Thoughts : Politics (Social Justice) : Soccer and Social Conscience

I started to be interested in sports during my time in Australia when I was 10. Australia is a sports-crazy country and I became interested in sports like Aussie Rules and Rugby League. When I came back to study in Singapore at the age of 13, I remember being interested in basketball and played it during my Secondary 1 years in School. But from the next year – 14 years of age (1993) – onwards, my main sport interest was soccer. I played it in school often but since leaving Secondary School, I haven’t had the chance to play soccer much. However, I’ve always been a huge soccer fan.

Since 1993, I supported Italian club AC Milan. Those were the days that the Dutch trio of Marco Van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rikjaard was playing for them. The national team I supported was naturally Italy and also Holland. My favorite player was Marco Van Basten. My next favorite player was AC Milan’s and Italy’s Paolo Maldini. I never really had a favorite English team for quite some time. I did support Blackburn Rovers when Alan Shearer was there. He was my favorite English player at that time. But I stopped being a Rovers fan when he left and eventually followed Liverpool in the late 1990s. One player that caught my attention when he was in his late teens/early twenties was Steven Gerrard. Since then, he has become my favorite player – and still is. He was probably the best midfielder in the world in the 2003-2004 season. For me, he’s always a joy to watch and a truly complete player – great in passing, defending, scoring, bringing the team forward and an influential player at such a young age. Another player I also support is Kaka of Brazil and AC Milan. Because of my recent interest in all things Spanish, Spain has also become another country I support – along with England, because of the presence of Gerrard! Besides AC Milan and Liverpool, another club team I support is Barcelona.

Two things have caused my thinking on soccer and the clubs I support. Firstly, it’s the fact that AC Milan is owned by Silvio Berlusconi – who is currently Italy’s right-wing president. Secondly, it’s the way Real Madrid intially and now Chelsea have used their spending power and money to buy all the best players in the world.

On the 10th of April 2004, I posted this on an AC Milan discussion forum:

I’ve been a huge fan of AC Milan for about 12 years. It was a few years back that I became interested in politics. Some may say I’m more left wing and interested in equality and helping the poor. Soon after that, I realized how my political views in a way clashed with my favorite soccer team. The president of Milan, Silvio Berlusconi, is a very right-wing guy and I do not like a lot of stuff he believes in and does. Yet he’s of course one who made Milan great with his money and all. In a way my love for Milan (a very elite team) contradicts my desire to help the poor. I know I should to a certain extent separate politics and sports/soccer. Yet sometimes I feel the tension. I’m wondering if any person here feels the same way as me – in terms of being more left in politics, yet having Milan as one’s favorite team and knowing that the President of Milan is very right wing and the team itself is very elitist – to a certain extent, though not as bad as Madrid or Chelsea which I think destroys the game by trying to buy all the best players. Anyway, thoughts?

I got only three responses:

I like to keep politics out of the game. Politics ruins the whole world, and I don’t want it to ruin the things that you do for entertainment. I wasn’t aware that the Milan president was right-wing, and now that I found out I’m not sure what to think. Anyways, I like to keep the game clean.

You don’t even have to be a commie to feel this way. Berlusconi has saved the club, certainly not entirely for altruistic reasons, and I give him credit for that & his ongoing financial input but that’s where my appreciation ends. The thread will probably be locked if we start a political discussion, so watch your words.

I hate talking about politics. It makes me feel bad.

I think through these responses, one can tell that not many people who are huge fans of soccer would be interested in politics and probably vice-versa. The passion of a soccer fan is displayed in the stands, not on the streets. I can only imagine how the world would be different if that passion were channeled towards political and social goals. Perhaps to many people, the excitements of soccer and sports take one’s mind off the real world – a world which is too fucked-up (as Bono sang: “Jesus, Jesus help me. I’m alone in this world. And a fucked-up world it is too”) that there’s no reason to want to spend much time contemplating it.

Well, my point in writing all this isn’t to blame soccer fans for lack of a social conscience or their apathy towards things political. But rather, as I reflect upon the way soccer (and most sports) is run and how this relates to the political and social organization of this world, I have started to think of important questions for myself. Here are random thoughts:

Firstly, the clubs I support, and also those that most people support, are usually the big, rich and famous clubs. That is, the most popular clubs in the world are clubs like Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea from England, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Juventus and Roma from Italy and Real Madrid and Barcelona from Spain. These clubs are supported because they have a rich history and tradition, and also because they have good players and do pretty well. Most fans became fans of good teams, not bad teams. Unless you’re living in city where the soccer club is from or somehow have a special attachment to that particular club, you won’t live be supporting it unless it’s a good club. Therefore, worldwide supporters of clubs like Manchester City, Ipswich, Udinese, Perugia, Albacete, Espanyol…etc are few. We like to support winners and potential winners; we don’t like losers. But all this is (fallen) human nature. We support teams that win so we feel good. We will thus normally not support a team that hardly wins.

What does this have to do with the political and the social? For one thing, in view of the fact that my heart is with the poor (and weak) and I desire to help them, I question whether I should be supporting the big, winning and rich teams. Teams like that only get bigger and bigger and win more and more. Meanwhile, the smaller teams will remain always in their state of weakness and poverty. (hmm…this is all too familiar – the rich get richer, the poor get poorer…) Therefore, I have to admit that my social conscience is in a certain way in conflict with the soccer teams I support. It shows that in some ways we fallen human beings love the rich and the big and the powerful. We aspire to be like them and so we support them. We love success and don’t want to be a failure or be identified with failure and weakness. If this is reflective of fallen human nature, are we surprised that most people can’t be bothered about the poor and weak of society? Sure, you get the occasional sympathy – just as you get the occasional support for the underdog teams – but that’s about all.

