In the words of Carlos Fuentes, “If you want to talk about soccer, go talk to Juan Villoro.” released today, GOD IS ROUND (Restless Books) is a brilliant and kaleidoscopic exploration of the world’s favorite sport and the passion, hopes, rivalries, superstitions, and global solidarity it inspires. In Thomas Bunstead’s translation, revered author Juan Villoro argues that football may be the most effective catalyst for pan-global unity at a time when we need it most.
This exclusive extract from GOD IS ROUND – a timely and incisive essay on corruption at fifa – will be followed next month by a review from Tim MacGabhann. Watch this space.
Blood on the Terraces:
Violence in the Business of FIFA
One of the strangest things about Western democracies is the way they’ve cordoned off the primitive impulse. And the place it’s been cordoned off is professional sport. The same countries that preach about the rule of law and accountability accept the presence of institutions that are, strictly speaking, criminal enclaves. The most renowned is the one known as “FIFA.”
Utterly divorced from fiscal transparency, specializing in the peddling of influence and shady dealings, a levier of kickbacks, and an ally of autocratic governments, football’s chief global proponent has realized a dream of conducting itself like an irascible banana republic within the realms of the free market. With more paid-up members than the UN, this international organism is run by a group of people only interested in satisfying their own cravings and caprice.
Sport is a strange universe of political longevity—where João Havelange can spend twenty-four years at the helm in FIFA, Antonio Samaranch twenty-one years running the International Olympic Committee, and José Sulaimán more than three decades as president of the World Boxing Council.
With seventeen years as FIFA president, Sepp Blatter could be seen as something of a Johnny-come-lately in the sporting mafia, a mere apprentice in this patriarchal order. But that hasn’t stopped him from bringing the game into disrepute. The fact that the coming World Cups are going to be held in Russia and Qatar—Qatar particularly—casts serious doubts on an institution that cares little about what is going on inside a country as long as the business does alright.
Sheltering behind the ideology of “fair play,” FIFA bows down before one god and one god only: sponsorship deals. Brazil outlawed alcohol in all of its stadiums at the start of the 2000s, yet FIFA forced Budweiser to be made available there during the last World Cup. Though of dubious drinkability, this “beer” was given the go-ahead to contravene local laws, because it put money in FIFA’s pockets as an official sponsor.
The body’s record on jurisprudence looks like something out of a Borgia intrigue. On the eve of Italia ’90, Mexico tried one of its many sporting impostures by falsifying several players’ dates of birth so they could take part in a youth tournament. Though the crime was in the amateur realm, the senior team bore the consequences: their passport to the World Cup—they’d already qualified—was revoked. The lucky beneficiary of this was the team that had come behind Mexico in qualification: the US.
To what did this unexpected guest owe its invitation? This exemplary FIFA penalty was designed not only to exclude Mexico, but also to “warm up” the American environment ahead of the subsequent World Cup—USA ’94. At the time football was seen, stateside, as a fake sport, a sport for girls. The Mexican Federation’s reward for not kicking up a fuss comprised several cushy jobs for its staff, and some mouth-watering deals for the TV networks.
I covered Italia ’90 for the newspaper El Nacional and was surprised to find that the second most numerous TV delegation, after the Italians, was Mexican, even though their own team wasn’t there to report on. The explanation for this is that the Mexican Football Federation was for a long time run by a man named Guillermo Cañeda, who was also vice president of the TV company Televisa. In other words, the men who run our national game accepted losing out on the football in exchange for winning TV rights.
The men in charge are a paradoxical bunch, acting like gangsters but claiming their crimes are for the good of the people. For a long time, Julio Grondona and his close relations dominated Argentinian football like something out of The Sopranos; a perpetrator of genocide in Serbia, Slobodan Milošević, employed Ultras from Red Star Belgrade in repressive military maneuvers; and in Italy Silvio Berlusconi, bathing in the reflected glory of the club he owned, AC Milan, assumed the presidency of the country whilst mouthing an Azzurri anthem: “Forza Italia.”
It’s a strange task that falls to the twenty-two men running around on the pitch; really they’re just there to allow the high-powered executives, way up in the members’ boxes, to do a little business.
THE FAN: A MARTYR TO HOPE
Footballing authorities are often above the law. This being so, how can they expect to tell fans to behave well? At what point does patience run out in the man who shows up to support his team? If FIFA’s general practice is to avoid the law, fans might feel quite justified in taking it into their own hands.
