freely chose to change sides, like the great Alfredo Di Stéfano, who between the 1940s and the 1960s, played first for Argentina, then Colombia, then Spain. Others were coerced into nationalist projects, as when Mussolini strong-armed Latin American players with Italian origins to switch teams and play for Italy – the so-called rimpatriati – in the 1934 World Cup. Determined to redefine international competition’s very legitimacy around the principle that players had to be tied to national teams by an exclusive attachment, FIFA in 1964 prohibited players from representing more than one nation over the course of their career.
When, several decades later, nations on football’s periphery like Qatar liberally showered citizenship on players from Brazil and elsewhere to stock their national sides with ringers (a strategy in some cases rich in irony, given Qatar’s notoriously restrictive citizenship laws that maintain hundreds of thousands of “guest workers” in a state of perpetual precarity), FIFA tightened its rules in 2004 and 2008, requiring that players demonstrate a “clear connection” (residency or familial roots) to the country for whom they wish to play.
FIFA’s eligibility rules represent a remarkable move, creating a form of “sporting nationality” that is stronger and more restrictive than the laws of many of its members. They posit a monogamous relationship between athlete and nation, imposing a kind of undivided and unconditional loyalty that functions to reinforce the sense that international matches are confrontations between distinct, essentially different national entities. Leaving no conceptual room for double-nationals, FIFA’s insistence that international players manifest loyalty to a single national team forces choices on them that the market does not. The gifted French playmaker Nabil Fekir, born in Lyon to Algerian parents, long hesitated between playing for Algeria or France before Deschamps convinced him to choose Les Bleus in 2015.
The nationalist imaginary that underpins competitions like the World Cup stands in especially stark contrast to the cosmopolitan world of club football today in which nationalities and languages mix freely. It is a world populated by players who change employers and even countries of residence often, participating as they do in a highly mobile labor market, and whose life trajectories follow the mobility pathways paved by the ever more globalized business of football. Increasingly, the footballers who inhabit this cosmopolitan world are themselves cosmopolitans.
The semifinal matchup between France and Belgium perfectly encapsulated the fluid, mobile character of the top flight in the post-Bosman era. Eleven French players and twelve Belgians were at that moment club teammates. A photo taken by Simon Kuper in the stadium 90 minutes before kickoff captures a group of players from both teams, laughing as they chat together on the pitch. It is a snapshot of a cosmopolitan confraternity enjoying a brief instant of downtime, of a group of coworkers and friends who, notwithstanding the putative boundary of national difference that will crystallize and divide them when they line up at kickoff a few moments later, have grown up together and shared powerful social experiences. A testament, too, to how the world’s very best players are concentrated in a handful of clubs (in this case, Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain, and Monaco). Football without borders, one could say – except the snapshot was taken at an event in which national differences are reified.
The mobility dynamics driven by the economics of contemporary football sap the national imaginary behind international competitions in more fundamental ways as well. Griezmann and his teammate Lucas Hernandez, while both born in France, are in fact immigrants: both left France for Spain as children to enter youth academies there (Hernandez’s spoken French, though fluent, is accented). Likewise, Belgian star Eden Hazard came up through the French club Lille OSC’s youth system and his brother Thorzan through the academy of Lille’s nearby rival, RC Lens. The photos that have circulated of the Hazard brothers wearing French national team jerseys as children offer further evidence of the complex plurality of players’ footballing attachments. Indeed, Hernandez had originally intended to accept the Spanish national team’s invitation, declaring “Spain gave me everything and if they call on me, I will come … my change of nationality will soon happen. I consider myself a Spaniard like anyone else. I speak Spanish better than French”. It was only when his Spanish naturalization application was delayed after he was convicted for domestic abuse that he instead joined the Russia-bound Bleus.
The borders that separate the countries where Hernandez, Griezmann, and the frères Hazard were respectively born and for which they play today from the countries where they ply their trade at the club level is to a certain extent invisible – willed so by the architects of the European Union and its free movement of citizens, but also because, in this age of racialized anxiety about migration from the global south to the global north, the relocation of four white men from one affluent European country to another somehow doesn’t register as a story about immigration.
