Monday, June 04, 2007

Anarchist Football

Football for Anarchists ( A Theoretical Approach )

We think that team sports provide valuable social learning experiences , and that therefore there are certain social values inherent in football. In fact , it is especially in football ( opposed to other team sports , like American football or baseball ) that an individual performance can hardly be separated from a team effort ( penalty kicks would probably be the only exception ). Any apparent individual achievement , lets say a long dribbling , can only be successful when your team mates open space for you , lead opponents astray etc . In the same vein , even a direct free kick involves the team mates’ blocking and/or distraction of the opponent’s defence . As great as your individual skills might be , they will count for nothing if they are not accordingly supported and strengthened by your fellow players . The fact that the individuals bring different qualities to a team ( a defender needs different skills than a striker , etc ) does not change this - if anything it strengthens the necessity of working together because players need their team mates to make up for the skills they themselves are lacking .

The success of a football team depends on how well the team’s individual complement each other as a collective . It is a known phenomenon that teams of no names can beat teams full of great individual players simply because they make the better collective while the great individual players don’t work together .And it is a known phenomenon that a lot of football players who look great in their respective clubs disappoint in the national squad ( or the other way around ) because they don’t get to display their full abilities in the context of a specific collective setting.

None of this means to diminish the importance of the individual performance for the team . The individual performance is very important . If a player on a football team doesn’t fulfil his or her role , of course , this has an immediate negative effect on the team as a whole . We are not saying that the individual performance loses its importance in football . What we are saying is that the individual performance doesn’t have any meaning outside the team’s performance - the bottom line is that in a true teams sport the individual performance can’t be separated from the collective . “ Playing football together regularly can provide a concrete sense of affinity .It’s a beautiful thing when a few people together make an impact greater than the sums of their parts” says comrade Fernandez . Agreed .

It is here where we believe that football can have relevance for radical political activists . We can see a football team as a social microcosm - a microcosm that demands that individuals get together and form a collective in order to achieve something . In this process it is both necessary to excel as an individual ( since a good individual performance will boost the team’s performance ) and at the same time , to take oneself back as an individual to fit the collective’s needs . Success in football depends on this unity of individual and collective pursuit and ability . Challenge to this success comes from both sides : too much individualism will neglect the necessity of team play ; and too much focus on the team will hinder individual players to express their full potential . What is needed is to find the right balance between individual liberty and collective responsibility . Very much like in a self-determined community . Comrade Fernandez ties the collective learning experiences to tactics of resistance : “ On the field , a player supports others by putting herself where her team-mates can pass to her in order to keep the ball away from defenders or to advance it up the field . This technique involves awareness of where your comrades are and what they might do . During extra-legal work , such skills make actions faster , tighter and safer” . Overly optimistic or not - these are neat ideas for any anarchist football fan .

Ideally , the sense of collectivity earned from football goes beyond one’s own team . First of all , it encompasses the players on the opposing side : ‘sportsmanship’ ( despite all its patriarchal overtones and the hypocrisy commonly associated with it ) in its genuine sense is very much about the consideration and respect for those you are playing against , who are essentially not your adversaries but your comrades in exercise , challenge and fun , and hence ought to be treated as such . Opposing teams expressing kinship after a tough game provide an example for what social relations should be like under any circumstances - as do players who care for injured opponents or speak up in defence against abuse or criticism . The both symbolic and concrete educational dimensions of this should not be underestimated . How to respect each other and how to get along despite difficult circumstances , or despite finding oneself pitted against each other at times , must be an important exercise for people aspiring to be involved in creating and maintaining anarchist communities .

Secondly , the sense of collectivity experienced in a football team can extend to the supporters. Originally , football clubs , particularly in Europe and in Latin America , were very much integrated into their socio - geographical surroundings , and the people supporting the team were often times very literally that : supporters ( and not jut ‘fans’ ) : they would come to practice , talk to players , boost their morale , cheer for them accompany them on the away games etc. This is where the football phrase that speaks of the supporters as the “twelfth player” comes from and the notion should not be dismissed too easily. ( Not that the supporters have historically been much rewarded for this of course . The capitalist club owners were always pigs : “All around the country , supporters clubs were busy raising money on behalf of their football clubs , and receiving little or nothing in exchange in the way of representation . Whilst the money that they provided was gratefully received , this did not entitle them to recognition , or to any sort of say in the running of their club” ).

