“Everything I know about morality and the obligations of men, I owe it to football” Albert Camus

Sports have become an important source of entertainment in our societies. The footballer players, taking the armour of the ancient roman gladiators, show their fight and magic every week-end in the Stadiums, modern Roman Circus, every city having their own team, with their own colours and heraldic, just as medieval noble’s lineages.

As a football fan, I have been shaken by football incredible night games, and I sometimes looked down to other team supporters. Recently, after the victory of Barça against PSG, and after the several corruption affairs – recently the Football leaks as media named it – I’ve seen perusing through Social media a lot of people that were “outraged” by some fans adoration to the team result, where the sentence “football is the opiate of the masses”, paraphrasing perhaps the most paraphrased quote of Marx, was a recurring topic of discussion.
This blog post has for aim to start a reflexion about consumption but taking as a developed example organized sport around Football, resuming the principal theories about consumption view in economy, ethnology and philosophy. I hope you will enjoy this reading, that it will make you think about this sport that, besides this analysis, I truly enjoy.


The sacredness of football

Consumption on a mass scale has begun to appear as a foundational, rather than merely epiphenomenal, keystone of western societies. A special concept in social field had been created to explain the devaluation of mysticism and religion in modern societies due to the cultural rationalization (Weber, 1910s) called Disenchantment (in German Entzauberung). What we will try to discuss, here, is that this sacralization has shifted the boundaries of religion, and the sacred character may have passed from religion to consumption in western societies, taking the example of football to illustrate it.

To understand sacredness it’s mandatory to compare it with profane, without it meaning nothing. In order to become sacred, one activity have to be apart from the mundane world, by placing into different places from profane objects. An illustrative example would be the artistic work Artist’s Shit, by Piero Manzoni which has become sacred by just placing it into a collection!
In the football world, this property is easely seen if the raise of football museums, with all of the team’s and history relics.

To be sacred, an object or experience needs to give momentary ecstatic during its utilisation, making him unique and objectivised – in the true sense of the word, the representation in an object. In order to keep the sacredness and keep it from the sins of the profane world, the believer needs to have commitment, and proceed in all of the rituals before its utilisation – to keep the sacredness but also to protect the believer from the incredible power of the sacred. The object,or experience, becoming therefore a strong part of one identity with a “focused emotion or emotional attachment” (Mol, 1976).

In football, this analysis takes all of the credit. The secular consumption experience of an event of a football match – the zenith of it being the final of the world cup – have all of these properties. During these events the commitment of supporters is unquestionable – some falling in the hooliganism – and it certainly give ecstasy experiences for those supporters, certainly more when their team win. We can also see an objectivation through all of the derived products of one team – t-shirts, scarf etc. Some behaviors are also considered appropriate or reverential, for instance the traditional “pasillo” in
Spanish football – applause of the rival side during the start of the match after one team won the national competition. The character of myths, which carry on the sacredness also exists: the fans participate in an experience in which teams and players are revered, stadiums are temples that may be the site of pilgrimages, and artefacts may serve as sacred relics. Myths involving players, teams, and the principles are thought to exemplify and to help sacralize sport – for instance the myth of the “hand of god” goal of Maradona, or the history with the surnames of the clubs – such as the given name “clockwork orange” for Netherlands. Players are worshipped, hymns of praise are sung on the terraces, young children are indoctrinated into the cult. All of this aspects, giving a transcendence experience to the fan – it’s said that, in Barcelona, after the 6th goal of Barça, provoking an epic “remontada”, there has been an earthquake of magnitude 1 in Richter scale due to the cries and jumps of all of the fans around the Barça stadium.

“Football is the opiate of the masses”

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”, quoting fully the famous critical sentence about religion of Karl Marx. The philosopher criticize here not the act of believing in something, but more the functioning of organized religion – in that time mostly Christianism. Why this metaphor between religion and opium? Because this latter has practical functions in societyf, at the time the working class, similar to the function of opium: it reduces people immediate suffering – by the promise of a comforter afterlife – but it also reduce their willingness to confront the oppressive, being a barrier to understanding by accepting everyone’s fate, which makes Mark propose the abolition of religion as, quoting, “the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.”

Do we find those same aspects in football? Organized sport have obviously a functional role in society: it plays the same role as the ancient Roman circus game, it’s an “entertainment”. This latter makes, of course, not the promise of a wonderful after life where the football fans could watch all of the games with unlimited beers and without hangover, but it certainly makes forget the heaviness of everyday work and routine – an important football game is always played around 9 pm, so everyone can watch it after the work. Here we nevertheless need to add that this comforter that has the same similitudes as opium just works for a “man who has either not yet won through to himself”, a man sick or injured. Philosophically speaking, it means someone that hasn’t find a meaning for himself. We can find here analogies with French existentialism, wonderfully summarized by the sentence “Existence precedes essence”. Indeed, if essence comes after existence, it means that we’ve come to this world without any objective or meaning. Does that mean that we’re destined to absurdity? No, just the contrary. It’s a philosophy of action where you need to create your own meaning. This task if obviously not without any difficulty, and it’s always easier – another debate would be if actual societies helps people create this meaning or not – to find or being told this meaning by someone else, some sort of a messiah. By the extreme belonging to football, one can have the illusion of being part of something larger than ourselves and thus nurtured, understood, accepted, enlarged, empowered, gratified, protected. We just have to take the case of the hooliganism, everyone protecting each other and fighting against rival groups that threatens, by the nature of their belief – another rival club – the pillars of the existence of the belonging group.