The same can’t be said of the migration flows from Africa that have reshaped Belgium and France’s national teams and provoked endless commentary. These trajectories are the end product of a myriad of longer-term, interconnected histories: of empires that tied colonial peripheries to centers; of labor-hungry industrialization that drew workers to Europe; of decolonization that sundered colonies from metropoles and created new nation-states; of the enduring webs of kinship and the persistence of economic inequality that have shaped and sustained immigration patterns ever since; and of the entangled braids of historical memory and plural loyalties bequeathed to each successive generation born of these population shifts. Take Belgium’s Antwerp-born forward Romelu Lukaku, whose parents left Zaire shortly after it had won its independence from Belgium, so that his father could play professional football in Belgium while continuing to play for Zaire’s national team.
The links that span economic gradients and imaginaries of racial difference to tie Europe’s richest clubs to its postcolonial peripheries determine the competitive possibilities not only of the European superclubs, but of football across Africa and beyond. After all, diasporas can carve out space in their new homes, but they can also be called back to their places of origin. Most of Sénégal’s players at last summer’s World Cup were products of youth academies in Europe or of training centers set up across West Africa by wealthy European clubs. Morocco sent a side drawn largely from the country’s European diaspora: seventeen out of twenty-three players were born outside Morocco (in the Netherlands and France primarily, but also Italy and Spain); its manager was Frenchman Hervé Renard, who, having previously coached USM Alger, Zambia, Angola, and Côte d’Ivoire, was carrying on a long neocolonial tradition of French coaches of African teams.
The remarkable fact that 52 players competing in Russia were French-born (including 35 representing Tunisia, Sénégal, Morocco, Portugal, and Argentina) is a testament to the unparalleled quality of France’s youth system (as sociologist Darko Dukic has shown, since 2002 216 French-born players have played in World Cups, Brazil is next with only 148 – and France’s share has steadily increased over the period). But it also speaks pointedly to global inequities in football resources, infrastructure, and opportunity.
France’s history of empire, low birthrates, industrialization, and world-war-abetted bloodletting all contributed to shaping unusually open immigration and citizenship laws – which in turn opened its national teams to visible minorities decades before most of its European counterparts. France’s 1938 and 1958 World Cup teams counted white and Arab Algerians, a Guyanais born of Senegalese parents, and sons of Poles, Italians, and Ukrainians. The 1982 World Cup squad included the descendants of Italian, Polish, and Spanish immigrants, three players from the French Caribbean, one born in Mali and another in France of Malian parents – all coached by the son of Spanish Republicans who had fled Franco. (In comparison, England selected a player of color for the first time only in 1978.)
France’s history of immigration, which is itself shaped by its history of colonial empire, is thus inscribed in the very sociology of teams that are then invested with the vocation to incarnate French identity. It is this that has made it possible to focus a racially-charged gaze on Les Bleus. Like the sport’s politicization in France, however, this too is a surprisingly recent phenomenon. In 1984, the Euro-winning team’s diverse makeup drew nary a comment. L’Équipe‘s short piece on the subject saw this as positive and unproblematic, a natural and unsurprising consequence of immigration’s longstanding impact on French society. The article looked eagerly ahead to when the children of North African immigrants would carve out a place for themselves in the national program. By 1998 the emergence of the Front National had changed the national conversation on immigration. Those who celebrated the Black Blanc Beur team as heralding a multicultural France at peace with its diversity were holding up Les Bleus as a forceful answer to mounting xenophobia.
These celebrations assigned a national team that had long reflected France’s diversity political and symbolic import it had never carried before. However well intentioned, efforts to posit the team’s racial identity as a benchmark for Frenchness and a showcase for a plural Republic also opened Les Bleus up to more nefarious interrogations. Hoping to build on the Black Blanc Beur ideal to help forward Franco-Algerian reconciliation, Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin organized an ill-advised friendly in Paris in 2001 with Algeria forty years after the end of Algeria’s war for independence.
It was of course naïve to believe that a mere football game could, in the absence of a fuller historical and moral reckoning, heal the wounds of a conflict that had taken over 300,000 lives, displaced millions of Algerians, drove one million white settlers out of Algeria to metropolitan France (many of whom would help buoy the Front National’s rise in the 1980s), and whose memory continues to fuel the racism endured by French-Algerians today. Thousands of French-Algerian fans, many bearing Algerian flags, booed the pre-kick-off Marseillaise, before dozens of young people launched a spontaneous pitch invasion, bringing the match to a halt. The debacle ignited an enduring debate over the alleged failure of French-Algerians – and by extension immigrants in general – to assimilate.