Secondly, I am no admirer of Silvio Berlusconi’s political and social views. Yet he has been instrumental in making AC Milan the success it is today. He’s probably the only right-wing leader of an important European country left – with the departure of Spain’s Aznar. He’s outspokenly and extremely right-wing and rich. His policies support the rich but then again my favorite soccer team’s success is all due to him.

Thirdly, I am so glad my favorite player Steven Gerrard committed his future to Liverpool after the Euro 2004. There were many rumors of him going to sign up for Chelsea. Ha, too bad Chelsea! I told my friends and brother that if he did sign up for Chelsea, I would lose a great amount of respect for him. He would probably still be my favorite player because what he did would not affect the skills he has that I love. But on a personal level, my high opinion of him would have plummeted. I’m glad he stayed because it showed his loyalty to Liverpool – and everyone knew him as one of the most loyal Liverpool lads out there. Because of that, no one could have imagined him leaving. Yet playing for Chelsea would have been very attractive because it has a great squad – due to the Russian owner billionaire’s money. Gerrard wanted success and Liverpool hadn’t given him any in the past few years. Playing for Chelsea is a sure route to success. So there was the attraction. But if he had left, that would have shown Gerrard to be disloyal to Liverpool. And anyway, there was no reason to. Liverpool’s future is nothing but exciting. With a new manager who has a great record (I can’t think of a better record than winning the Spanish league, which is the toughest in the world, twice in the past 3 years with a team – Valencia – which isn’t as big or famous or rich as Real Madrid or Barcelona), Liverpool deserved a chance. And they have recovered from injuries of the past season and also have players to look forward to – in the on-form Milan Baros and the incoming Cisse. Furthermore, I think Gerrard would have made a much bigger impact in Liverpool than in the star-studded Chelsea. Success with Chelsea would never be as satisfying as success with Liverpool. Chelsea’s success is after all pretty much guaranteed with all their star players. The same can’t be said of Liverpool. They are a great team, but the challenge is for them to work hard and earn success. To succeed with them is thus a greater challenge and more satisfying than to succeed with Chelsea.

If Gerrard had gone to Chelsea, I would not just have been disappointed with Gerrard but also with soccer in general. Soccer nowadays is getting more boring with clubs like Real Madrid and Chelsea buying their way to success. Where’s the kick out winning nowadays? If you’ve got the money, you can buy the best players and you can win all the trophies. Of course this hasn’t been the case and I’m glad for it. But it could have been so. Thank God Real Madrid didn’t win anything. They deserved their pathetic finish. They thought they could rely on all their star players and use them always but their slow finish to the season proved them wrong. I am not sure why one would want to be a fan of Chelsea or Real Madrid. There’s no satisfaction winning because you’ve got all the best players anyway! You’re expected to win. I used to hate Manchester United but now I admire them greatly and also their manager. Same for Arsenal. Why? Because these clubs and managers know what soccer is about. It isn’t about using your money to buy success. Rather, it’s about slowly building up your team and grooming the players you have. Yes, buy some good ones here and there, but God forbid that we buy all the best players! Manchester and Arsenal have groomed fine players from young to achieve the success they have. They bought players when not many people wanted them – and they made these players good. Arsenal bought Henry and Viera when they were flops and made them who they are today. And all these clubs – including Liverpool in Gerrard, Owen and Carragher – have homegrown players to keep the local flavor of the team. The same can’t be said of Chelsea and Real Madrid. All I have to say is shame on these two teams and shame on soccer if they produce more teams like them. When soccer becomes a battle of who is richer, rather than depending on the hard work of managers and players, then the world’s most popular sports should not deserve our support

And lastly, I think affirmative action is necessary in society because the winners already have a huge head start. Without help, the losers will always remain losers and the winners winners. This is reflected in soccer too. It’s going to be near impossible for Manchester City, for example, to become as famous or successful as their rivals Manchester United. Most likely, these smaller clubs will forever remain small. The big clubs with a richer tradition will always attract more fans and thus more money. Not forgetting the better players too. They will thus continue to be big and only grow bigger. They may fall for a while, but they will get up – just like Liverpool has done. Meanwhile, smaller clubs will hardly have a chance to compete with the big guns. They will most likely remain, forever small. Unless some form of affirmative action is present in such situations, the rich will only become richer, and the poor poorer.

I remain a huge fan of Steven Gerrard. I think he’s a model player. I will continue to support him. I believe the gifts he possesses and the hard work he’s put in to make himself the player he is today are admirable. And there’s nothing wrong to admire a footballer like that. There’s nothing wrong with praising winners as long as, meanwhile, we don’t forget the losers.

I will continue to speak out against clubs like Real Madrid and Chelsea (which I feel are destroying soccer), yet not forgetting that my three favorite clubs (AC Milan, Liverpool and Barcelona) are not too far from being like them. And as I’m sure that these clubs are very close to crossing the line, I have to remember to not let my support for them get out of hand. I ought to remember the smaller clubs too, in keeping with my social conscience.

I guess soccer can and should be enjoyed. It provides me with much excitement and enjoyment in my life. It can teach me a lot about life too. But while I enjoy soccer and support my favorite teams, perhaps I ought to not neglect the smaller and less fortunate teams. I ought to support the underdog at times and delight in their victories. Most importantly, I cannot let the competitive spirit I thrive on as I follow soccer to make me forget the preferential option I ought to give to the poor and weak.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] – What do you get when you combine two great passions of mine (Development and Soccer)? Here’s a great reading list from my favorite Development Blog – the World Bank’s Private Sector Development Blog. For some of my thoughts on Soccer and Social Justice, click here. [...]

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