“I am a football fan, but my love is not blind”boniface

Pascal Boniface is a French geopolitical analyst and most recently featured in the world of English football, albeit obliquely, when his name was punned to read Bonnie Pascal-Face as part of a satirical feature in Les Cahiers du Football, an article whose fictitious story was then printed in The Times as a world exclusive. In this interview with Sciences Humaines magazine, he discusses his 2012 book, Football and Globalisation. 

In your work you analyse, with great enthusiasm, the conquest of the planet by football, beginning towards the end of the 19th century. Should we take such an enthusiastic view of a phenomenon which is a product of the dominion of the west?

Football is an empire, and what an empire! There is no phenomenon more global today. In the wake of sailors, merchants, industrialists, soldiers and English colonialists, Football has conquered the entire world. Its expansion was accelerated by the young boys and girl of distinction who came from around the world to study in the country of Her Gracious Majesty, and, in their summers, brought home with them a football and their enthusiasm for the game. Radio and Television then carried the conquest to completion. The Brazil vs France final [in 1998] alone was watched by an audience of over 2 billion. Such is the domination of football that it reigns where it might least be expected; in places like Nepal, Bhutan or the island of Montserrat in the Antilles. But this was never an empire built on coercion. In terms of the battle for hearts and minds, it would be better to say hearts and minds simply adopted this very British game. If we have to talk of power or force it should be to borrow the ‘soft power’ evoked by American political theorist Joseph Nye. What a dream it would have been to if the governments of George Bush and Tony Blair had taken inspiration from football’s success in order to better strategise their bringing democracy to Iraq.

We’re not talking about a military conquest of course, but football nonetheless brought a certain cultural domination along lines demarcated by the west. You will remember that the Argentine Football Association banned the use of Spanish…

Indeed. The Asociación del Fútbol Argentino, founded by an English professor in 1893, adopted the rules of association football in their totality, including those most clearly marked by the British spirit. For example one of the earliest rules stated that, “the aggrieved player may accept the apologies of the guilty party, on the condition that these be sincere, and expressed in proper English”. The AFA also banned Spanish at their board meetings; a consequence of the elitism that developed within a sport initially taken up by those of a higher social standing, who then became suspicious of its wider adoption amongst a developing, modern Europe. Obviously, this elitist stage in the globalisation of football did not last.

Like all cultural phenomena, football became globalised through contact with various cultures and peoples, who in turn subjected the game to a series of reinventions according to their own needs. In this way it is more a reflection of society than it is a force of change within society. In Japan, since the year 2000, football has overtaken Baseball to become the country’s most popular game, in terms of television audiences. According to a Japanese anthropologist, this can be closely linked to a growing hedonism within Japanese society; the instantaneity of football is preferred to the attention required by baseball.

You emphasise the soft power of the football empire, but on the other side of the coin the picture is more violent, where the pitch becomes a locus of expression for nationalist extremism…

I am a football fan, but my love is not blind. Football has a very ambivalent relationship with the idea of national identity. And how could it be otherwise? The game was developed during the same era as were the nation states of Europe. Immediately, football was given the role of fomenting national identity, just like all sports. By coming together in support of ‘our’ team, we express a simple common feeling of belonging. For any state, be it newly constituted or of ancient origin, this is a perfect opportunity to affirm feelings of patriotism. For peoples wishing to establish independence, it’s a pre-requisite step. The formation of a national football team can sometimes even precede the formation of a state, as was the case with the FLN team who played from 1958-1961 in the colours of an Algeria that did not yet exist. Take the Palestinian football team, which has been affiliated to FIFA since 1998.

There is nothing inherently dangerous about notions of patriotism. Rather, everything depends on the violence that accompanies movements for independence, and that has nothing to do with sport. It irritates me that ideologists of the anti-football world condemn the sport as anathema, through methods that have very little relationship with intellectual honesty, talking, for example as does the Sociologist Jean-Marie Brohm, in such terms as an “emotional plague”.

Football does not deserve this kind of outrage in excess. It is what society and political entrepreneurs make of it. Football can be an excellent barometer for political upheaval and the failure of states. The first cracks began to appear within the Federation of Yugoslavia at a match between Dynamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade, in march 1990, where there were violent confrontations and 60 people seriously injured. In the same way, matches between Slovan Bratislava and Sparta Prague, symbol of Czech identity, were always marked by lively exchanges between supporters. Yet in the second case we had the ‘velvet separation’ and in the first, things ended in butchery. Without football having had anything to do with either eventuality.