Public figures bent on stoking anxieties about French national identity thus transformed the French national team into a charged site of debate. Front National founder Jean-Marie Le Pen accused the national team in 2002 of disloyalty for not singing the Marseillaise. Public intellectual and French Academy member Alain Finkielkraut, who has in recent years taken to issuing breathless jeremiads about a France overrun by immigrants and in decline, groaned in 2005 that “today, the national team is black-black-black, which makes all of Europe snicker.”
Pundits seized upon episodes like the players’ strike during the 2010 World Cup, to protest the expulsion of Nicolas Anelka for having insulted the coach, as morality tales illustrating the supposed failure of the multicultural project. Eric Zemmour, who as the latest prime-time peddler of hate cobbles his reactionary screeds together from nostalgic paeans to a lost Judeo-Christian order, found it “bizarre” there were so many black players on last summer’s team and circulated an invented story about how during the 2010 World Cup the entire team had been forced to eat halal.
With the same abruptness that in 1998 the French public sphere discovered its national team was diverse, the world took notice of the same fact during Russia 2018. The Italian press reported on a wave of racist invective on social media in Italy lamenting that, in the words of a municipal councillor with the far-right Fratelli d’Italia party, “For the first time, an African team won the World Cup”. A tsunami of better-meaning global commentary discerned in Les Bleus the symptoms of broader pathologies, and hectored a France ravaged by racism.
Globe and Mail columnist Konrad Yakabuski predicted mid-tournament that a victory would transform France’s players from lightning rods onto which an intolerant nation ordinarily focused its discomfort with minorities into “models to emulate for young people of Arab and African backgrounds in France’s seedy suburbs.” Adam Nossiter, whose caricatures of a sclerotic, terrorized France are what passes for coverage of the hexagon in the New York Times these days, declared the victory a salve for a wounded nation: “Black, brown and white had no problem coming together, dancing together and waving the country’s flag together — a rare occurrence in France.” (Nossiter manifestly doesn’t get out much.)
Others preferred to strike a more positive tone, celebrating in France’s victory a lesson in tolerance and multicultural coexistence for the world. In a speech in South Africa honoring Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama declared “Just ask the French football team that just won the World Cup. Because not all of those folks looked like Gauls to me. But they’re French! They’re French”. The New Yorker‘s Adam Gopnik saw in Les Bleus “the living refutation” of Trump. Sports Illustrated‘s Grant Wahl made much the same point in his coverage from Russia. In the age of Brexit and Trump, argued historian Peniel Joseph, “France’s World Cup win is a victory for immigrants everywhere … The racial and ethnic diversity of the French World Cup team offers another, more optimistic, lesson about immigration, globalization and citizenship.”
As law professor Khaled Beydoun put it, “Whether nativists, racists and the Marine Le Pens in France like it or not, much of the world views France as the last African team standing in Russia, demonstrating brown and black excellence in all of its glory.” Such commentary wasn’t really about France at all, but rather an attempt to use Les Bleus to make political arguments about the United States, Great Britain, or the global right-wing populist turn.
In a remarkable conjuncture made possibly by social media, the participants in these distinct French and global conversations suddenly found themselves in heated dialogue with each other. The South African host of The Daily Show Trevor Noah unwittingly started the transcultural discussion when, picking up on a lively strand of conversation that was coursing through Twitter, he declared on his show that “Africa won the World Cup! … France is Africans’ backup team … that’s who we root for.” The outspoken then-French ambassador to the United States Gérard Araud sent Noah a letter in response, objecting that “Nothing could be less true.”
Opposing what he posited to be specifically American and French approaches to difference, the former reifying multiculturalism and the latter a color-blind Republicanism whose emphasis on equality leaves no room for competing allegiances, Araud insisted that “to us, there is no hyphenated identity.” Noah read Araud’s letter on air, before making a plea for plural identities: “Why can’t they be both? … When I say they’re African, I’m not saying it as a way to exclude them from their Frenchness. I’m saying it to include them in my Africanness.” Their exchange drew attention in France and inspired yet another round of American criticism of the hexagon.
