Socialist Worker

The World Cup and the collectivist principle

As the 2006 World Cup takes place in Germany, Phil Vasili offers an alternative history of the tournament’s effects on the "beautiful game"

Issue No. 2005

Illustration by Tim Sanders

Illustration by Tim Sanders

Early doors, during one of Nigeria’s games in the 1994 World Cup, ITV commentator Ron Atkinson mentioned an “iguana” a number of times. Unable to spot the lizard on the lush green turf, I realised Atkinson was referring to the “Supereagles” defender Eguavoen. This was not the last time his mouth would let him down.

Another commentator, former Arsenal coach Don Howe, consistently mistook the US defender Marcelo Balboa for the Spanish city Bilbao.

And just to show that in some you can’t keep good dogs down—in this case our football experts and their linguistic ineptitude—throughout the recent Champions League game between Barcelona and Inter Milan, David Pleat called the Italian’s Brazilian forward A Driano.

Hopefully, if he’s commentating at this year’s World Cup, he won’t have too much trouble with Adriano’s teammates—Fred, Cris and Kaka.

It’s something I expect at each World Cup—that mixture of the amateur and professional, the real and the absurd, theatre and farce.

This tournament is the schizophrenic creation of Fifa, an organisation that sees itself politically as a world player. So, we have the pathetic posturing of men who feel enormously powerful—the administrators—and some great football.

The World Cup gives fans a chance, via TV, to watch teams they wouldn’t normally, and for players from smaller, less publicised leagues to shine in front of a global audience.

It was in the World Cup that black footballers first emerged as world stars. Uruguay won the first World Cup in 1930, and the star of their team was the African-Uruguayan player Jose Leandro Andrade.

Yet it is Brazilian football, the source of the world’s greatest footballer, Pele, and best ever team, the 1970 World Cup winners, that is seen (from the outside at least) as a model of integration.

Such a representation hides the struggle black players had to be accepted in a country which has one of the biggest black populations of any world state.

Arthur Friedenreich, of European, African and Brazilian origin, was the first star of the Brazilian game. He did whatever he could to de-Africanise his appearance, such as straightening his hair under a towel and cap before a game. The star of Brazil’s World Cup squad in 1938 was another African-Brazilian, Leonidas da Silva.

Before Brazil’s triumph in Mexico in 1970, England were the world champions, having won with performances built around the principle of collective unity in which individualism was second to the demands of the team. Even the team’s win bonus was shared out between the 22 squad players (though a miserly Fifa awarded only 11 winners’ medals).

The most successful managers in Britain during this decade and the following—Alf Ramsey, Jock Stein, Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Don Revie and Brian Clough‚ all adhered to the collectivist principle.

It wasn’t surprising that many were socialists. Though Shankly is remembered for his “football is more important than life or death” statement, he summed up the way his politics shaped his football with another quote—“The socialism I believe in is everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards. It’s the way I see football, it’s the way I see life.”

Developments since then have been to commercialise the cult of the individual, a reflection of the increasing encroachment of middle class values into football.

It is easier to commodify and market an individual than it is a team. Real Madrid did not buy David Beckham because they thought he was the best right midfielder in the world, but because it was good business—they knew they would profit on the deal without having to sell him on to do so.

The anti-racist initiatives by Fifa, Uefa and many national football associations are not prompted because these groups have suddenly became human rights activists, but because the product they are marketing needs to appear consumer friendly.

And if they argue otherwise, ask them why they jump into bed with sponsors that have terrible records in the way they conduct their business—McDonald’s, Adidas, and Coca-Cola are among the official sponsors of the 2006 World Cup.

You can be sure the sponsors, their corporate guests, friends, lackeys and cronies won’t be short of tickets, in stark contrast to real fans. The FA was awarded 14,000 tickets for England’s first three matches which are to be played in grounds with capacities of 40,000 plus. Less than a quarter of the tickets will have been available to ordinary fans.

Up to 100,000 England fans are predicted to travel to Germany. And when they come back after maxing out their credit cards, will ticket prices for league games have fallen because of the massive new TV deal? Will they f…!

Phil Vasili is a writer and author of Colouring Over the White Line: The History of Black Footballers in Britain. Go to for more details.

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Sat 17 Jun 2006, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 2005
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