Adolfo Bioy Casares once wrote that any supporter whose team is a perennial loser is in for a wonderful lesson in stoicism. Fans of a losing side get a repeat tutorial in the noble sense of resignation. Certain chants endorse the sense of the greatness of misfortune, like Real Betis’s “Viva el Betis, manque pierda” (”Long live Betis, even when we lose”) or the “aunque gane” of Atlas: “(We support them) even though we win.” These fans know full well that the final score isn’t everything and that the trophy cabinet isn’t the only place where achievements are tallied up. For them sport has more to do with a sense of belonging than with winning or losing; they aren’t in hock to vulgar success.
Even Brazil went through a barren spell once, and when they appeared set to shake off their losing trance, having booked their place in the World Cup Final in 1950 on home turf, Uruguay batted them aside. The great commentator Nelson Rodrigues talked about them having a “street-dog complex”—they’d never get to sleep the triumphant siesta of the domestic dog.
After the “Maracanazo” defeat, Brazil changed their strip from their customary white, like they were shedding their skin to shuffle off a curse. After this transfiguration, dressed in the yellow, blue, and green, they went on to win World Cup after World Cup. The point being that all their victories were fed by the desperation, patience, and pain of a fan base that had lost everything for several decades—everything except hope.
The same might be said of Barcelona’s victim complex and the way it ended when Johan Cruyff took up his place in the dugout. A period of blaugrana dominance had the added value of being preceded by so many defeats.
Does football contain any specific keys for understanding violence in general? It doesn’t lead to violence, it sublimates it—via an “unarmed army,” as the unforgettable Spanish writer Manuel Vázquez Montalbán liked to say. So how to account for the occasional outbreak of violence in stadiums? It’s a bipolar world in which the people making the rules do anything they can to dodge legalities, at the same time demanding stoical resignation from supporters. The guys at the top have the ability to put a player up for sale—utterly arbitrarily, and even if the supporters love this player—and besmirch the shirt with questionable advertising, and sign agreements so that the team has to go on an arduous preseason tour in China, and accept handsome TV deals that mean the team has to play three times a week (the perfect recipe for injuries).
The logic that reigns in the private boxes is different from the logic in the stands. Two opposed worlds exist in a tension—aggravated by social conflict and sporting disaster. As a mirror for society, football condenses and steps up the life outside of the stadium. In 1969, the war between Honduras and El Salvador coincided with a match between the nations’ teams, and no one was thinking about the final score. It wasn’t the destiny of the ball that was in play, but the poisoned relations between these two neighboring countries.
Which is usually the case as well when it comes to football violence. The Heysel tragedy in the 1985 European Cup Final between Liverpool and Juventus had more to do with deep dislocations in English society, which also happened to be the spawning ground for hooliganism, than anything that happened on the pitch or the penalty Platini scored for Juve.
PITCHES UNDER CLOSE SURVEILLANCE
The incidences of violence that have tarnished our stadiums point to a crisis. Moments where individuals act in concert with other individuals allow for tensions to be relieved, but these tensions don’t necessarily have anything to do with the acts themselves. Ortega y Gasset’s view was that sport gives human beings a holiday from civilization. Small doses of the primitive can be a great valve for the pressures of modern life. The crowds that gather around a pitch for a big match bring back something of the tribal hordes from the very beginnings of our species.
There’s nothing offensive about this as long as the representation of the emotions remains out there on the pitch. The fan with the face paint, chanting whatever he chants, is not a violent figure per se; he accepts the result, whatever it may be, and the only thing he does to affect the outcome is to shout as loudly as his voice box will allow.
The problem is that certain chants do not confine themselves to the expulsion of impassioned air from the lungs and demand actual retaliation—especially if they are xenophobic, discriminatory, nationalist, misogynistic, or homophobic. Given that there are as many different kinds of prejudice in the world as there are people, some forms of discrimination become quite highly specialized: fans of a club in a certain neighborhood find it within themselves to call a rival side, whose stadium is at the south end of the same street as theirs, “Africans.”
For years, ultras within certain clubs have been not only tolerated but also supported by executives. If the people in charge of the game cannot be examples of probity, how are the fans going to be? If the people around Messi dodge taxes for the “good” of a player whose only motivation is goals, what kind of behavior can be expected of the fan on the dole?
Some maniacs can be stopped by surveillance and control measures, but the real issue is something else. Spotting someone making fascist signs behind a goal, or throwing a pig head onto the pitch, is less important than the necessary changes in a society where such behavior begins. You don’t stop cancer by popping an aspirin.
Besides, being overzealous about surveillance can just end up demonizing people’s passion for the game. Welcome to the world of Big Brother, where, depending on which officer’s on duty, a gesture or a certain chant can be deemed “dangerous”!