In a snarky piece entitled “The French Don’t Understand American Identity Politics” that took Araud’s schematic opposition between French assimilationism and American multiculturalism at face value, Rachel Donadio threw her support behind Noah, complaining for good measure that “France is known around the world for many commendable qualities; sense of humor is not one of them.” (On this last point, I would invite Donadio to peruse Kimbempe’s hilarious Instagram account, or replay Rami’s press conferences).
To be sure, the muscular form of Republicanism championed by Araud has gained traction in France in recent years. Some invoke it to legitimate racist restrictions on wearing veils or hijabs. Others make more thoughtful cases in support of this model, like sociologist Jean Berman, who in a Washington Post op-ed piece entitled “Stop Calling the French World Cup Victory an Immigrant Win,” laid out why, in a country where the Vichy regime’s Jewish Laws are recent history and “immigration” has often served as a code-word to stigmatize visible minorities, there might be good reasons to celebrate an unqualified French identity. In the World Cup’s afterglow, Macron’s then-secretary of state for digital technology Mounir Mahjoubi applauded the passing of the Black-Blanc-Beur ideal, and called on the French to “celebrate fraternity” rather than particular identities. Taking this opposition between French and American approaches to diversity to be a given, L’Équipe ran a headline that asked, “Why do other countries (and not France) talk about Les Bleus like an African team?”
But this isn’t the only form of Republicanism in circulation in France. Majhoubi’s on-air interlocutor, the former French international Vikash Dhorasoo, who since his retirement has become a thoughtful observer of the game, pointedly disagreed, arguing that Republicanism is all too often wielded to make France’s visible minorities, and the discrimination they suffer, invisible – “We only see this color in football, we don’t see it elsewhere, it’s a little sad”. Literary scholar Grégory Pierrot has written about the “double consciousness” that comes with being black, French, and a fan. In a Twitter thread in which she forcefully supported Noah, French psychologist Guilaine Kinouani argued that for Araud “to deny the Africanness of the players … looks terribly out of lane”, if not like an instance of a “France struggling w/the limitation of its assimilitative drive.” Even Paris Match – a weekly glossy that no one has ever accused of being a purveyor of postcolonial theory – celebrated the victory in Moscow with an article entitled “Africa is also football world champion”, in which Deschamps was quoted approvingly: “”This has always been a richness for football and for sport in France”. The conversation within France has thus always been more variegated than narrow visions like Araud’s will allow.
We would do well to ask what French players themselves have to say about being forced to carry a political burden they never asked for. As journalist Bilal Tarabey wrote in an angry essay published in Libération, “Noah allows himself to decide in the players’ stead who they are and what they must represent because it serves his own purposes”. How then did the players on the Russia 2018 squad speak to the controversy? After the victory over Argentina, Griezmann shouted on camera “Vive la République!”, and Pogba repeated the cheer at the victory celebration at the Élysée.
Defenseman Benjamin Mendy took to social media in the days following, responding to one tweet which listed the names of all the players on the French squad next to flags from their purported countries of origin with one of his own making, in which a French flag figured alongside each name – before declaring “fixed”.The French shooting guard for the Orlando Magic Evan Fournier tweeted out “Stop it with this ‘Africa won the world Cup for France’ non sense … Cut the BS. We are all french deal with it”. To the (limited) extent they spoke to the controversy, French players appeared to rally Araud’s position.
It’s certainly conceivable that the World-Cup-winning team was filled with true believers in a narrow vision of Republicanism. But it’s also easy to imagine that something more complicated was at work – that French players, all too cognizant of the suffocating media attention weighing upon them and the explosive potential in any foray onto sensitive terrain for polemic, have become exceedingly careful in how they speak about their public role. In contrast, it wasn’t hard to find outspoken players in the less controversy-ridden 1990s.