Of course the just presented notions are all idealistic . In today’s professional football few of these ideals remain tangible .Most players are so concerned with their individual careers that their individual performances mean more to them than their team’s achievements , and in general there is very little loyalty to a team and its fate . There is also a lack of kinship amongst and respect for other players, and these are hardly any concrete relationships left between the players and their fans . However , all of the above -mentioned elements of collectivity remain a part even of the professional game ( there are still moments of solidarity between players of the same or opposing teams; or let’s look at the attempts of the radical fan projects to revive a less mediated and more concrete supporters culture ) , and it will be up to us to strengthen them within the context in which we want to follow , play and organise football . In the end , the state of professional football is not our concern here . Our concern are the values of team sports as such, their specific expressions in football, and what good they ca ( at least potentially ) do for anarchist communities .

Besides , there are more aspects of football culture that seem to be encouraging right here and now . In the game’s left-wing critique , there is a lot of focus on its dividing features …However , there are many unifying aspects of the game at the same time. They play out at different levels , from football - like laughter or music - being a ‘global language’ ( any travelling football fans will have innumerable stories of getting into pick-up games with people they’ve never met before , whose language they don’t speak and whose social and cultural background might be very different from theirs - yet who they instantly make friends and share moments of joy and community with ) , to it being ‘a universal theme’ ( you can have a passionate discussion about whether David Beckham should stay with Real Madrid or move elsewhere with kid in Kuala Lumpur , Malaysia , Banjul , Gambia , or Kingston , Jamaica - how many other topics are there that transgress national , cultural and social boundaries so easily ? ) , to notions of global fan culture ( and one of the most ignored and overlooked aspects of football fan culture is that at all big football tournaments you will see fans from different countries socialise and have a good time with each other - in far , far bigger numbers than they’d ever clash violently ; football fans have done much more to open borders , create international friendships and alliances , and overcome prejudice and bigotry , than the media and the upper-classes wanna make you believe )

On a more general note ( speaking of football’s social values ) , what we consider one of football’s most important benefits for community life lies in sports being able to alleviate social conflict ( much more so than it could ever fuel it ) : Football can play a role as a substitute for real-life conflict in which aggressions can be vented , tensions eased , or disputes solved in a socially sound manner . We think that such a social mechanism proves beneficial in any community . We need social mechanisms that allow to address tension and conflict and that help ease it , but in a socially acceptable ways that do not jeopardize balanced community life. For example , it seems better to let people project resentments into games than allow these resentments to hinder their ability to co-operate in daily life. The notion that no conflict will ever arise in an anarchist community simply seems unrealistic . We think that in its cathartic role , football can help maintain a healthy poise of community spirit by controlling social forces that could pose a threat to that spirit otherwise , and by directing them elsewhere . In this sense , football can add to the mental and emotional health of a community - and since it seems hard to deny that sports already add to a community’s physical health , this doesn’t seem so bad , does it ? Furthermore , football in its pure form is simply play; aren’t we anarchists all about that

Anarchist Football in Praxis

One of the biggest problems football-critical anarchists seem to have with the game ( and most sports in general ) is the competitiveness that’s allegedly intrinsic to it ; you have two sides that are trying “ to beat ” each other ., and you end up with winners and losers . And true , in general , there lies nothing too anarchistic in such an endeavour , we suppose . But we think that there are possible solutions to this ; one consists of finding less competitive ways of plying the game ; another of finding a more unperturbed attitude towards competition .
In regard to the first option , four main possibilities come to mind :-

1. Juggling [ ‘keepy uppy’ ] , passing , dribbling , kicking the ball around , rather than playing matches . They can definitely be fun , but the question remains if this is really still football , rather than a version of hackie sackin’ with a bigger ball . If for certain soccer ball aficionados this suffices great , but we guess it wouldn’t work for the majority of football fans .

