'Manchester United header'. Photo: Paul / Flickr / CC BY 2.0 'Manchester United header'. Photo: Paul / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The vicarious passion for football highlights the contradictions of life under capitalism, argues Roy Wilkes

City are out of the Champions League. United are out of the Europa League. Despondency reigns across Manchester. The post-mortems have begun, on Facebook, on Twitter, in the pubs and gym changing rooms. Did Pep mess up the formation? Should United have conceded that second goal? Oh well, never mind, there’s always next season.

Everyone loves football. The awesome skill and athleticism of the top-flight players. The drama and unpredictability of the ‘game of two halves’. The buzz of excitement. The electric atmosphere in the stadium (pre-Covid at least). The roar of ecstasy when the ball hits the back of the net. The passion, the loyalty, the commitment, the camaraderie. We take it for granted that football is harmless fun, an opportunity to share and discuss opinions and knowledge, a welcome diversion from the stresses of everyday life. Like any other religion, football is “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.” But is everything really so rosy in the footballing garden? Is the game really so beautiful? 

What subliminal messages are we absorbing through football? Teamwork is vital, but the aim is to win. The aim is to dominate. Those who compete most successfully get the most money, ‘buy’ the best players, monopolise their position. Elitism is natural. It is for the best. There has to be a boss, to coordinate and decide. There has to be a wealthy owner, to put the money in. Who cares if Sheikh Mansour, with personal wealth of $20 billion, is a member of the ruling family of an absolute monarchy with an appalling record on human rights? Who cares? He bought Sergio Aguero for us. That’s what really matters. Who cares if the multi-billionaire Glazer family have loaded the Red Devils with £203 million of debt and are sucking money out of the club to fund their own globetrotting lifestyles? Who cares? Their financial wizardry gave us Bruno Fernandes and Aaron Wan-Bissaka. That’s what counts. 

If this mode of organisation is best for the game we love, then it must surely be the best way of organising life in general. The ultra-rich are there for our benefit. We need them. We accept the logic of each of us having our own place in the social division of labour. We accept hierarchy. We know our place. We need bosses to tell us what to do. We accept reification, the buying and selling of human beings. We accept competitiveness as the essence of human nature. We accept male supremacy. It’s the natural order. We accept nationalism, and a certain level of racism. (But not too much anymore. Political correctness gone mad.) It’s all part of the game, of the fun. It’s what works for the best, in the best of all possible worlds. 

City are out. United are out. But never mind. There’s always next season. Always. 

For the fans, football is a vicarious passion. What we want and desire is out of our hands, out of our control. Our role is passive. It is to support our betters, those more knowledgeable, more talented and skilful, and more wealthy. With the right Sheikh, gangster or billionaire businessman on our side, we can rule the world. 

But vicariousness means an absence of control, and that inevitably leads to frustration. We are desperate for our team to win, but can do nothing practical to make that happen. We have zero agency. Zero. All we can do is pray. And sing hymns. And take our frustration out on those who support the other team. The others. The enemy. Ultra-competitiveness grows easily into hatred. We have shown racism the red card, but its shadow still lurks. We call the others ‘Munichs’, celebrating the death of 20 people in an air crash. Friendly banter. We sing ‘in your Liverpool slums’, celebrating the poverty of another city 30 miles away. Harmless fun. 

City are out. United are out. But never mind. There’s always next season. Always. Because nothing ever changes.

We all have our part to play in reproducing this paradise of football. Our sons and grandsons must be drawn in, so that they too can hold their own in the playground, and later, in the pub, at the gym, in the workplace. Male bonding is important. Excluding women is important. It’s the natural order. 

There have been noble attempts to do football differently, like FC United. But their impact has been minimal. Just as the impact of workers cooperatives has been minimal in the wider economy. If you want to succeed in a capitalist world you need the social division of labour and you need concentrated alienated wealth. You need capital. 

City are out. United are out. But never mind. There’s always next season. Always. Because nothing ever changes. Football is there to reassure us of that. 

Must it always be this way? Life determines consciousness. Who knows what rich diversity of sporting activity the freely associated producers will be capable of. It would be nice to speculate, to let our imaginations run wild. 

But the immediate priority is to expose the crimes of the billionaire club owners. They are not our friends. They are not on our side. City and United fans have a billion times more in common with each other than either have with Mansour or the Glazers. We need to take our clubs back off the sheikhs, the gangsters and the businessmen, and to impose genuine social ownership and democratic control; to limit the incomes of players and managers; to unionise the non-playing staff and to support their struggles for decent pay and conditions; to force the media and the clubs to deliver substantive equality for the women’s game; to smash racism, sexism, homophobia and fascist organisation on the terraces; to push real resources down to the grassroots of the game; to get back our school and community playing fields. 

City are out. United are out. But never mind. There’s always next season. Always. Because nothing ever changes. Football is there to reassure us of that. Nothing ever changes. Or does it?

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