Nevertheless, without the politics involving the times where Marx wrote the quote, the debate is sterile. It is true that there isn’t the same political context around sport that around religion. What I’ve saw in Social media is people outraged by corruption in this field: football players and coaches “earning” millions of dollars, some of them somehow wanting to avoid equal taxes by putting their money in taxes havens, buying players by crapulous methods, and in most general the lack of ethics by football clubs and FIFA executives – corruption for voting for some or some country to be the host, paying the referees, in Brazil the Santos club shouted down the feminine club for years in order to pay the astronomical salary of their raising star Neymar.

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In football the politics doesn’t involve a change in society political structure, but a change in the direction of the sport itself. By praying a team last game, people doesn’t criticize this awful direction and amount of money. I advise to look at this page to see a glimpse of the astronomical amount of “earned” money: http://www.whatfootballersearn.com/player/lionel-messi/

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So indeed, football may be an opiate, perhaps not at the same level of purity as religion but still one. Even so, do we need an “opiate”, meaning some sort of an entertainment to get off, at least for a few moments, of the routines and work life in today’s society? Of course, in a different and more perfect society this opiate wouldn’t be needed, in a society where we would not need to escape the mundanity of life because this latter would be lived with the fulfilment property of work or societal utility.
But that’s not the case of western societies. In those societies, people struggle in to pay the end of the month, some have burnouts in work and stress among students. In those lives, all can be seen as a momentary escape route, without being at the end a definitive highway exit. In this case, football would be in my opinion a better opiate than religion, as religion would be a better opiate than real opiate. Indeed, an even better opiate would be the struggle for social justice, an association involvement or lecture or personal development. Even so, football has beautiful aspects that makes everyone enjoy watching and playing.

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A fair-play football

I remember watching football with my brothers being a child, doing nights with my friends as a teenager for the finale of the cup, and being shaken by the beauty of Ronaldinho and Messi dribbling’s. So of course, I’ve also been indoctrinated in the cult of this sport, and I see the corruption and dark side of the organization. Nevertheless, as corruption shouldn’t make us lose hope on democracy, and as bad affairs of some artist shouldn’t make us avoid its art, football corruption shouldn’t be a reason to avoid having a good moment watching the sport – of course, without forgetting and trying to change this corruption.

Football is universal, it transcends continents and human made boundaries. It transcends politics, economics, and religion by incorporating all of them by juxtaposing people, groups, national identities, particular belief systems, and political circumstances in manners that simply do not happen in any other setting. During the world cup, an Argentina team can win against England by the Maradona’s goal called “Mano de Dios” – hand of the god – being worship as the revenge of developing countries against developed – indeed, in football everyone is equal. It’s also the story, in 2006, about the small African country of Ghana handed the USA a humbling and hope-crushing defeat. Or being able to watch, at the time, a USRR team against a US one, and that without any violence problem. During the world cup the normally study-obsessed students pulled themselves away from Kant and Hegel in order to watch every minute of every match. Everyone from posh schoolboy undergrads to very committed and hermitic doctoral students from Korea, Romania, and the States huddled in a room from two in the afternoon to nine at night, yelling at the television during matches involving not only their national teams but those between Japan and Brazil or Germany and Morocco. Basically, the world cup or champions league is about one month or a few hours where we all agree on something – lets the game begin, and may the best one win! Indeed, like a jazz band, football blends dazzling individual talent with selfless teamwork, thus solving a problem over which sociologists have long agonised: co-operation and competition are cunningly balanced and blind loyalty and internecine rivalry gratify some of our most powerful evolutionary instincts. But if we can get over a violent rivalry and accept a fair-play winner, that when football shows its best side.

Football is world-wide and international. I’ve been able to start a conversation with Swedish guys – God knows that it’s difficult – by talking and watching football, and I’ve been watching a match with erasmus people from over Europe because this shared passion. Going in Madagascar for a humanitarian mission, I remember a moment where, even with the typical tropical rain, we played football with a two-minute goal cage build with bamboo, everyone laughing and happy. Indeed, it was a flee from reality, but the sentiments build were here and real.

That’s the beauty of football, if by enjoying it and playing it you don’t lose your critical opinion, if you don’t fall on violent rivalry and learn, teach and put in practice fair-play, it becomes a game where everyone find his place and enjoy. That’s why Albert Camus, one of the leaders of French existentialism, wrote that “Everything I know about morality and the obligations of men, I owe it to football”.

Marc Becat Busquet


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