Broken social scene
February 4, 2011 § 15 Comments
A blogger for the New Statesman, Helen Lewis Hasteley, recently posed herself the question How on earth can lefties like football? Her conclusion was that no right-thinking left-winger could or should, on the basis that : football nurtures a culture of exclusion and disrespect towards women (and gay people); football pointlessly expends ludicrous amounts of money (money ultimately sourced from the fans); and support for football represents a failure of imagination on the parts of the fans (who have simply failed to apply any analytical assessment to their boyhood distractions, because if they had done they’d have realised that the game is rotten and found something better to do).
Predicatably, the piece has taken an excoriation in the comments, and rightly so. It is a lazy and dismissive wave of the hand at the world’s largest and most pluralistic pastime. Lewis Hasteley has made the mistake of taking the Premier League — which is, of course, a nakedly capitalist endeavour — to be all football, ironically placing herself alongside Andy Gray, Richards Keys and Rupert Murdoch as she does so. Another New Statesman blogger, Laurence Durnan, has responded, detailing the proud history of left-wingers within football — political rather than positional — while Mehdi Hasan, senior politics editor, notes in the comments that Lewis Hasteley has “conflated football with footballers and football club owners”.
This is probably the full disclosure part, so here goes: not only do I love football, I also consider myself left-wing; indeed, I am happy to describe myself as a socialist, though I promise not to try to sell you a newspaper. And what interested me about Lewis Hasteley’s piece is that I have undertaken the very self-examination she calls for, looking at football in light of my political position, and arrived at precisely the opposite conclusion: that football is, in itself, a profoundly left-wing undertaking, albeit one that, tragically and terribly, has been hijacked by the twin evils of capitalism and prejudice.
Though before getting on to that, it’s worth pointing out that Lewis Hasteley’s definition of left-wing is a touch limited. “Left-wing” appears to mean simply: (a) respects women and gay people; (b) rejects ostentatious misappropriations of capital; and (c) refuses to participate in any system that doesn’t wholly subscribe to points (a) and (b). Which is all well and good, but provides a spectacularly narrow definition of left-wing. After all, Karl Marx was a boorish patriarch, helplessly in thrall to fine cigars, yet could hardly be dismissed as a Tory.
“Left-wing” is, of course, hopelessly vague, a catch-all term that encompasses the very wettest guilt-drenched Liberal Democrat collaborationist and the hardest spittle-flecked Spartacist. Yet I think most on the left, whatever their shade of red, would agree that they were in general terms attempting to nudge the world towards greater egalitarianism, however profoundly and viciously they might disagree about the best path there.
So to return to football. Lewis Hasteley has dismissed football by citing the more repugnant features of the game at the highest level in England. Yet to do so is to make a category error: as Hasan points out, football is not footballers, nor is it owners, nor is it administrators, nor is it the ephemera and circus and sound and fury. Football is a game. A game of glorious simplicity and quite startling breadth of appeal. It has become a FIFAtuous cliché to talk about football as “the global game”, yet it remains a fundamental truth. Because football can be played with rolled-up socks, or a tangerine, or a ball-bearing, or basically any discrete and kickable object, it can be played by anyone, anywhere.
All that matters is talent, which Lewis Hasteley dismisses as genetic fluke, as though Mozart’s musical ear, Cezanne’s eye for colour, Shakespeare’s grasp of timbre and metre and Rodin’s appreciation of shape weren’t precisely the same in nature: a potent cocktail of genetic predisposition, social and educational conditioning, and relentless bloody practice. But I would maintain — without wanting to get too misty-eyed — that anything that sees a street kid from the favelas singing his national anthem shoulder-to-shoulder with a rich and privileged son of the upper-middle-classes, united by nothing more that a shared affection and ability for their common endeavour, sounds pretty left-wing to me.
This is not the place to trace the origins of England’s football league back into the workers’ unions, or to point to the importance of football to the Zapatista movement, or recount the stories of Nelson Mandela playing football within the confines of Robben Island, or reiterate FC St. Pauli’s anti-racist anti-fascist anti-sexist constitution, or dwell on Roberto’s Baggio’s World Peace Award for his contribution to the liberation of Aung San Suu Kyi. My point is not about the specific instances: though they are wonderful, it would be disingenuous to elide the counter-examples. It is about the game itself, in its simplicity and its availability. When all you need to be good at it, is to be good at it (plus luck) … well, what could be more egalitarian, more utopian, more left-wing than that?
Considered again, Lewis Hasteley’s two reasons for the putative left-wing rejection of football in England are not problems with football qua football at all. Rather, they are football’s reflection of wider social issues: Britain remains a fundamentally sexist and homophobic nation, in its institutions and its attitudes, and one in which unbridled capitalism is permitted (nay, encouraged) to extract money from the pockets of those with less, into the pockets of those with more. Neither of these things are the fault of football, and while football certainly magnifies them, it’s worth remembering that Wayne Rooney gets paid bucketloads to be, at worst, irrelevant. The CEO of BP gets paid bucketloads (or barrelfuls) to actively fuck the planet up for his own and his shareholders profit.
(As an aside here, it might be noted that Lewis Hasteley has a very consumer-centric idea of what it takes to be a football fan, ignoring the fact that it is entirely possible to adore the game while possessing no replica shirt, no season ticket, and no Sky Sports subscription. To reject the capitalist excesses of the game neither necessitates nor demands rejection of the game; for evidence, if any were needed, it seems appropriate once again to draw attention to the grass-roots fan ownership movement in British football.)
A final point. The idea that a left-leaning football fan, on consideration of the sexist and capitalist nature of the English top flight, would simply wash their hands of the whole affair, is a suggestion of startling defeatism. Human beings are creatures of affection as well as calculation — indeed, it might be argued that most political positions are, at root, emotional rather than logical — and it does not seem tenable that the majority of us would be able to simply abandon something we have cherished since childhood because we didn’t like the values of the people that happened to be administrating, or perpetrating, a small part of it.
To abrogate responsibility would be to abandon the soul of football to the boors and the fat cats. The nature of the game means it will always be of the people. Lewis Hasteley is right in her conclusion: left-wing football fans have no choice but to embrace the modern world. But they owe it to themselves, and to the game they adore, to make sure football comes with them.