Soccer, The New Opiate Of The Masses

It may have begun as a game, but soccer has become a substitute for so many facets of people's lives, including politics and war, writes Colombian novelist Jose Luis Garces Gonzalez.

A proxy war?
A proxy war?
José Luis Garcés González*

BOGOTA — In the beginning, soccer was played with stones. From the start, it was a game for fun, and a bit of caveman competition. Then came tactics and strategy. Later it became art, trade, and an occupation. Today, it controls an immense part of society, swaying it this way and that.

Soccer has become a reflection of lifestyles, and is often said to be the new opiate of the masses. It has become a measure of people's passivity or aggressivity, their sense of innovation or conservatism. We use it as a means of personal identification. The team has become a kind of fatherland, a soul, something that gives us the victories that life will not. It is violence expressed or repressed. To the chagrin of fans and to society's detriment, its defeats amplify the little misfortunes that punctuate our daily lives.

In many societies, soccer tends to replace everything, sweeping aside political proposals, religious beliefs, family ties, economic upheaval and social injustice. It represents faith, the mother of all passions, and, in a word, ideology. Perhaps only love supercedes it at the personal level. It is the fifth estate — or is it the fourth?

What the increasingly mobile homo sapiens — or homo ludens — created as a game has become so many things, including a law-and-order issue. When the team has a setback, people feel hurt and become aggressive. Brawls, injuries and deaths ensue. Sometimes no loss or contrary decision is needed to unleash this violence. It can even blossom after a victory that was widely expected.

Remember Colombia's 5-0 win against Argentina in 1993. Some 80 people were killed in the celebrations that followed. Could this be the only country where a triumph becomes an invitation to the kingdom of death? Call it the apotheosis of the unsettled spirit or alienated body, a return to barbarianism, with victory as an excuse. Where is its logic? Not for nothing did French philosopher Descartes deem common sense to be singularly uncommon.

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Hungarian "ultras" supporters — Photo: Pilgab

The beast sleeps in man's heart and the most illogical motive can unleash this dormant fury. The novelist Gesualdo Bufalino explained certain attitudes by observing that addiction to suffering induces people to live fortunate events as unnatural excesses. Thus, what should produce happiness leads by a terrible paradox to tragedy.

The new battlefield

As has been demonstrated, the public is not interested in the game, but in victory, in which it sees a debatable form of self-affirmation as individuals or nation. Seen like that, soccer becomes a proxy war.

Which makes one reflect that by releasing a measure of aggressivity, soccer has provoked one war (between Honduras and El Salvador) and helped avoid many. It has on occasion had a palliative effect — as in 1978, by giving the Argentine junta a veneer of tolerance and momentarily distracting from the crimes and disappearances occurring then in Argentina.

While, as Colombia's coach Carlos "Piscis" Restrepo says, in soccer "the only reality is the 90 minutes," the game has also created a monster whose tentacles reach far and wide into the social fabric. It shifts billions of dollars in a globalized world. It influences economics, psychology, calculation, anthropology, politics, philosophy, even literature.

Great novelists have written about soccer. Some see it as an exponent of post-modern culture and others, like Umberto Eco, call sports and thus soccer "the easiest substitute for political debate."

Now, technologies ensure that a game played in China or Berlin can be viewed or heard simultaneously in a little Colombian town. The global village has become a global field watched by a global audience. Consider our own youngsters, sporting Real Madrid, Barcelona or River Plate shirts in addition to those of local teams.

Like the drug trade, soccer engulfs the social body. Indeed, the national emblem is no longer a flag, shield or anthem — but a soccer team. The blood of heroes and worth of our ancestors have become a soccer ball. Round like the world it dominates.

*González is a novelist and professor at the University of Cordoba.

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