A sport for sport’s sake

German footballing dominance over Spain shows how sports’ beauty can be corrupted by the political.

By Raghav Rao

If you open up a Spanish daily newspaper, the first half of it will be about the country’s 27.2 percent unemployment rate and the European Central Bank’s slashing of interest rates. The second half, around 15 pages, will be about soccer—specifically, about Real Madrid and FC Barcelona’s shocking exit from the Champions League at the hands of German clubs Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich. There’s a poetic justice to these defeats. After the eurozone crisis, Germany’s exchequer has come to dominate policy decisions in Spain. A running joke is that the capital of Spain is no longer Madrid—it’s Frankfurt.

Many people, often Marxist ideologues, have written about how sports—and soccer in Europe in particular—are an opiate of the masses. They’ve attacked all forms of passive entertainment as agents of distraction. With sports, the general line these critiques follow is that workers are exploited and alienated by their jobs, but find community and solace in the collective effervescence of the stadiums on the weekends. Similar anti-escapist arguments often crop up in relation to television, a form of entertainment that’s popular on the same scale, but we’ve seen it progress visibly beyond the narrow role that’s often been assigned to it. For instance, no episode of Chappelle’s Show can ever be said to have provided a hollow repose for traditionalist values.

Defenders of the integrity of sports will be quick to point out that they, too, have value beyond the escape it provides. In Spain, the first time the Ikurriña and the Senyera (the flags of the Basque and Catalan regions, respectively) were displayed publicly after their suppression by Franco was at a game between Athletic Bilbao and Barcelona; the two clubs were defiant bastions of republicanism during the dictator’s regime. Furthermore, soccer has effectively fought racism in some areas. That a player like Samuel Eto’o—a four-time African Player of the Year who has been the target of racial abuse throughout his career in Spain and Russia—was the darling of Catalonia is not just lip-service. It represents true progression. Yet sports have been slow to embrace pluralism with regard to homosexuality. The first active player in the NBA—or in any major American sport—to come out as gay did so only this past week.

This back-and-forth on whether sports are instruments for distraction from real issues or tools for the alleviation of suffering phrases the central question in incorrect terms. It is not out of a desire for political freedom that the multitudes seek sports, though it is for reasons of political control that politicians encourage them. Nor is it sheer tribalism that draws people to sports. If that were the case, then Americans in small towns would not walk around in Barcelona jerseys; they’d head to a local hockey game.

Rather, beauty is what draws spectators. The hegemons of Spain know this and that’s why they’ve brought the great footballing artists to their shores: Ferenc Puskás the Hungarian and Alfredo Di Stéfano the Argentinian were the standard bearers of Franco’s Blancos, the legendary Real Madrid team of the ’50s and ’60s that Franco allegedly supported. In more recent times, geniuses like Denmark’s Michael Laudrup, France’s Zinedine Zidane, and Brazil’s Ronaldinho have plied their trade in Spain. That these players make the music of the spheres on which they played is beyond question; but that they have allowed Spain to become a country that airs out its dirty politics through soccer is up for discussion. The eagerly anticipated clashes between Real Madrid and Barcelona have become simulacrums for tensions that exist between Madrid’s central authority and Spain’s regional loyalties, most notably those of Catalonia. The media in Spain feasts on these clashes and openly uses them in an effort to diffuse attention to true attempts to fight oppression. Canal+, a France-based satellite television channel, in a telling foible, reported that the crowds gathered in Madrid in support of the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests were merely Real Madrid fans celebrating in the streets.

Sports are not true battlegrounds for freedom against oppression, though exceptions to the rule—such as Tommie Smith’s Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics—sometimes give the appearance that they are. Sports are, essentially, distractions. However, unlike state-sponsored art whose every stroke smacks of propaganda and, consequently, loses its beauty, the revolutions of the ball as struck by Ronaldo (either one) retain their artistry, since, in the universe of the game, they contain no ideology. Art is inherently political; sports are inadvertently political. Herein lies the central dilemma for global soccer fans who style themselves as politically aware. How do we reconcile the knowledge that sports are smoke-and-mirrors shows with our enjoyment of their artistry?

The truth is that I don’t know. Watching sports is turning into a guilty pleasure for me. As I ignore the BBC’s coverage on Syria and instead click on a Wimbledon hyperlink, I feel like I’m listening to Nero’s violin while Rome burns. Next year, Madrid fans may cheer if they lift the Champions League trophy, but Mariano Rajoy will still be flying over to Frankfurt with his tail between his legs.

Raghav Rao is a fourth-year in the College majoring in English.