In Defense of Soccer


They say that love is a disease. If so, then so is sports fandom. The latter is perhaps best expressed through a Russian idiom. When you cheer for a certain team, you say, “ia boleiu za tu komandu” -- “I am sick for that team.”  This phrase is exclusive to competitive scenarios rather than fandom per se. It certainly describes the temporary state you enter when witnessing a competition: your abnormal heart rhythm and your hopeful anticipation.

I only bother with sports at the national level. I feel emotional about Russia’s performance in many athletic fields, because I see it as a small-scale expression of national triumph or failure.  I am just a spectator, so why does that matter? Minor national triumphs motivate me to contribute to my culture in my own way. Back when people were inspired by winners rather than victims, this used to be called “nationalism.” When it comes to sports, futbol, err, soccer is the magnificent exception in my life.  It is the only sport to which I pay attention (sort of) at the club level, because it is a beautiful game of endurance and strategy.

To me, soccer is Family: I fondly recall watching matches as a child with my father and grandfather. My father, tired from working all day, dressed in striped Adidas track pants, energetically reacted to toy soldier-sized men in funny shorts perpetually running back and forth on a small black-and-white television screen. Spartak! CSKA! Team USSR!

Soccer is also Community: before the age of videogames, we spontaneously organized ourselves into neighborhood soccer matches. Exercise. Another scraped knee! Friends. My mother wanted me to come home for supper, but, come on, the game wasn’t over!

Soccer is not that much different from other organized sports, but it is distinct enough. Unlike hockey, for instance, it requires no expensive equipment or temperature-controlled infrastructure, which explains some of its global popularity. So, it’s anyone’s game, at least theoretically. Documentaries emphasize how poor Brazilian children climb trees with their bare feet, training for local matches, and then go on to become sought-after international athletes.

It is precisely this popularity that allows soccer to be an expression of nationalism. The latter begins at the club level. Some fans limit themselves to displaying team insignia, while a minority -- the “hools” enjoy treating their rivals to a brass-knuckled dental plan and setting arenas on fire. Good or bad, soccer club rivalry goes back to traditional -- tribal -- forms of competition between villages and, later, regional centers and city-states.

Localism --municipal “nationalism” -- plays an important role in soccer fandom. My hometown, Moscow, has several clubs. What to choose?  A few years ago, I went with CSKA -- its hundred-year history with military connections seemed particularly appealing. In 2005, CSKA-Moscow won the UEFA cup. This year, it advanced further within the Champions League than ever before. I felt elated, even without a victory -- a sense of national pride is always sweeter when there is a local aspect to it. And even though some of PFC CSKA’s players are not from Russia, including Keisuke Honda -- the newest and my favorite Japanese acquisition -- their presence is good sign. The growing number of our soccer clubs and the establishment of the KHL, for that matter, point to Russia’s increased purchasing power.

I do not want to downplay the generally poignant assessments of this sport published in recent critiques at Alternative Right. Indeed, the modern welfare state successfully garners and (mis)directs useless patriotism at major international sporting events. Its context is always and necessarily consumption-based. A clothing chain, Roots, for instance, asked us to “show [it] our roots” during the Vancouver Winter Olympics by purchasing various merchandise featuring national heraldries. And yet it somehow wanted us to combine that display with cheering for Team Canada at the same time. Worse, once the event is over, all the energy is expended -- patriotism dissipates, and the general populace goes back to its abysmal political apathy, using the remaining half of its income that it didn’t give to the state to fund weekend panis and 17-dollar IMAX-3D circenses.

However, athletic success can be a source of healthy national pride, as it once was. For me, when Team Russia doesn’t make it to the World Cup, I cheer for the next best thing: my Slavic brothers, as I call them (Serbia and Slovakia, this time around). Then, if and when the Slavs get knocked out, I proceed to the European level and cheer for Germany. (Besides, what would Germany do without its own Slavs -- the Polish strikers?)

Thus, my soccer fandom expands from local to regional, from national to supranational, with ethnic ties in mind. I am a Muscovite, a Russian, a Slav, a European. My choices are not exceptional. Over the years, I’ve casually spoken with many fans, particularly those of Eastern European descent, who follow the same logic.

Footbal Fascist

There is even something positive to be found in FIFA’s escalation of its “antiracism” campaigns -- a problem it sees infecting the entire European league. A black player from England comes onto the stadium, and the Spanish crowd begins making monkey chants; Paolo di Canio acknowledges his Italian fans with a one-armed, Roman salute. The Federation exercises a punishment structure ranging from fines to outright bans of fans, players, and entire clubs from games, but the incidents seem to be on the rise.

Extreme reactions by extreme people? Perhaps. Young European men see their countries undergo third-world ethnic replacement exacted by their governments, while being forbidden to experience and display a semblance of healthy nationalism in their daily lives. So they channel their anger in a crude, vicious manner, fuelled by mob mentality. What else, pray tell, does FIFA expect?

The Federation’s inability to cope with hostile soccer incidents is obviously indicative of the political establishment’s failure to handle migration into Europe and the consequent lack of assimilation. Moreover, a bellicose expression of nationalism demonstrates that decades of egalitarian social engineering have been unable to crush traditional forms of local, regional, and national affiliation in Europe.

This nationalism is aggressive because it is defensive. It is also misdirected: it attacks the symptoms -- the migrants, not the cause -- the welfare-state ideology, and its perpetrators -- the irresponsible ruling elite. Whether Europeans are able to overcome petty expressions of this nationalism, targeting the migrants as well as one another -- a German against a Pole, and address this truly pan-European issue, remains to be seen.