We brake for commercials | Soccer spectacle fits seamlessly in America’s land of make-believe

In a 2001 title, cultural critic Peter Pericles Trifonas produces a postmodern reading par excellence of Umberto Eco‘s views on football. “Umberto Eco and Football,” Trifonas writes, “is and is not a text about Eco and football.”

Philip Anschutz and AEG marketing shills in Los Angeles, as a New York Times profile of Anschutz last month made clear, have co-opted the language of world football along with its associated passions to serve their own ambitions.

Following a worldwide trend identified decades ago by sensitive souls such as Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, Anschutz has integrated soccer seamlessly into the reality-distorting worldview of the American corporation. Soccer teams and leagues are meant to capture market share, players are properties acquired to serve the corporate agenda. Marketing chiefs and their underlings supply a patter of passive verbs in the course of fashioning a packaged product, much as they might promote a mobile phone or fizzy beverage of no nutritional value. With a background in railroads, telecommunications and movie theaters, Anschutz, whose company owns L.A. Galaxy, Chicago Fire and Houston Dynamo of Major League Soccer, has treated soccer as a consumable, as Graham Bowley writes in the Times (“Goal! He Spends It on Beckham,” Apr 22).

The sports and entertainment platforms that Mr. Anschutz has developed are also a launching pad for what analysts say is his biggest gamble yet: the rollout of soccer as a major American sport, starring one of the game’s thoroughbreds, David Beckham. [see Jan 22]


Packaged with Anschutz’s outsized influence over the top levels of American soccer comes a veneer of silence—he declines nearly all interviews, what might be viewed as modesty were it not for the multibillion-dollar portfolio, aggressively pursued right-wing social agenda and notion of attempting “some small improvement in the culture” through production of anodyne, focus group–tested films. The appeal of soccer, reports Bowley, rests in the interpretation, skewed by the domestic game’s rise to prominence among suburban youth, of the sport as family-friendly.

Here the naïveté in America’s unique soccer culture—an indescribable fusion of grassroots, girls’ and women’s teams with ethnically aligned tournaments and impromptu play of all stripes, with an emphasis on participation—collides with the “big soccer” of Europe and Latin America: the wellspring of Galeano’s lament about world football as a “sad voyage from beauty to duty.” Anschutz and the new American owners of Liverpool, Manchester United and Aston Villa have become enlightened to this latter expression and the potential fit between the “unseen hand” of free-market capitalism and a game once viewed as anti-American.

In seeking to repackage the sport as product, in the American mold, Anschutz and Soccer United Marketing—the promotional arm of MLS—may also be attacking what remains of soccer’s native countercultural quality. For now, even in enervated suburban land, the game flourishes as a rare space in America for doing rather than consuming. Anschutz and those of like mind seek to make soccer yet another zone of mediated experience. We should hope with London economist Stefan Szymanski, quoted in the Times article, that Americans’ “cultural objection to soccer” as a spectator game will prevent Anschutz’s ambitions from ever being realized.

Sport as mediated presence already dominates the American wasteland: sport as talk-show blather, as highlight package supercharged with brass and techno blasts, as perpetual exaltation of the victor. We support Simon Kuper in his extolling of suffragettes’ forgotten protests against spectator sport (and, to be clear, sport as media attraction is nearly 100 percent male). Kuper, in a 12 May Financial Times column, alludes to two suffragettes knocking the hat off British prime minister Herbert Asquith during a round of golf in 1913 (“Come Back the Suffragettes?”). They also hit him on the head with a magazine. Kuper quotes University of Stirling sports historian Joyce Kay, who writes that one-sixth of suffragettes’ attacks in the UK were directed against sports grandstands or pavilions. Kuper extrapolates from the women’s anger to the modern need for protest against male sport, “which is taking over the planet”:

It is arguably the main global force for dumbing down. It transforms millions of people into hysterics. It is eating up the budgets of public television. It has turned many US universities into philistine playpens for subsidised jocks. It prompts countries and cities to waste billions on hosting sports tournaments, or, in the case of US cities, on issuing bonds to build stadiums for multimillionaire athletes. If a quarter of the energy that goes into the football World Cup were spent on things that mattered, we would have cured malaria by now. In short: where are the Suffragettes when we need them?

