On Walls (and why we need to break them)

Featured image: Political graffiti on the banks of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. Photo: Tim Green; Five Rise Locks, Bingley, West Yorkshire, 6 November 2010. (This image is now in public domain)


On 16 June 2015, The Donald descended a golden escalator at Trump Tower in New York to announce his presidential bid. To the tune of Neil Young’s “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World”, he would make one of the most (in)famous proposals of his career – build a wall across the southern border of the United States.

The Free World (may God bless it!) has to be protected of course! South of the border lies the badlands – the shadow lands of drug-traffickers and rapists. Although Trump is quick to state “some, I assume are good people”, what if they were fans of, God forbid, Oliver Stone?!

Centuries before Trump, Emperor Hadrian of Rome, in 122 AD, ordered the construction of the Vallum Hadriani or Hadrian’s Wall in the Roman province of Britannia. Its purpose according to Hadrian’s biographer was to “separate the Romans from the barbarians”.

Through the ages, the purpose of a wall has been as much militaristic – it is of course a defensive structure – as well as social and political – it is a mark of the familiar and what is not; of the known and the unknown; of the self and the other; of what is perceived to be civilization and barbarism.

Where for the ancient Greeks the walls of the polis (city) enclosed a way of life, in the footballing world it protects the goal – the simple yet almost hallowed structure, of two vertical posts planted firmly into the ground and a horizontal bar – which footballers would give anything to protect.

The wall of defenders, deployed to prevent a free shot at goal, is as old as the game itself. But is football war? Former Dutch manager Rinus Michels certainly seemed to think so, as did George Orwell. Sociologist and anthropologist Desmond Morris, in his book The Soccer Tribe, traces each element of the game to remnants of our inherent tribalism. The game, after all, involves a clash between two sides. Morris argues that the “actual violence has been channeled into ritual violence” – sledging, head-butts, goal celebrations, jeering, singing, gesticulating.

Goalkeepers are the captains of the defence, much like the garrison commander manning a wall. The best goalkeepers are not just agile and quick, they are ones who organize their defensive wall in such a way that there is no need for them to make mind-boggling saves that sometimes seem to defy the laws of physics. A team, when not in possession of the ball, is also in a sense a wall of defence that the opposition must get past. There has to be a wall for Ryan Giggs to “tear apart again”!

However, we live in the age of fast, attacking football and the purpose of this short piece is not to wax eloquent of the virtue of defensive play or the structure of the wall during a free-kick. Its purpose is to point out some of the walls that haunt the game even today – preventing it from being either “beautiful” or a “game of the people”.

While the narrative developed around Hillary Clinton’s campaign last year would be whether she would be able to break through the metaphorical glass ceiling – a ceiling, in a sense, is also a wall – and became the first woman to take office as the President of the United States, in April 2016, five footballers – Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe, Hope Solo, Alex Morgan and Becky Saurbrunn – of the United States Women’s National Team broke the no-strike clause of the American football federation and went public with the discrimination they face daily in every sphere of the game from facilities to monetary reparations. Just the year before that, in 2015, they had won the Women’s World Cup.

No matter the success of women’s tournaments, it is still in the fringes of the juggernaut that is the men’s game. Writing on the women’s game itself is biased against them – sports writers focus mostly on off-field activities; the personal lives of the players; unsporting remarks made before or after matches. What is lost is not only the brilliance of the players themselves but also that of their managers. While the world knows of the tactical genius of Johan Cruyff and Nereo Rocco or more recently, Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho, we know next to nothing of say Pia Sundhage or Silvia Neid.

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Megan Rapinoe takes a corner kick during a clash between the United States and Japan. Photo: Joel Solomon; 9 August 2012. (This image is now in public domain)

“Don’t accept something you know in your heart and you know in your gut to be unequal,” said Megan Rapinoe about the staggering wage gap between women and men in the United States’ soccer setup. But Rapinoe also fights another battle every time she steps out onto the pitch – she is a lesbian. Mostly considered to be a “man’s game” (with all the associations of toxic masculinity) even today, the football stadium is often very hostile to the LGBTQ+ community.

The 2014 World Cup in Brazil was marked by incidents of sections of the fans chanting “eeeeh puto!” (puto literally translates into “faggot” with the added sense of “coward”) at opposition goalies. The word was repeated again last year during the Rio Olympics, often in the chant, “el que no salte es puto (if you don’t jump you’re a faggot)!” Across the Atlantic, in England, in October last year sections of fans of Luton Town also made homophobic chants during their League Two game against Leyton Orient.

