Zonal Marxing (or, what football is really for)

Football.  You all encompassing, growling, snarling beast you.  Roll over and let Jamie Cutteridge take a look at you.

‘Religion is the opiate of the masses,’ or so claimed Marx in the mid 19th century, asserting that Religion was used by the powerful within society to appease the masses and shift their focus away from the real issues. Marx’s criticism of religion was never the content of it, more the role it played in appeasing the oppressed masses of the 19th century landscape. Perhaps his view on football would not be dissimilar.

At its heart, football is a game, one between 22 men, a pitch, a ball and some goals, nothing more, nothing less. However this ‘game’ has evolved into a juggernaut, one that sees billions swirl around the financial ether, where the game’s ruling body holds sway over many actual governments of actual countries and the results of which can seemingly define the public mood. So what is it about this game that allows it to hold such power over such large numbers of people?

Clearly it takes on a role as entertainment, unlike film or television, when one attends or watches a football match, what is observed is a one off, never repeated and hence an event of historical importance as well as a piece of entertainment. But has football transcended this, taken on something bigger than merely crowd-pleasing fun, has it taken on the role in society that, with the rise of post-modernity and militant atheism, religion has vacated? (Interestingly when Marx made his assertion, the role of religion was already diminishing due to the onset of modernist thought and the enlightenment.)

Examples of this surround us. As Qatar looks to host the World Cup in 11 years time, it seems likely the very laws of the land will be adjusted to suit it, constant government funding in this country is poured into the game, not just at a grass roots level, but throughout the national game, whilst the dialogue surrounding the future of the Olympic Stadium and Park is very much framed by which football club will use it. In a time of economic struggle the government was willing to place an even greater strain on the economy (in the short term) in order to bring in a World Cup, whilst just turning on the news will see one greeted by stories surrounding football, be it allegations about players, firings of pundits or speculation of appointments, as well as coverage of the games itself.

Football is clearly popular (perhaps the most obvious statement I have ever written), and anything with the degree of popularity that football holds will gain a certain amount of influence along with it, but it seems as if the centrality of football in both the collective consciousness of the population, and the way it seems to define much of the political landscape within, specifically, this country. To take another, pop culture and sickening, example, the X Factor is popular, you just need to scan any social network during its airing to see the extent to which it defines the public consciousness, but how much influence, outside of its musical remit, does X Factor possess? I would suggest, rightfully, very little, whilst X Factor may determine which records are bought and which remain trapped in the iTunes vault, ratting it’s cell bars hoping to attract any passer-by, it hold very little power outside of this area.

We must therefore assume there is something distinct about football, something about it that causes it to punch above its weight to gravitate towards the centre of matters of national importance. Perhaps then, it is there for a more sinister reason, taking on religion’s mantle and becoming the opiate of the masses. The biggest upset caused by the government on this side of the Atlantic post-9/11 was the leaked memo claiming it would be a good time to bury some bad news. Is it not possible that government could use football as a similar shield? Say the government had chosen the day England were knocked out of the World Cup to release latest unemployment figures, would it have been the predominant headline? How many of us could name news stories that occurred during the World Cup, despite the fact we probably remember that entire month in a decent amount of detail. Whilst this did not happen, keeping football in pride of place, supporting it and letting it exert influence allows those in power to use it as some sort of shiny stick in order to attract the underling magpies of the populace to be distracted.

Football, whilst having the ability to disappoint, also holds the ability to inspire, to create hope, confidence and national pride in a culture where few other things, and certainly not those in power, have the influence to do this. Whether or not it can bury bad news, it certainly transcends the confines of a mere game and perhaps is an ‘opiate’ for the masses. By this, I mean that football is able to perpetuate myths that hold in place the public, something that can unify a country without resorting to jingoism, one that creates hope without fantasy, and one that organically inspires.  This is the flipside of the distraction aspect of football, the uplift of the drug, rather than what it takes us away from.

Perhaps another act that football holds the ability to perform is that of re-enforcing many of the wider narratives those in power seek to perpetuate. What is it that football teaches us? Football tells us about the importance of teams, about the importance of money for success, and that hard work is equally important as talent. If we look at these narratives, they very much fit into what those in power, in this epoch, want to spread. The importance of teams, of everyone playing their part can be seen to reflect efforts of government throughout history, from the entire country ‘mucking in’ during World Wars, right through to the cost-cutting efficiency of the ‘Big Society’ the concept of society (whilst not as dead as Thatcher told us) allows people to take on roles that government either does not want, or is unable to. And what better way to spread this message than to let those outside of power do it for you? This combined with the footballing mantras that surround the importance of hard work, and you have stories more powerful than the unemployed being told to get on their bike.

The economics of football very much reflect those outside of it. In football, from the Premier League, right down to Crawley in the Conference, money talks and money wins, greed is good and leads to success. In wider culture, ditto, the money is spent, the more government ends up with, the better the economy looks, and the better the wider mood of the nation is. A narrative we see lived out is much more powerful than facts we are told, some political no-mark telling us to spend carries far less weight than Chelsea spending £70m in one day, our post-modern culture is based around the concept of story, and if we see those played out in the footballing arena, then we may let them filter into our subconscious. This is something made far more obvious stateside, where the NFL is very much linked to the notion of ‘being American’ and will, with no subtlety, seek to re-enforce the notions that the American government would have spread. From national anthems surrounding the matchday through to programs celebrating heroes called ‘America’s Game,’ the NFL has rooted within its identity the importance of America. And no more was this made obvious than in the startling video shown on TV coverage of the Superbowl stateside of NFL players past and present stating the Declaration of Independence in footage spliced with comment from Colin Powell and the most important man with the NFL, Roger Goodell. Whilst this lacks the subtlety of football’s prominence, in reality it is performing exactly the same function.

Of course football has now reached a place within society where to challenge the power of it would be foolish for anyone in power. Such is the hegemony that it holds, anyone seeking to disrupt its influence would instantly alienate themselves from swaths of the electorate, marking them as not being ‘men of the people.’ Perhaps the most obvious way this is acted out are attempts to appear ‘one of the lads’ by politicians talking about their favourite teams in the same football fans may talk about the sup-prime mortgage issue, yes we acknowledge its importance, its influence, but in reality we want people to know that we know about it more than we actually want to know about it.

This fear that those in power have of football is perhaps the most worrying aspect, if football has grown into a monolith that can no longer be controlled by government then where does it go from here? Does the power of FIFA continue to grow with Sepp Blatter at its head? If we look at recent allegations into corruption within FIFA, due to the nature of the organisation there is no external body that can force FIFA into changes, and yet FIFA seems able to bend the will of countries. Truly, football has outgrown its humble origins and become a beast of frightening power.

To conclude, I do not want to say that this has been deliberate from the start, nor am I holding strictly, to these ideas, however there is clearly something distinct that allows football the power and prevalence it has. This may have happened organically, and climbed to a position where the marriage of football and state seemed to work for both parties. It is able to hold Marx’s ‘opiate’ role, and perpetuated by myth, legend and community (accusation leveled at religion) and perhaps would be an animal that would scare Marx far more than religion.

You can follow Jamie on Twitter @JamieCutteridge.