From the British Pathe–produced Time to Remember series, a newsreel camera captures suffragette Emily Davison dying under the hooves of Anmer, the horse of King George V, at the Epsom Derby race on 19 Jun 1913. According to Kuper’s account, at her funeral came cries of “three cheers for the horse’s jockey.” (www.britishpathe.com)

Kuper also refers to the attitude of fascination and distaste that Umberto Eco, Italian semiotician and novelist, shows toward football. Eco considers the game in writings translated in Travels in Hyperreality: Essays (Harcourt Brace, 1986)—see also our discussion of the late Jean Baudrillard (Mar 12). Eco, in the essay “The World Cup and Its Pomps” (pp. 167–72), distinguishes starkly between “spectator sports” such as football and “[s]port, in the sense of a situation in which one person, with no financial incentive, and employing his own body directly, performs physical exercises in which he exerts his muscles, causes his blood to circulate and his lungs to work to their fullest capacity. Sport … is something very beautiful, at least as beautiful as sex, philosophical reflection, and pitching pennies.”

Eco confesses, writing before the 1978 World Cup finals, that his disdain for football has origins in a youth characterized by athletic failures and a subsequent refuge in books. His father, Giulio, took Eco to a game (to Torino? Genoa? Milan?) at 13, which unleashed a chain of events in Eco’s mind, recalled many years after the fact, with the force of existential crisis:

[O]ne day, as I was observing with detachment the senseless movements down there on the field, I felt how the high noonday sun seemed to enfold men and things in a chilling light, and how before my eyes a cosmic, meaningless performance was proceeding. Later, on reading Ottiero Ottieri, I would discover that this is the sense of “everyday unreality,” but at that time I was thirteen and I translated the experience in my own way; for the first time I doubted the existence of God and decided that the world was a pointless fiction. … [S]occer for me has been linked with the absence of purpose and the vanity of all things, and with the fact that the Supreme Being may be (or may not be) simply a hole. And perhaps for this reason I (alone, I think, among living creatures) have always associated the game of soccer with negative philosophies.

Eco’s argument derives not merely from experience but from theoretical grounding in media, language, psychology and sign systems. In very abbreviated form—further explication appears in Umberto Eco and Football by Peter Pericles Trifonas (Totem, 2001)—football has been manipulated by media sources such that an arbitrary game of fantasy takes on dire consequence. Anschutz and other purveyors of make-believe have accepted football as sign and the underlying lie; they are selling this lie to others, for personal gain. (Arguably, this website performs the same function, although, to date, $15.38 in kickbacks from contextual ad placements perhaps should lead us to peddling more profitable falsehoods.)

The football supporter, according to Eco, is a voyeur—nonparticipant—compensating for the ennui of routine by focusing on a game that, like Groundhog Day, is structured to repeat on successive weekends, for seasons on end. Further, the game creates a virtue out of ceaseless competition and conquest, distracting much of society from injustice that occurs outside the realm of ludi circenses. Despots and corporate scions prefer that attention be focused on the field, that sports chatter be focused on trivia rather than substance, so their own undermining of polity and culture goes unobserved. Trifonas writes:

Umberto Eco reads football as a neurosis of culture. It is a manifestation of something gone awry in the human psyche for which there is neither a reasonable explanation nor an effective cure. For those who are stricken by its debilitating effects, there is no definitive treatment, no painless therapy or intervention to be worked through; there is only the endless suffering of watching the exquisite agon of the game that takes place on the field every football Sunday. Such is the joy and curse of the football fan. The irony is that the punishment is self-inflicted. Or is it? (p. 16)