Christian Karembeu, a Kanak from New Caledonia (who, like Deschamps, came up through Nantes’s youth system and played on France’s 1998 and 2000 tournament-winning teams), convinced his Sampdoria teammates in 1995 to join him in wearing t-shirts protesting Chirac’s resumption of nuclear testing in the South Pacific, and explained that “I can’t sing the French national anthem because I know the history of my people.” Guadeloupe-born Lilian Thuram used his platform as a player to call out racism in French society. In an age when Colin Kaepernick’s principled stance brought his career to a close and an unprincipled army of Finkiekrauts, Zemmours, and Marine Le Pens stand ready to descend on a politically vocal player, just imagine the firestorm Karembeu’s remarks on the Marseillaise would ignite today.
That French players are careful to police their own public statements doesn’t mean that they can’t find other ways to articulate their own vision of Frenchness. As Kinouani pointed out in her tweetstorm, French players perform personal narratives of their own identity in any number of ways: “You have muslim players praying on the pitch. You have France top players posting videos of them dancing & singing to African music. … this public display of identity & affiliation … Everyday resistance has never looked so beautiful.” These performances suggest that French players see plenty of room in the Republican model within which to articulate identities that are at once plural and French. Evidence, in short, that French Republicanism is far healthier and more adaptable than either critics or defenders like Araud will concede.
In fact, for anyone setting out to probe racism and social pathology in contemporary France, football is a rather peculiar place to look. From the top to the bottom of the vast network of clubs, associations, and community groups that make up the sport’s rich topography in France, football represents an area of French life that has in fact been unusually open to diversity. As Simon Kuper (who not only lives in Paris, but is one of the only Anglophone journalists writing on football to have actually spent sustained time in the banlieues) argued in a piece pushing back on much of the coverage during the World Cup, “Football is the bit of French society where I’ve seen integration work best.”
That isn’t to say racism isn’t a problem in French football. Visible minorities are still woefully under-represented in coaching and management positions. In 2011, a leaked conversation between then-national team coach Laurent Blanc (who played on the 1998 World-Cup winning team) and other federation officials discussing the possibility of instituting “racial quotas” to limit the number of black players in the national team system proved as much. So too an assault on black players during an amateur tournament in spring 2018 in Alsace. If football has had more success in keeping such demons at bay than certain other areas of French society, it’s not because the sport is somehow intrinsically virtuous. It’s because a critical mass of people invested in the sport have worked to make it that way. As Thuram pointed out last summer, those inside the French federation who stood up to the proponents of quotas not only helped make Les Bleus‘s victory in Russia possible, but ensured it would be a lesson in exemplary fraternity for an age when “Countries, continents are in the process of closing, of yielding to closed understandings of identity”.
Indeed, French football is probably the most racially integrated in western Europe. When Jean Tigana was named Lyon manager in 1993, the former French international became the first black head coach of a top flight club in Europe. In the early 1990s – a time when stadium crowds in the Premiership, Serie A, and Liga were still largely white –, Olympique de Marseille’s Stade Vélodrome and the Virage Autueil in Paris-Saint-Germain’s Parc des Princes had become home to what were (and remain today) without doubt the most multicultural stands on the continent. (The Parc’s Kop of Boulogne, at that time peopled by a motley mix of skinheads and far-right extremists, was another, far uglier, story altogether). The kind of racialized criticism that Pogba or Raheem Sterling endure from English fans and the tabloid press, let alone the horrific jeers Cagliari supporters aimed at Juventus players Moise Kean and Blaise Matuidi last season, are less present in France (though by no means absent).
Luxury Football Socialism in the Banlieues
Much global punditry has focused on Les Bleus as a means to illustrate the ills that supposedly plague the banlieues, the poor suburbs where French professional players are imagined to have grown up. As Rory Smith, the New York Time‘s first-rate football correspondent, wrote in an otherwise well-reported piece on Paris’s banlieues: “It is here, amid the tower blocks of the Parisian banlieues, that France finds its soccer players”. The building blocks of these narratives – grinding poverty, unfolding in a landscape of desolate housing projects inhabited by poor immigrant families, from which young men escape thanks to their exceptional talent, hard work, and the promise of professional football – are precisely the timeworn tropes from which the grand tales of modern sport are fashioned, from Rocky to Hoop Dreams. But these breathless portraits of individual football triumph over adversity belie a considerably more complex reality.