To my mind, football can serve, as set out by Norbert Elias, to channel passionate feelings: “Fans at a football match can enjoy the excitement of a mythical battle taking place before their eyes, safe in the knowledge that nothing will become of them or the players involved”. In this way, feelings of nationalism are vented. The European Cup encourages the development of a feeling of common belonging between peoples of a continent marked by centuries of war. It allows for antagonism to be deposited in the stadium, whilst matches between foreign clubs contribute to the acknowledgement of the existence of others. ‘Play football, not at war’, we could say. The vocabulary of Football reveals the truth: bombard the opposition area, break through the defence,… the bloody metaphors abound. Football permits the expression of a residual nationalism, one which poses no danger.

Of course the picture is a little different if we take the sporting history between Japan and China. During the Asia Cup in 2004, parts of Beijing were transformed into what looked like a camp behind enemy lines after Japan were victorious in the final, to the fury of the Chinese fans. But that hardly seems like evidence of an evil side to football, rather of unresolved memories of the Second World War and the contemporary rivalry between two local economic powers.

I would say exactly the same thing about the racism that is expressed at football grounds. It is out of the question to defend in any whatsoever, the kind of extremists fascism displayed by certain Italian ultra groups, but the stadium is not the only place where racism exists in that country. Consider the success of the book written by renowned journalist Oriana Fallaci, whose hallucinatory islamaphobia depicts, “mosques sickeningly swarming with terrorists”, and has sold 1 milllion copies. We must understand how the number of immigrants in the country has multiplied by five over a period of 20 years, and the complex effects that has had on Italian society. So, it’s easy to blame football! But as Eduardo Galeano said, beautifully, “It’s not in tissues that we find the source of tears”.

If football doesn’t start wars then, does it not at least, in valuing the cult of performance and the importance of victory, harbour politically dangerous sentiments?

Football is not a bubble of sweetness and fraternity in a violent and competitive world. That much is understood. But it’s not against the law to dream of a different world, and football is defined by what we make of it. Just as it helped preserve the Mussolini regime it was also an important means of expression for Iranian dissidents in the 1980’s, where matches would regularly end with demonstrations of opposition to Ruhollah Khomeiny. The Argentine Junta experienced first hand the caustic power of this liberty of the stadium; the 1978 World Cup was to be their shop window to the world, but there were demonstrations like never before!

At the risk of using an infamous phrase, the impact is largely positive. Football, it seems to me, can also be about reconciliation. The joint hosting of the 2002 World Cup by Japan and Korea represented a key moment in rapprochement between the two countries. In very general terms, the globalisation of football encourages openness towards others; other cultures and other histories.

Excessive wages, the transfer merry-go-round, lack of competition between clubs… Isn’t football also defined by inequality, where the strongest and richest dominate the rest?

If football can be considered an incarnation of globalisation, then it must also include the inequalities that brings. I won’t pretend it doesn’t worry me. The rich elites are gaining ground. Today, the biggest clubs in the world have development strategies that could be lifted out of any multi-national corporation. The methods they employ and the kind of vocabulary they use makes it difficult, sometimes, to make a connection with sporting values. The president of Real Madrid recently described his club as, “The No. 1 World Football Company”. In the same way, the CEO of mega-rich Chelsea is at ease talking in terms of market share and brand identity. In this way, players become assets and fans become consumers. The G14, through which Europe’s biggest clubs come together to protect their interests against the power of FIFA is no more reassuring. Nor, for that matter, is the Bosman ruling, passed in 1995 at the European Courts of Justice, which abolished transfer restrictions within the European Union, and has led to a commodification of the game whereby the most talented players are signed to the richest clubs.

The floods of money pouring into the game come at a price. It could have a devastating effect on the global popularity of football; who will want to watch a match whose outcome is pre-determined by the budgets of the teams? From this perspective, the globalisation of football poses exactly the same questions as does globalisation more generally. How to reinvent our politics so as to effectively govern these new and dynamic economies? What rules can we come up with in order to reconcile profit with respect of core values? As of yet, the fat lady has not begun to sing…

In spite of these meanderings, I insist at least on this one point: football is a democratic space in society. It allows for the kind of integration and social mobility that is not possible in society at large. In football, you can become something other than that which you were born into.

This interview was conducted by Sandrine Tolotti and can be accessed in the original French here:



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