2. Open-ended pick -up games : You have a certain group of people who start a match by forming two teams , and you play and try to score goals , but no one really keeps track of the score , and you neither play until a certain time is over nor until a certain score is reached but basically just till people are too tired or too few to continue playing a reasonable game . The advantages of this type of play are obvious : you have the thrill and motivation of trying to score and defend your own goal while playing , yet it doesn’t translate into winning or losing . Especially if the game is long and new arrivals join in and/or certain players switch sides during the game , etc. In the end neither side will be clearly defined , nor will certain individuals closely identify with a certain side , and so the notions of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ becomes irrelevant. This is one of our personal favourite ways of playing . Especially since we are big advocates of pick-up games generally , since to us the social etiquette that surrounds pick-up games has definite anarchic dimensions. In our experience as people who’ve always been into all kinds of sports , and hence as people who have participated in pick-up games of numerous sports on numerous occasions and in numerous places , the smoothness and ease in which this usually happens seems remarkable: no-where you go is there ever any particular written code or table of rules as to how pick-up games should be set up and organised , as to how they should be refereed . Or as to who has the right to play when and how long and with who . The ‘rules’ are always unspoken ; sometimes they are inspired by a region’s or a country’s general social consensus on how to go about things , sometimes shaped by a social history and reality very specific to the site of play , but no matter ; the outcome is almost always very simple , very clear , and very accommodating for everybody . Usually , following the unwritten rules of the site , everyone gets to play in a spirit of mutual respect . And we neither want to romanticise football nor come down on other sports , but we believe that this spirit is particularly strong in the case of the former . While particularly certain basketball courts know of folks who ( while mostly still respecting pick-up game etiquette) can be rather territorial when it comes to ‘their’ court , we have hardly run into football pick-up games that appeared uninviting or unwelcoming ; and this goes for many place spread out across many social , cultural , and political lines .

3. Mixing up sides: If you have a group of , say , ten players , you start with two teams of five , but every so often , individuals will change sides . This can be either done spontaneously , or following an agreed upon pattern , for example ,along the lines of a traditional Amazonian game where after each goal the scorer automatically switches sides . Again this approach would maintain a competitive ( ‘motivating’ , ‘exciting’ ) element in the game , yet would avoid clear cut outcomes of winners and losers .

4 . Substituting sides . You form three teams (or more) , two of them play till one scores , and whoever gets scored against has to clear the pitch for the waiting team , and so forth . Once again , you will have the rush and excitement of ‘competing’ , but in the end there are no real winners or losers , only people who have played longer and others who have played shorter. This is another option we personally like a lot , the obvious problem being that some players will always end up rather impatiently on the sidelines - especially unpleasant in cold Winter months .

Finally , lets look at the possibilities to lessen the competitive dimensions of playing the game . We think that they mainly lie in accepting the winner - loser pattern as one of its necessary aspects , while simply not playing too much attention to it or allowing it to play too much of a role . The prospect of ‘winning’ ( or , in less martial terms: scoring more goals than your opponent ) might just be that little extra incentive that we weak humans need sometimes to summon that extra motivation and inspiration ‘to give our best’ , or simply to give the game an element of suspense and excitement …But given the right social surroundings , it doesn’t have to translate into anything more , meaning : conceit , or special recognition or respect . Winning and losing could just be seen as aspects of playing certain games that make them a little more fun to play . As long as there are no social rewards for winning or social punishments for losing , as long as the win or loss concerns nothing but the game , as long as both sides follow original sports notions of mutual respect , we don’t think that the fact that someone wins or loses , can do much harm .

To further ensure that the games and their outcomes don’t take too much meaning in themselves , community activities and events could be organised around them . A game can prelude/follow a political workshop , tournaments can be accompanied by gatherings or conferences , and the teams united in a league can pursue political campaigns together , meet for projects , or have regular discussion/art/whatever groups running alongside the league . We believe that embedded in a conscious anarchist community and enjoyed in a context of community work , football will always be a fun game to play in which scores and standings matter little …

Extracts from the Anarchist Football Manual by the AAP Collective


Anonymous said...

Why does the competitive element of football have to be either ameliorated or apologised for?
Are you saying that anarchism would see an end to competitive sports?

