A week or so before the kick-off of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, I was walking in the coastal town of Zihuatanejo in Mexico’s southern state of Guerrero when I passed a group of kids playing soccer with a plastic Coca-Cola bottle. They were as merrily animated as a group of kids playing soccer anywhere, while the Coke bottle, I thought, was sadly appropriate in a world ruled by occupational toxicity.
It was perhaps particularly appropriate, given that Coca-Cola and football have a long history. The company, which has been an official World Cup sponsor since 1978, entered into a formal partnership with FIFA in 1974 – although its logo has been infused with World Cup events since 1950. clearly nothing better for youth development than swallowing sticky brown liquid which is bad for human health.
Of course, that alliance is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of global capitalism’s efforts to suck the soul out of football and eradicate all vestiges of primal joy by monetizing and commercializing everything on and off the pitch. Given the deluge of corporate propaganda we call ‘sponsorship’, the uninitiated football spectator would be forgiven for thinking that Adidas was a football team – or that matches are being played between Emirates and Etihad Airlines.
And there’s nothing like sponsoring the biggest football league to enhance someone’s international branding. Chinese companies have also caught on – they lead in spending for the World Cup in Qatar.
In his book, El Fútbol a sol y sombra (Football in Sun and Shade), first published in 1995, renowned Uruguayan writer and die-hard football fan Eduardo Galeano noted how each footballer had become an “advertisement in motion” – although not everyone was happy with that arrangement. In the mid-1950s, he recalled, when the prominent Montevideo club Peñarol had tried to put corporate advertising on its shirts, 10 members of the team had obediently entered the field wearing the updated jerseys, while the black player Obdulio Varela had refused: ” She used to drag us blacks around with rings in our noses. Those days are gone.”
Sure, it’s never just fun and games when obscene amounts of money are involved. Take the case of Horst Dassler – the son of Adidas founder Adi Dassler, himself a charming former member of the Nazi Party – who founded a company called International Sports and Leisure in 1982, which promptly acquired exclusive marketing and TV rights for FIFA operations, including the World Cup. This was done by paying a bribe to then FIFA president João Havelange – the same Havelange who had kindly appeared alongside Argentine dictator Jorge Videla during the 1978 World Cup in Buenos Aires.
That dictatorship was ultimately responsible for killing or disappearing some 30,000 suspected leftists in a seven-year dirty war that was given the go-ahead by — who else? – the United States, which has always been eager to bring on board more evil right-wing regimes in their quest to make the world safe for capitalism.
In 1998, Havelange was replaced by Sepp Blatter, who was also accused of rampant vote buying and financial manipulation and who, according to Galeano, made Havelange look like “a Sister of Charity”. Galeano died in April 2015, a month before the US Justice Department sensationally arrested 14 FIFA officials and corporate executives on corruption charges. himself”.
But as the US is well aware, corrupt self-enrichment and corporate impunity are business as usual in capitalism – which has also led to a “gentrification” of the sport itself, as researchers have shown. A study published by the Royal Society in December 2021 found that the “excessive redemption of football” had led to growing disparities between teams in major European leagues and increasing predictability of match results. Even if those responsible for governing the sport claim to be globalizing football, the process is actually replicating the inequality inherent in corporate globalization.
Indeed, the spirit of professional football has been corrupted by the transformation of the sport into an industry, leading to a regulated and technocratic game that aims to turn players into robots. As Galeano put it, this approach to football “forbids all fun”; in the interests of maximum productivity and increased profit, it “denies joy, kills fancy and prohibits daring”. After all, magic is not profitable.
Fortunately, however, there have always been people who refused to participate in the program. According to Galeano, Brazilian footballer Mané Garrincha, born in Rio de Janeiro in 1933 in poverty, was without a doubt the player who brought the greatest happiness to the public in the entire history of football, making the game an “invitation to a party”. to make. . So much for the doctors who pooh-poohed the prospect of an athletic future for “this deformed survivor of starvation and polio…with a baby’s brain, a spine like an S, and both legs bent to the same side.” (Capitalism eventually won and Garrincha died, poor and alone, in 1983.)
Also from the wrong side of the court, Argentine football virtuoso Diego Maradona also defied boundaries – including denouncing the tyranny of television in sport, advocating labor rights in football, demanding financial transparency from football clubs, support for the Palestinian cause, and generally driving the forces that are against the wall. On the field, he continued to inject old-fashioned magic into modern mediocrity until he was banned from the 1994 World Cup.
Meanwhile, there was more recent backlash against football’s slide to soulless, money-driven depths last year, when furious fans in the UK helped force the collapse of a Super League scheme designed to drain the pockets of elite club owners continue to fill.
Certainly, capitalism has certainly scored an important goal with professional football.
But the sport remains a source of popular passion and an affirmation of collective identity for countless people, on sports fields, lawns and dirt spots from Mexico to Mozambique – far from the billions of dollars swirling through the industrial soccer complex.
With the 22nd World Cup kicking off today in Qatar, Galeano would no doubt have criticized the whole televised spectacle. And yet he would no doubt have watched it on his TV, beer in hand, hoping for a glimpse of forbidden pleasure—a moment of unadulterated brilliance and beauty. Because just like the kids kicking the Coca-Cola bottle around Zihuatanejo, there’s something about football that capitalism just can’t kill.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.