Capitalism and football

I’ll begin with two preliminary remarks. First, football here refers to the sport played with your feet, not those codes where the primary limbs used are the hands. Some of these hand-codes are known in a handful of the 195 nations of the world as football. Australia is one of these, where the term soccer is used instead for football. I once thought it might have something to do with socks, but apparently the word has a long history dating back to its use as a colloquialism formed by extending the second syllable of “association” (socca), in reference to the original football association of Britain.

Second, I think it is necessary to admit my own love for the sport of football. I have spent countless hours playing, watching, coaching and studying the sport and hope to do so for many years to come. I am not one of those revolutionaries who has an aversion to sport. Some of these revolutionaries even try to rationalise their aversion on the basis of the competitive and capitalistic characteristics of most organised sports. These are true of course, in the same way as almost all social activity under capitalism is commercialised and promoted for the purposes of distracting and numbing the working class. To such revolutionaries, I say: stop watching so much TV and play some football; at least it’s a distraction that may improve your health and extend your life as an activist.

Right now you couldn’t avoid football if you wanted to. The world’s sports press reported that as many as 26 billion people will watch the World Cup! CNN and Sports Illustrated neglected to include the word “cumulative” from FIFA’s press release and apparently had no access to an atlas or google. While only about 7 billion people live on the planet, the point FIFA was making was that a lot of the world’s population was going to be watching a lot of the World Cup — on TV, on the internet and on their mobile phones.

Massive market

This is a massive market for capitalism. Football is a way of making money, lots and lots of money. Companies pay US$125 million to become a sponsor of the FIFA World Cup because it’s a great investment. All those billions of people watching this massive spectacle are a lot of potential buyers of all things saleable. The World Cup sells everything from cars to beer. In England, during the June 12 match against the USA, nine million pints of beer were served, turning around about €42 million. The World Cup is also a huge bonus for the gambling industry; in the UK alone, punters are expected to wager over ₤2 billion.

Watching the World Cup on TV, you may have noticed the number of empty seats at many of the stadiums. Perhaps the global economic crisis has had an impact. Hospitality and corporate packages sold slowly, but with the cheapest tickets available to South Africans selling at about US$20, most can’t afford seats.

South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world, with over a quarter of the working population unemployed and over 40% living in poverty — with the poorest 15% in a desperate struggle to survive. In addition, according to a 2008 report by FinMark, a non-profit trust funded primarily by the UK’s Department for International Development, the average monthly household income for blacks in South Africa is still about one quarter of that of whites.

This didn’t stop the South African government from pouring US$4.4 billion into transportation, stadium construction and security for the World Cup. Cities and provinces spent another US$1.2 billion.

Ideological tool

Like most things under capitalism, football has become a commodity, measured by its exchange value, its use or pleasure value becoming a rather secondary consideration. But it’s not just about making money. Football has also been used as an opiate, to numb the senses and distract people from the suffering and dullness of everyday life and promote competition, individualism and the general values and morality of capitalist society.

This goes back to the origins of football, where the regulation of football play was used as a means to stamp out the moral turpitude that British rulers blamed for their empire’s decline. As Jonathan Wilson puts it in Inverting the pyramid, A history of football tactics, “Team sports, it was thought, were to be promoted, because they discouraged solipsism, and solipsism allowed masturbation to flourish, and there could be nothing more debilitating than that”.

Fascism, in particular in Italy, made much use of football as a propaganda and ideological tool. Mussolini invested in stadiums and infrastructure and used football to promote nationalism and the ideas of purity, superiority and discipline, all important elements in the mass psychology of fascism. “Whether beyond or within the borders, sporting or not, we Italians shook and still shake with joy when seeing in these thoroughbred athletes ... such a symbol of the overwhelming march of Mussolini’s Italians”, said Londo Ferretti, Mussolini’s press officer, in Lo Sport Fascista after Italy’s 1938 World Cup triumph.

It is important to note, however, that football is not always ideologically in step with capitalism. The story of football in Australia provides a useful example. When the modern patron of Australian soccer, Johnny Warren, wrote Sheilas, wogs and poofters, he battled to get it published without changing the title. In his book Warren struggled to understand why and how Football in Australia — a nation spawned from the birthplace of football, British capitalism — could have been relegated to second-class status among sports.

Warren made the case that football was too internationalist for Australian nationalism and inadequate for the male chauvinism that characterised the settler outpost of British capitalism. For Warren, football’s lack of popularity in Australia was a direct result of its misfit with Australian capitalist ideology: boys wanting to play football were not to be trusted; their manliness and nationalism were brought into question. Describing football in the 1950s and ’60s, Warren recalls “tank topped, steel cap-booted, tattooed workers” yelling, “Fuckin’ poofters ... Dago bastards” as they hurled bottles. This is why football grew up in Australia among the migrant-based clubs, for whom the sport provided a home away from home, a haven from “Aussie” racism and xenophobia and a place to reaffirm their cultures.


Football needs to be rescued from the clutches of corporate greed and national and sexist chauvinism. It needs to be born again, as a pleasure of pure simplicity and unabashed play, making us children again for 90 minutes or more. The Uruguayan socialist writer Eduardo Galeano put it best:

“Play has become spectacle, with few protagonists and many spectators, football for watching. And the spectacle has become one of the most profitable businesses in the world, organised not for play but rather to impede it. The technocracy of professional sport has managed to impose a football of lightning speed and brute strength, a football that negates joy, kills fantasy and outlaws daring. Luckily on the field you can still see, even if only once in a long while, some insolent rascal who sets aside the script and commits the blunder of dribbling past the entire opposing side, the referee and the crowd in the stands, all for the carnal delight of embracing the forbidden adventure of freedom.”