I enjoy cycling, most of my riding, in common with most other keen cyclists is done alone. However, I compete with myself trying to refining my ability to ride faster more effectively, I suppose to maximise my potential and that the of my bike.
Playing a competitive game to win against opposition in football similarly although involving an 'opposing' team is really concerned with being an effective team which maximises the potentials of each individual for the collective.
Two further points
1) I could never embrace anarchism because I loathe the oppresive moralising with which it seeks to justify and criticise everything. It reminds me of my Catholic childhood.

2)Instead of talking about the morality of football and deciding that 'it might be OK so long as you're careful'. How about organising football clubs consisting of anarchists and joining local grass roots leagues. Most football is played at grass roots level on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
Maybe you're too busy sitting on you're arses deliberating on the why's and wherefore's of some presumed oppressor to actually engage in a pleasurable pursuit whose merit is in just doing it.

ajohnstone said...

Sorry , it was my fault that i never made it clear that i was transcribing just a few chapters from a pamphlet that i thought was raising uestions upon some practical and everyday issues concerning anarchism which they are often accused of paying no heed to .

And the whole pamphlet was a discussion on the dichotomy of cooperation and competition at the simple level of sport. I think the pamphlet was sympathetic to the idea of competing but making winning unimportant . I remember as a kid a game of football involved no limit of players and had no time limit ...players came and go through out the game when mothers yelled dinner was ready ...scores were was still a struggle between two teams and it did serve to highlight which individuals played the most skillful football but there was not as much tribalism that is attached to football support although different town areas often offered take-ons and prove who played better .

I think the pamphlet tried to address that by looking at different options .

Indeed you are right about engaging in normal interaction , the Edinburgh Br of the SPGB did play in a local Sunday football league with a team made up of several members and several of their friends and they were called Capital , a clever Marxist pun on the fact Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland , too .

Anonymous said...

Hi Alan,
Thanks for the clarification, it was for pretty the much the reason you suggest concerning relevance to and participating in the everyday that brought my attention to football which I thought of all sports would be a game anarchists might readily adopt. Subsequent to my post above and a little bit of digging not surprisingly revealed connections between football and anarchism in South America:
And this through a Dutch website:
In this country Corinthians are a pretty good example of a team who were more concerned more with playing well than with winning, reference their emphasis on ‘friendly matches‘.
Perhaps one day we’ll be able to read of a tournament of anarchists clubs, ‘AFC.AF’ , ‘Black Star Manchester‘, etc meeting on the field of play. Although I can’t help feeling that the nearest many anarchists are ever likely to get to a football match would be digging up the turf in protest at the use of the child labour for the manufacture of the balls ( of course I recognise that the issue matters), creating conflict and alienating others instead of furthering an opportunity for meeting, interacting and demonstrating their [sportsmanship] ethos through sporting play.
All the same I look forward to the day ‘Rocker’s Rangers’ or whoever meet a team from the local divisional branch of a High St bank to demonstrate the integrity of the collective.

Chris (alias: ‘anonymous’ above)

Anonymous said...

this is gee, i was part of the collective who put this pamphlet together.
first off, thanks for putting this online, alan, we really appreciate it!
in response to chris: i agree with everything you wrote, this excerpt might have really given the wrong impression. it was the final chapter of the pamphlet in which we wanted to deal with the question of how to play football less competitively for those who are really bothered by its competitive aspect. we ourselves are and aren't, i guess it depends a lot on the context, but our pamphlet did, in fact, deal mostly with the competitive history of the sport and includes references to both the argentinos juniors and the corinthians f.c. as well as thoughts on "organising football clubs consisting of anarchists and joining local grass roots leagues".
we wrote the pamphlet 'cause we love football, definitely not 'cause we wanted to moralise or critique.
gee (for the AAP collective)

Anonymous said...

there is indeed an annual non-competitive football tournament for ultras, radicals, leftists, anarchists etc in bologna italy. It started in 1996 or so.

There are also plenty of other tournaments, teams, leagues etc. throughout europe, but as with any sub-culture, you need to seek them out as your not going to hear about them much in the mainstream.

p.s. the term "anarchist soccer/football" (to my understanding) is not a description of who plays, so much as how it is played - i.e with mutual respect, cooperation, etc.

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