One game, a thousand meanings

June 14, 2002

What builds nations, rallies rebellious youth and gays and makes Europeans of Englishmen? It must be football, says Chris Bunting.

It was the year of revolution in Europe. In 1848, France, Italy, the German states and most of central Europe were in tumult. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were just publishing their Communist Manifesto . Even in England, the tens of thousands of Chartists massing on London's Kennington Common in April were seen as a serious threat to the established order.

Meanwhile, 14 students at Cambridge University had more important matters on their minds. They assembled in the rooms of undergraduate N. C. Malden at Trinity College after early hall and set about writing the first unified code of football. After prolonged argument, and much to the dismay of Rugby School's representatives, a rule book was written that favoured dribbling with the ball using the feet.

The students had no reason to know what they had begun. Fifteen years later, the Football Association was founded in London and adopted a code similar to Cambridge's. Some 150 years later, football can probably claim to have become Britain's second most significant cultural export, behind the English language. The sport's most prestigious competition, the World Cup, is not only the largest sports event on the planet but also the largest cultural festival of any kind. As the kerfuffle started by Marx and Engels's little pamphlet recedes into history, football's world governing body Fifa estimates that more that a billion people will watch the World Cup this month. Yet only a few football fans will remember the game's upper-class English origins.

Eduardo Archetti, professor of anthropology at the University of Oslo, has studied the sport's role in Argentine society since a copy of the Football Association's rules were sent to the editor of an English-language newspaper in Buenos Aires, in 1867.

"In the beginning, football was organised in Argentina by Englishmen, the winning teams were English and many of our teams still bear English names. Until 1910, the national team consisted largely of players with British names from middle-class origins. But now no Argentine comes onto the field thinking he is playing an English sport. He is playing the Argentine game."

Argentine journalists spent the 1920s and 1930s expounding what Archetti describes as an "ideological construct of a national style of playing football". They stressed the inventiveness and spontaneity of their country's criollos (Argentines of European descent) and received support for their theories from the fact that Europe started importing rising numbers of Argentines to play on its major teams (Italy had four Argentines in its first World Cup-winning side in 1934). By 1928, the magazine El Grafico was calling for a monument to the imaginary "inventor of dribbling". It would show a barefoot boy from a slum "with a dirty face, a mane of hair rebelling against the comb; with intelligent, roving, trickster and persuasive eyes... If this monument is raised one day, there will be many of us who will take off our hat to it, as we do in church."

More than 40 years later, Argentina's media discovered a 12-year-old, dirty-faced dribbling phenomenon called Diego Maradona in a Buenos Aires slum, and he quickly found an almost messiah-like place in the national identity. Archetti stresses that the game was a major force in creating that identity. The success of the country's players was used as a way of coming to terms with huge flows of immigrants from southern Europe at the start of the century and is still a major pillar of a criollo pride, accommodating the population's mixed heritage. "The English, with their concern with physical culture, exported this game to us, and we made our countries with it," Archetti says.

In Brazil, where legislators once considered replacing the symbol at the centre of their flag with a football, the game has played a similar role. When the influential sociologist Gilberto Freyre began an assault on racist nail-biting about the country's racially mixed population in the 1930s and started expounding a more inclusive, pro- mulatto view of the nation, he chose football as a vehicle for popularising his views.

"Our style of playing football contrasts with the Europeans' because of a combination of qualities of surprise, malice, astuteness and agility and, at the same time, brilliance and individual spontaneity. Our passes, our dummies, our flourishes with the ball, the touch of dance and subversiveness that marks the Brazilian style seem to show psychologists and sociologists the roguery and flamboyance of the mulatto that today is every true affirmation of what is Brazilian," Freyre wrote.

While South America's romance with football is well known, Grant Jarvie, professor of sports studies at the University of Stirling, points out that the game continues to be crucial in nation-building outside such heartlands. Palestine's short-lived campaign in the Asian Cup in 2000 was more than just a sporting endeavour, Jarvie says. "It was the first foray by intifada exiles into international sport. The team represented the coming together of a number of identities that constituted the Palestinian diaspora."

As the team's striker Ziad Kurd put it: "To me, football is politics. For sure, it means we're closer to having our own state. It is a way to say: 'Even if we're not better than you in politics, we're better in sports.'" Refugees from the Chinese occupation of Tibet and minorities such as the Saami people of Scandinavia have made impassioned calls for Fifa recognition of their teams as part of campaigns of national assertion. Four months ago in Afghanistan, despite widespread starvation, there was a huge demand to see a match against peacekeepers that was the country's first international sporting fixture for five years.

In England, football has played an important part in defining "Englishness" after devolution for Scotland and Wales. The St George's flag, once a symbol of racism for many, has become more widely accepted in the past decade and so closely associated with football that the Institute for Public Policy Research has proposed turning St George's Day into a celebration of "the good that football can put back into the world".

Jeremy MacClancy, professor of anthropology at Oxford Brookes University, even suggests that the emergence of football as a focus for English nationalism may have played a role in foiling the Blair government's plans to set up regional governments in England alongside devolution.

But football has also travelled far beyond the confines of national identities. When Senegal won the first game of this World Cup against their former colonial masters, France, their country's president praised their success in terms of defending the honour of Africa. The bleached-blond players of the Japanese football team are understood in their own country as playing not on behalf of traditional Japan but on behalf of a nonconformist, younger generation that refuses to be regimented. Japan's star player, Hidetoshi Nakata, lives outside the country after being hounded by the press for criticising the national anthem as uncool and boring.

Indeed, large numbers of today's football supporters spend much of their time subverting national identities. Fans of Glasgow Rangers display the St George's Cross and sing the English football anthem "Three Lions" during their confrontations with Celtic. Carlton Brick, who is completing a doctorate on the politics of football at the University of Surrey, points out that many Manchester United supporters have been increasingly defined as European and non-English. Their fan magazines publish cartoons caricaturing supporters of teams such as Chelsea as inarticulate, racist and rabidly pro-English. Similarly, supporters of the Turkish club Galatasaray boast their "European" identity with the chant: "Do you still play in your mother's league? We are European, we play in the European League."

Beyond the restrictions of local identity, FC Rosa in Brazil represents Rio de Janiero's gay community in one of the city's top leagues, playing dressed as women to chants from supporters of, "Hey, hey, hey - o mundo é gay ". Hard-core skinhead fans of Ajax football club in Amsterdam like to sing, "Jews! Jews! We are super Jews", tattoo themselves with the Star of David and wear the blue and white of Israel in preference to the club's official red and white colours. The vast majority are not Jewish. They display the affiliation because their city, Amsterdam, had one of the highest and most integrated Jewish populations in the world before the Nazi Holocaust.

For Archetti, it is football's chameleon-like ability to adopt the colour of its surroundings that is the reason for its huge success as a cultural export. Football is not, as the cliche has it, one language, but a thousand different languages and traditions.

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