The Ched Evans retrial and his subsequent acquittal the second time around is indicative of the toxic masculine culture in wider society – a society which tacitly if not openly encourages the “locker room talk” so favoured by Donald Trump. The victim has had to change her identity five times and was last reported to be fleeing to Australia to try and escape the barrage of death threats she was receiving – mostly from football fans – since the trial first began.

When EA Sports announced the inclusion of women’s teams for the first time in their latest version of the FIFA franchise, it was met with ridicule across a majority of football and video gaming forums. Discussions often gleefully (and disgustingly!) revolved around whether goal celebrations would also involve the virtual women footballers taking their shirts off.

Early last year when Sunderland’s Adam Johnson was found guilty of using his position to groom and perform sexual acts on a minor, the first reaction of many male soccer fans was not to support, show solidarity or even sympathise with the young girl but to make jokes or in some way blame her for the crime committed against her. The next was to ask what the girl looked like.

Clubs like Clapton F.C. and F.C. St. Pauli and their fans often organise campaigns and put up banners during matches which call for more inclusion in the sport. Footballing governing bodies like FIFA and UEFA, though, more often than not call these acts “political” and the clubs (or their fans) are subsequently penalised. It won’t be surprising if, in the near future, UEFA decides that the Justice for Hillsborough campaign needs to be shut down because it introduces politics in the sport. But can a stadium truly be beyond the realm of politics and be a sanitised space existing in a vacuum, somehow magically beyond the influences of the society it is part of?

hillsborough_anniversary
A “Justice for the 96” banner on the anniversary. Photo: “Linksfuss”; 11 May 2009. (This image is now in public domain)

Neo-nazi chants, fascist salutes, and racial slurs are common occurrences in many stadiums – especially in Italy, the Netherlands, and several countries of Eastern Europe. At the same time, consider the upcoming World Cup in Qatar. According to a 2015 report by the International Trade Union Confederation, the abysmal conditions in which the workers making the new stadiums are forced to live had already killed 1200 men. By the time 2022 finally comes around, 4000 more are expected to die – a staggering 62 workers for each football match played in the World Cup. Since more matches would naturally mean more stadiums, consider for a moment the number of lives the tournament would claim if Infantino brings forward his idea of a 48-team World Cup to 2022 instead of 2026.

The beautiful game, the people’s game, is complicit in human suffering today. Consider a poem by Jacinta Kerketta from India titled “Saazishon Ki Six Lane” or “The Six-Lane Freeway of Deceit”. Kerketta speaks of a throng of children gathering to watch a football match in their village:
“The young leaping over the hills,
And children counting the sakua trees as they walk.
They gather not for a protest march
But a football tournament to watch,
Where a goat is to be the winner’s trophy.”

India’s tribal hinterland daily faces an unprecedented attack by mining behemoths. As government security forces rape, murder, and pillage while evicting people from their land for the corporations, the corporations themselves set up youth football clubs and leagues under the mandate of the Corporate Social Responsibility Programmes. Kerketta goes on:
“No sooner is a child
From her mother’s milk weaned,
Than he is made a member
Of some youth club in Saranda,
While something else goes on behind the scenes.
A football, instead of books, is placed in every hand
That may someday join in protest
Against the illicit mining of their land.”

Football is at once a distraction from their daily suffering while also an instrument used by the corporations to put people in their place. In Kerketta’s words:
“Slowly but steadily the child inhales
The addicting opium of football.
Eyes, dazed and deadened by the game,
Fail to see beyond victory and loss
Their strife and struggle for survival.
Agents of mining corporations
Knock on every village door.
And no sooner is uttered a desperate sigh of hunger,
Than disease, unemployment and helplessness,
Are shoved down their throats
Grains, medicines, utensils, and clothes.
And the family carried away
As labourers, for a pittance pay.”
There is of course no place for the poor in the new emerging India that is vying to be a superpower, regionally if not globally.

The walls that the footballing community has built around itself must be torn down. Whether we use a neat short pass and a one-two, or whether we channel Beckham and hammer in a 30-yard free-kick over-and-under, or whether we evoke Roberto Carlos and take shot that can only be described as one that goes outside-and-inside, the walls must be smashed – the sooner the better. Once it changes itself, the tremendous reach of the sport will, of course, also inevitably help to change wider society too. And therefore, we must fight on.

This piece was first published in The Football Pink 

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