What is it precisely that makes the Paris region the deepest football talent pool in the world? Sixty players at Russia 2018 were born in the Paris metro region, more than any other on the planet. If all that was necessary was a big urban area with large pockets of poverty and high rates of immigration, than London, New York, and Los Angeles should be producing as many top flight players as France – and they aren’t. As well-informed observers like Kuper, Rory Smith, and Laurent Dubois have pointed out, it’s the Île-de-France’s dense constellation of well-organized, well-staffed clubs that has made it possible to create this pool. It’s only by probing their history that we can gain any real insight into the place of football in the banlieues.
Consider AS Bondy, the club in the northeastern Paris suburbs where Kylian Mbappé played growing up. As a child, Mbappé only had to cross the street to train at the club’s Stade Léo Lagrange, named to honor a Socialist politician who served as secretary of state for sport and leisure in Léon Blum’s 1936-38 Popular Front government. While French workers were enjoying their first paid annual vacations, thanks to Blum’s reforms, Lagrange supervised the creation of a tourism, leisure, and sports infrastracture to accommodate them. In 1936, he organized the People’s Olympiad as an antifascist alternative to Hitler’s Berlin Olympics; joining up at the war’s start, he was killed in combat in 1940. Lagrange believed that sport should play a central role in building a more just society: “Our goal, simple and humane, is to allow the masses of French youth to find in the practice of sport joy and health, and also to build a structure for leisure so that workers might find relaxation and a reward for their hard labor.”
Lagrange’s legacy was carried forward after 1945 by the French Communist Party which controlled the city halls of the so-called Red Belt of industrial, working-class municipalities to the north and east of Paris. Working to make their cities showcases for municipal communism, these governments invested heavily in stadiums and local clubs and associations. Later, when Charles de Gaulle grew frustrated at France’s meager harvest of Olympic medals, he poured public investment into sport and empowered the Ministry of Sport to work closely with federations to produce top athletes. And as professional football clubs sought to imitate the example set by FC Nantes and others, a nationwide system of highly structured youth academies came into being.
To a large extent, we have the Socialist Lagrange and generations of Communist municipal councillors to thank for the profusion of football talent in the banlieues. You can call it what you like; I prefer to think of the dense network of clubs and associations that has made this profusion possible an inspiring example of what Kristin Ross has called “communal luxury”, or Andrew Elrod “luxury socialism”. Take Mbappé’s AS Bondy, a four-decade-old omnisports club that today counts 3,500 members who participate in over twenty different sports, staffed by dozens of full-time employees and far more volunteers (Mbappé’s father worked there as manager and coach), and which depends on support from the national, departmental, and municipal governments. It is but one among many clubs and associations across the banlieues which, nursing no ambitions to win promotion to the first division or generate profit, serve only to provide leisure to local youth.
It would be nothing short of a disaster were a wealthy American hedge fund tycoon to take it upon himself to buy up AS Bondy and push it into the top flight, a neoliberal vanity project destroying decades of hard, community-building work. There lies the irony: the roving army of predatory scouts mandated by Europe’s top clubs to locate young prospects in the concrete banlieue jungle are turning for profit adolescents trained and polished by a nexus of taxpayer-supported non-profits anchored in local communities and staffed by volunteers.
There are still other ironies at work. In an age in which the champions of the neoliberal doxa have relentlessly taken France to task for its high taxes, bloated public sector, and profligate welfare state, Europe’s profit-generating superclubs have been more than happy to help themselves from these state-subsidized schools for human footballing talent. They better hurry before neoliberalism’s millstones grind this grassroots edifice to dust. The very clubs from which hailed the 1,500 kids whom Macron invited to the post-victory party at the Élysée are currently facing deep cuts to the subsidies they receive from the national government, austerity oblige.
Or come see Red Star play just on the other side of the ring road that separates the capital from the banlieue, in Saint-Ouen, whose citizens voted PCF majorities in without interruption between 1944 and 2014. Founded in 1897 by World-Cup-architect Jules Rimet to offer opportunities for leisure to working-class men (it originally included a “literature and arts” section), Red Star are an omnisports club whose football division boasts a glorious past (five French Cups) but was just recently relegated to third division. Home games at the venerable Stade Bauer (alas, currently under renovation), which juts up on housing projects, are a festive experience. They bring together a diverse, multigenerational crowd mixing locals, the children who play in Red Star’s well-respected youth teams, and ex-PSG ultras fed up with repressive policing in first division stadiums and the flood of cash that has so changed their former club. In the Rino Della Negra tribune, named after a former Red Star player who was executed in 1944 for his Resistance activities, tifos celebrate a people’s football, antifascism, and antiracism. As Red Star’s president Patrice Haddad puts it, “The club is naturally on the left, it must be in solidarity with its environment, the banlieue“.
