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

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:

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