Can football be a driver for radical and progressive social change?

Can football be a driver for radical and progressive social change?

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Years have gone by and I’ve finally learned to accept myself for who I am: a beggar for good soccer. I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead: ‘A pretty move, for the love of God.’ And when good soccer happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don’t give a damn which team or country performs it. – Eduardo Galeano –

Many people on the “left” are dismissive of football despite it being the world’s most popular sport which over 250 million people play and the fact that the Champions League has a global audience of 1.3 billion. The reach of football is simply astounding and unrivaled. In many ways it really is the beautiful game that should not be dismissed so readily.

Of course if we look at it at face value football is riddled with corruption, racism, sexism, homophobia, you name it. There are still cases of players being racially abused and of endemic sexism. One only has to see the way Chelsea team doctor Eva Carneiro is treated by the press to appreciate this.

The huge amount of money floating about doesn’t help either. Premier League clubs spent £850 million on players in the last transfer window despite the fact that we are allegedly in an age of austerity. Against this back drop Premier League clubs are as rich as they’ve ever been thanks to a mammoth £5.14 billion TV rights deal taking the sport even further from the reality of most people’s daily existence and it’s working class roots.

Long gone are the days when you could turn up on a Saturday and buy your tickets for a fiver for a top-flight game. Top level sport has succumb to capitalism and the demands of the super-rich. But football can still be a driver for radical social change and as such shouldn’t be written off as an irrelevance.

As Shane Thomas said on Consented TV: “Football as a game, more than any other game, brings joy to billions of people.” It is this joy which cannot be ignored.

In the 1980s when David Cameron was part of the Oxford Conservative Society that was calling Nelson Mandela a terrorist Ruud Gullit was dedicating his ballon d’Or award to the imprisoned ANC leader. “This is for Mandela” declared Gullit in 1987, highlighting the political nature of football and how one man could transcend the boundaries of the game and reach a mass audience. The press in Italy at the time were shocked and had not expected such an outcry from a player.

Football has a long history with politics though; it is a highly political game. James McLean‘s recent decision to turn away from the British flag and refuse to sign the national anthem is a clear example of this. Without him doing so people outside of Ireland may not have paid so much attention to Britain’s colonial crimes in Derry and beyond.

In the former Yugoslavia, football fans, or more aptly, football hooligans played a key role in helping to overthrow Slobodan Milosevic. One match between Red Star Belgrade and Dinamo Zagreb in 1990 set off events as the game ended in riots. Serbian hooligans were mobilized en masse to fight issues out on the street. Football in Serbia is inherently political.

It’s also perhaps symbolic that Chile lifted the Copa America this summer in the Santiago Stadium where decades earlier Western backed dictator Pinochet tortured and killed his political opponents.

In Spain football is more political than it is in the UK. Athletic Bilbao’s refusal to field non Basque players is a clear indication of this, as are the links between FC Barcelona and Catalonia’s independence movement; so much so that Champions League winning manager Pep Guardiola is on the list for the Catalan Separatist party. Football can propel social issues into the mainstream, even if football is also littered with its own problems.

On Consented TV, Shane Thomas closed with: “No amount of neo-liberalism or corporate influence can puncture such athletic brilliance or ruin a beautiful team or beautiful goal.” This is why football is revered by so many. It’s easy to play and understand and steeped in history and politics as a consequence.

In the UK there are new movement using football for good, such as Football Beyond Borders, an excellent grass roots charity and local side Clapton FC who have a strong anti-fascist ethos and has gained a large following as a result.

Football, watched and discussed my millions, is a reflection of the world we live in, which is why it has the ability to raise us up and smash us down, and it is in this sense that it is has always been a vehicle for social change; for the changes we implement in our society will manifest themselves on the football pitch, sometimes before we’ve even realised they’ve occurred.

This article was originally published on Consented

Amit Singh is the editor of Think Football and contributes for a number of other football websites, follow on twitter @Think_Football