The history of football in the Paris banlieues shows us that there was once another football, one grounded in community, equity, access, and the common good, walled off – at least a little bit – from the corrosive imperatives of the market. It is this ideal that inspired Dhorasoo – himself the son of an immigrant from Mauritius who moved his family to Le Havre to find work in the shipyards there and a home in the city’s public housing projects – to cofound the Tatane association in 2011, dedicated to “Forwarding a sustainable and joyful football”.
It allows us to imagine that, yes, Un autre football est possible – another football is possible. If we dare to create it.
Can the Women’s Game Save Football?
If the long contrails left by last summer’s World Cup are anything to judge by, building this other football will be an uphill battle. The list price for Nike’s replica French national team jersey sporting the newly-won second star was put on sale at a staggering €140 (already, between 2007 and 2016, the shirt’s price had increased on average 13% a year). Understandably angry that the same employer that had pleaded financial difficulties to ask for concessions in a recent round of labor talks was ready to pay a mind-numbing transfer fee, workers at a Fiat factory in Melfi went on strike upon learning of Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Juventus, to no avail.Tottenham Hotspur recently inaugurated what is by all reports a marvelous new stadium, complete with a microbrewery and a restaurant where a Michelin-starred chef rules over the kitchen and a sommelier over the wine cellar, though fans were unhappy to learn that they would have to pay up to 50% more for what were already among the most expensive seasons tickets in England. Deloitte estimates that European football generated $28 billion of revenue in 2018 (of which nearly $7 billion was exchanged in the transfer market alone).
Not content with a Champions League architecture that is already heavily tilted in their favor, wealthy clubs are once again lobbying to create a closed European Super League to ensure they keep not most, but all the spoils. Little surprise that so many fans feel the need to have their own skin in the game to properly experience football – French people wagered a staggering €690 billion on Russia 2018.The recent Spanish match-fixing scandal hints at the terrible toll gambling is taking on the game. Football Leaks has thrown open a window onto the underground cloaca engineered by clubs, middlemen, and financiers through which transfer fees, kickbacks, and salaries flow. So compromised is the sport that N’Golo Kanté’s mere refusal to open an account in an offshore tax haven seems heroic. The prospect that Manchester City may be suspended from European competition for violations of financial fair play rules points to the Faustian bargain they seem to have struck to perform their glorious on-pitch symphony – and our own guilty complicity in savoring it.
Worse still, the accusations of sexual assault that have been leveled against Cristiano Ronaldo (thanks to Football Leaks revelations) offer suggestive evidence of an unholy alliance between football capitalism and the toxic masculinity whose grip on the game will be apparent to everyone familiar with the homophobic chants that are part of stadium soundscapes across Europe and South America. Juventus announced that the team would not travel to the US to avoid the risk of an arrest, explaining that “Ronaldo has shown in recent months his great professionalism and dedication, which is appreciated by everyone at Juventus. The events allegedly dating back to almost ten years ago do not change this opinion, which is shared by anyone who has come into contact with this great champion”. In short, protecting their investment was a greater priority for the club than seeing the judicial process out.
Amidst this steady drumbeat of graft and greed, it was hard not to wonder, as the 2019 Women’s World Cup got underway in France, whether the women’s game might not have the resources to save football from itself. I for one haven’t enjoyed football in years as much as I have watching the group stage matches. It’s not the novelty – this is the eighth edition of the tournament after all – and it’s something far bigger than the simple pleasure that comes from watching talented athletes perform. It’s a sense that we are witnessing in the rapid spread of the women’s game something rare and wonderful, an epistemic shift in global attitudes towards and possibilities for women. Where stealing two hours to watch a men’s Euro qualifier feels like a guilty pleasure, this feels more like helping fight the good fight. No need to resort to bad faith to defend this game.