In violent groups, the violence, whether it be verbal or physical, fits within certain codes, which in turn provide a sense of belonging. And these aren’t people infected by any strange virus; pernicious as it may be, their behavior does obey a certain logic. There is no such thing as misbehavior without context; anyone “misbehaving” as part of a group gains the compensatory inclusion in something transcendent, something more important to them than that context. In general, getting a swastika tattoo has less to do with a rigorous observance of the tenets of national socialism than identifying with your friend who, whether because they were disturbed, ignorant, perverse, or simply naive, already got their own swastika tattoo. I’m not trying to justify irrational sloganeering, but some attempt must be made to actually understand it.
Football is the most widely dispersed identity system on earth. Millions of human beings are of certain clubs or, as in Barcelona’s case, an entity that even aspires to be “more than a club.” This very valuable symbolic capital comes under risk when a team stops representing its people. And therein lies modern football’s most serious problem: when authority acts according to its own whims, fans begin to feel authorized to seek other things to identify with, and that may include violence.
Stuffing stadiums full of cameras and police officers is the latest victory for the authoritarianism that rules the game. Only when FIFA and the politicians and companies associated with the sport submit to democratic rules, only when these vultures within the game lose their “protected species” status (to use the apt phrase of Valencian novelist Ferran Torrent), only at that point will bloodshed on the terraces cease.
CHILDHOOD FOR SALE
André Malraux used the term “the strange age of sports” to refer to an epoch that organized entertainment on the basis of large-scale competitions.
The sports industry has become so successful that it even allows for bad things to be done in the name of good. With the sanitary pretext of creating clean minds inside Apollonian bodies, it has turned itself into a very profitable arm of organized crime.
For Juan Antonio Samaranch, the perfect autocrat, the International Olympic Committee provided the perfect front, and his embezzlements only came to light once he had moved away from the Olympic rings. Whereas in the case of Sepp Blatter, he was outed time and again by the press, and yet that did nothing to reduce his desire to squeeze money out of every last blade of grass.
The former player Luis Figo decided against taking Blatter on in the FIFA presidency elections, pointing out that there was no way he could run against a Mafiosi.
FIFA describes itself as not for profit. This ludicrous self-image allows it to maintain total fiscal opacity, the kind Al Capone would have delighted in. It isn’t enough just to commit crimes; you’ve got to dodge a few taxes too.
The need to renovate stadiums unleashes a chain of interests that can lead to insane projects like the one in Manaus. Anyone who thought the old opera erected in those far reaches of the Amazon was crazy should have a look at the World Cup stadium there—in a place where no top division team plays. It’s become a coliseum for iguanas nowadays.
Such instances will only be repeated on a grander scale in Qatar, host for the 2022 World Cup. When Henry Miller wrote The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, little did he know he was providing a prescient description of the arrival of football into the oil-rich sands of the Middle East.
Due to the fact the Qatari league doesn’t need so many stadiums, the plan is to put up edifices that can be taken apart and sold off to other countries. Can there be anything more money spinning than organizing the pinnacle of football in arenas where the only thing growing abundantly is cash?
FIFA knows very well that there is such a thing as the “law.” And so it goes about creating ways to flout it. Everyone knows that for teams to be owned by multiple parties can’t be a good thing, because of the conflicts of interest it generates. FIFA condemns the practice, but only acts if the majority of clubs within any federation demands it. That is, the law is only applied at the request of the clients.
And in the real world? In most cases, anyone who owns several teams also owns the odd TV channel. Is it really likely that a majority of club owners are going to try and cause rifts with the company selling the rights to broadcast their matches? Hardly. Which means that in practice someone can be the owner of various clubs though they are also the owner of the company that broadcasts the matches.
In 2015, for the first time in history, the US did something exemplary in the world of football. Not a move on the pitch but one in the world of finance: the FBI looked into alleged money laundering by FIFA representatives. Seven top CONCACAF officials were charged with having been receiving kickbacks over a period of twenty-five years. This provided legal evidence of something journalists have long been talking about.
For the conspiracy theorists, the investigation that toppled Blatter and his flunkies isn’t actually about the letter of the law, but rather a move by the US to take control of an increasingly lucrative venture. If the network that controlled CONCACAF is dismantled, certain “windows of opportunity” are bound to present themselves in the region.