Eco’s writing on the game perhaps lacks historical perspective, or at least fails to ask whether football neurosis is universal or particular to certain forms of mass society. An intriguing aspect of Barney Ronay‘s 2,500-word scan of socialism’s relationship to English football comes from players and coaches themselves, whose political connections sometimes sprang from a club ethos conceived in church or pub. Clubs once “existed as an extension of their local community,” writes Ronay, “a living riposte” (“Anyone Want to Play on the Left?” Guardian Sport Blog, Apr 25). Ronay mentions managerial socialists such as Bill Shankly (“The socialism I believe in is everyone working for each other”) and Brian Clough (“For me, socialism comes from the heart”). However deeply felt, these managers’ and players’ connections to a wider reality could help make football more of a shared experience.

Ronay interviews Andy Lyons, editor of When Saturday Comes, the independent London-based football monthly to which Ronay is regular contributor. At the magazine’s founding in 1986, supporting football in England was “relatively marginalised,” Lyons says. But the infusion of television money and ideals of product-packaging has returned the game to the more depressing form imagined in Galeano’s and Eco’s world-weary musings. Ronay writes:

Various forces have been working on this relationship between supporters and players: the repackaging of the game as televised entertainment and the dilution of the idea of a geographical fanbase; the hyper-inflationary hikes in ticket prices and the emphasis on football as a corporate hospitality product. Going to watch a game at Arsenal’s new Emirates ground feels more like attending a stadium rock concert or visiting the Ideal Home exhibition. Your relationship to everyone else inside the stadium has changed. You’re united by consumer choice. The people performing in front of you are skilled entertainers.

Lucarelli has fallen out with Livorno supporters of late, but his custom has been the two-fisted salute to identify himself with supporters in the Communist Party stronghold. Famously, he once said, “Some players buy themselves a yacht or a Ferrari with a billion lire. I bought myself a Livorno shirt.” (Radiotelevisione Italiana)

Ronay mentions some of the mold-breakers among modern footballers: Cristiano Lucarelli of Livorno, Xavier Zanetti of Internazionale and David James of Portsmouth. Based on almost no evidence, we also imagine Zinédine Zidane in this company. In our fantasy, Zidane’s career-ending head butt was directed not toward Marco Materazzi but toward the corrupters of football: the smug, smiling marketing elite who speak of the game as property or as family-friendly entertainment for legions of lost souls. For all its undeniable violence, Zidane’s thrust contained an equal measure of theatrical expression. Galeano’s words, in Soccer in Sun and Shadow, echo in our ears: “These are days of obligatory uniformity, in soccer and everything else. Never has the world been so unequal in the opportunities it offers and so equalizing in the habits it imposes: in this end-of-century world, whoever doesn’t die of hunger dies of boredom.”

Say whatever you like about Zidane’s rash deed, it certainly was not boring.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

Comments (5)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Peg says:

    Good grief—there are real problems and issues in the world. I suggest the writer address himself to those.

    If Eco didn’t enjoy football, he was free to do other things with his time.

    And to accuse AEG (an “American corporation”) of corrupting football through marketing is somewhat laughable, in view of recent Italian scandals and the billions of (dollars/euros) that are involved there.

  2. ivan says:

    Hmm, Eco doesn’t like football. That’s news for me. I’ve read The Name of the Rose—quite entertaining. But since he doesn’t like the beautiful game, I am boycotting his a***. …

  3. [...] has been “linked with the absence of purpose and the vanity of all things.” We write on May 27: “The football supporter, according to Eco, is a voyeur—nonparticipant—compensating for [...]

  4. [...] Eco’s comment on the “meta-” nature of writing about sport (see 16 Dec 07 and 27 May 07). Such commentary, or “sports chatter” in Eco’s phrase, consists of “talk [...]

  5. [...] that can build the bridge between soccer in America and the rest of the world” (22 Jan and 27 May 07). Tens of thousands of Angelenos and Angelenas who make the city one of the country’s most [...]

Leave a Reply

If you want a picture to show with your comment, go get a Gravatar.