To be sure, with a FIFA vice president and officials in Gabon currently under investigation for sexual harassment, the women’s game will have to save itself first. But women across the world have already brought great courage and tenacity to this struggle and made stunning strides. In the United States, Brandi Chastain’s game-winning goal celebration in the 1999 World Cup remains an iconic image in sports feminism; more recently five players on the US national team have initiated a lawsuit against their federation to demand equal pay with men. Just as the World Cup began, Australia’s pro leagues announced the implementation of this very measure. Norway’s Ballon d’or winner Aga Hegerberg refused to play in France to protest gender inequality in the sport. Players in Latin America have had to fight harder against far more formidable obstacles: in Brazil, women were prohibited from playing altogether until 1979; more recently, Argentina’s federation cut off all funding from its women’s team, which as a consequence didn’t play at all between 2015 and 2017.
Less weighed down by the constraints of neoliberalism and heteronormative machismo, the women’s game has offered real space for genuinely political gestures. The Brazilian player Marta, considered the greatest women’s player in the sport’s history, celebrated her goal against Australia by pointing to her boots, where, having eschewed sponsorship deals, she had affixed a symbol representing gender equality. Out of the 600 some-odd players at the Women’s World Cup, 31 have come out as bi or lesbian. At the men’s World Cup last year? zero. In retrospect, perhaps the real high point of Russia 2018 was when four members of Pussy Riot invaded the pitch during the final (one endearingly exchanging a high-five with Mbappé) to remind us that the struggle for democracy in Russia was far more important than a football game.
The appeal of high quality football liberated from the neoliberal calculus that has poisoned the men’s game, so much in evidence at the women’s World Cup, has not been lost on many traditional fans in Europe. PSG’s ultras for example, frustrated by what a bottomless well of Qatari natural-gas wealth has done to the men’s club, have embraced its women’s team, seeing it in a more authentic expression of the sport and turning out in force to make their games loud, joyous, pyrotechnic affairs.
Let’s enjoy the moment while it lasts, for the storm clouds are forming, and this may be the last women’s World Cup of this prelapsarian age of innocence. Low barriers to entry have allowed a range of modest and medium-sized clubs like Olympique Lyonnais, FCF Juvisy, VfL Wolfsburg, and Umeå IK to become the powerhouses of the women’s game. Attentive to emerging markets and profit opportunities, Europe’s super clubs have recently begun pouring resources into developing competitive women’s sides, and an accelerating flow of top players is moving to teams like FC Barcelona, Arsenal, and Chelsea.
With its insistence on gender equity and far greater resistance to homophobia, the women’s game will, without doubt, differ from the men’s game in important and salutary ways. But when the neoliberal steamroller that is just gathering momentum has finished reshaping women’s football, the men’s and women’s games will more likely than not both be capital-hungry, profit-seeking industries, marked by and generative of yawning inequality. Nihil sub sole novum.
* * *
I have lost count of how many times I have promised myself, after learning about the latest kleptocrat billionaire to buy a venerable club, or scrambling to get out of the way of a clash between hooligans and riot police after a match, or hearing a homophobic chant rise up from the stands, that I would give up on the game. Anyone with sense would.
But then there is always something to nourish my sensibility for the game, something to pull me back in. Like that late June day a year ago when, at the 57th minute, with France trailing Argentina by a goal, Blaise Matuidi sliced a deep pass through the Argentinian defense to Lucas Hernandez as he sprinted down the left side. With one touch Hernandez sent a powerful cross that, barely clearing a tackling Argentinian defender, hurtled across the penalty box as his counterpart on the right wing of France’s defense, Benjamin Pavard, was making a deep run. Pavard caught the ball on the half volley with a powerful and true strike, and his shot found its way improbably, inexplicably, gloriously into the upper left corner of the goal.
The whole sequence – Matuidi’s pass, Hernandez’s cross, Pavard’s shot – seems in memory as it did in the moment suspended in time, an ineffable, primal instant, beyond happiness, beyond wonder, beyond exultation. In the ongoing contest between thoughtful critique and unquestioning embrace of football – that is, between sense and sensibility – all it takes is to replay Pavard’s goal in my mind, and sensibility wins every time.
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