Clearly, while the players work up a sweat on the pitch, there are those involved in trafficking up in the members’ boxes. Blatter’s response to the FBI was to reveal his authoritarian streak. He didn’t trouble himself with resigning. His view of the scandal was that it was a “regional issue” and one that could be brought to heel. And yet the bribes in question, when analyzed, showed clear leanings: when the voting behavior of the accused was looked at, they were all in Blatter’s favor.
With no Figo to oppose him, the Swiss autocrat stood in the elections and won. Michel Platini, the head of UEFA, enjoined him to step down, but to no avail. The only thing that prompted Blatter to call a new election (though he put it off until February 2016) was new charges being brought against the men who had been arrested and the announcement of new lines of investigation.
How different from the goodbye of one great footballer. In the summer of 2015, upon retiring, Xavi Hernández, possibly the greatest Spanish player of all time, defined his job as “a ball and some guys running around after it.” The words of a great. On behalf of this dream, FIFA does its business deals.
In art and sport alike we make a mental return to childhood, the space in which great marvels are possible. The unfortunate thing is that FIFA has put childhood up for sale.
THE FUTURE OF THE GAME:
“ADVANCE TO THE BACK”
In an attempt to explain certain social phenomena, the philosopher Leszek Kołakowski quoted the tram conductor in old Warsaw who used to shout at the passengers, “Advance to the back!” The objective isn’t always up ahead.
Football is modernity-sick. What started out as a game now belongs to the industry of the spectacle, and FIFA runs theme parks that it happens to call football stadiums.
Football’s true thrust is a backwards trajectory, a nudge in the direction of the child we once were or, collectively, towards the origin of community life—the first tribes to use their feet in certain decisive ways, the horde dazzled by the flickering flames, compact and superstitious, disposed to support those who had a certain kind of stripe marked on their bodies and not others.
Two of the most well-known proponents of this idea (Eduardo Galeano in his Football in Sun and Shadow and Manuel Vázquez Montalbán in A Religion in Search of a God) emphasize the essential simplicity of a game governed by few rules, one that can be played barefoot and that requires of its players more nous than athletic predisposition.
The best thing about this joy-turned-money-spinner is returning mentally to the age when there could still be heroes and you did things for the sake of it. In a moral sense, the future of the game is in its past.
Is there any way for football, in its institutionalized form, to go back to its starting point? The 2015 Champions League Final presented a curious contrast between the brandy-quaffing prawn-sandwich eaters and the ultimate protagonists of the game.
FIFA had just been unmasked. Until that moment, the VIP balcony had been the least vulnerable zone in the sport; it was on the pitch that the unexpected would happen.
We fans love to be surprised, we know no one can really predict the way a game will go, except for maybe an old lady with no interest in the game but blessed by Lady Luck, or Paul, the German octopus who guessed the results of the 2006 World Cup.
When Juventus and Barcelona met in the final, football had gone topsy-turvy. All the surprises were no longer taking place on the pitch, but in the offices where the executives were being investigated. And that was perhaps why the players wanted to show that, in moments of crises of values, the best thing you can do is place your faith in tradition. Guided by a mysterious compensatory law, the protagonists of the game’s elite competition avoided all uncertainty. While only chaos theory could explain FIFA accountancy, the finalists followed a classical template. For ninety minutes they took part in an altogether orderly adventure. The logic that reigned over the scoreboard was in direct contrast to the inexplicable sums of the men at the top.
Neither side was in the Berlin final by mistake. Both Juve and Barca had won league and cup doubles in their domestic competitions. The winner here would be no upstart. And even so, Barcelona were the clear favorites, and everything went as predicted, with the Catalans running out 3-1 winners.
A symbolic inversion had taken hold of the game: startling developments at the desks, none in the penalty area. Barca and Juve confirmed that tradition was still alive and well—by doing exactly what was expected.
It could be that we were witnessing a signal; one to say that the game’s future lies in its origins, that is, in the people taking part. There’s no going back to the times when a poor working class mother washed the team strips and when players weren’t paid for their time, but it has become extremely pressing now that the decision making be put in the hands of those who have themselves stood alongside the howling fans, who know the sufferings inside a dressing room, and who have actually sweat for a team. Michel Platini is one possible successor to Blatter, and Luis Figo also has the chance to become a central figure again.
An industry that depends on TV consortiums, the holy war between Nike and Adidas, and the vast swathe of sponsors and government agencies who have a hand in running World Cups can never be entirely honest, but it can still bear a closer resemblance to what happens on the pitch. It is incumbent on the people who run the game that they emulate the players, in the same way that the players are emulating their childhood selves.
That cry of Kołakowski’s conductor is worth remembering because it contains a sociological key. Football’s destiny is also on that tram: “Advance to the back!”