Hooligans, Aggression, and the FIFA World Cup: How Football Reflects upon Race/Class/Gender/Power

Hooligans, Aggression, and the FIFA World Cup: How Football Reflects upon Race/Class/Gender/Power

The 2018 FIFA World Cup starts on June 14, 2018. This year it is being hosted by Russia. And in case you haven’t heard: we have a Russian ‘hooligan’ problem on our hands. The organized form of this practice falls along the lines of a Fight Club (1999) situation in which young (and not so young men) get together and fight. For those of us unused to the visuality of such consensual violence, it remains jarring, disconcerting and sometimes upsetting. But for those who practice it, it seems to be fulfilling something. The FIFA related concern is that the fights (that are usually held in the woods) might erupt or merge or transform into what happens in the stands and/or after particular games. It is important to note that this particular form of fighting is bare-knuckle fighting – no use of “foreign instruments” such as knives or guns.

In a textured ethnography in guise as an ESPN feature by Sam Borden, The New Hooligans of Russia, one of the men interviewed, “believes fighting is a necessary part of dealing with the anger that grows out of life’s inevitable frustrations and disappointments.” The authorities in Russia are cracking down on these individuals, with some arrests and a general state of alertness. Borden’s article makes space for such fights to sound like a resurgence of an older tradition, a cultural artifact linked to heritage, not a practice that has emerged recently due to an erosion of civil society, class struggles, or some anarchic impulse, which many of the other reports suggest.

FIFA Secretary General Fatma Samba Diouf Samoura

Within Anthropology, of course, we can look back to the literature related to war, aggression, and sports. As I have been reading the various reports on the Russian Hooligans, much of the analysis continues to feel settled (perhaps stuck) in early popular ideas related to combative sports. Even though as early as 1973 anthropologists like Richard Sipes argued that aggression is a learned cultural behavior pattern, we continue to see popular ideas of war, aggression and masculinity being linked, particularly in relation to sports.  We also know that the ways in which sports have been studied has changed and become more nuanced, but it continues to be talked about in public discourse in a way to suggest that it has not really moved beyond those early frameworks of aggression. In contrast, Sports (as an enterprise) is and has been trying to change the view that it is linked to masculinity and aggression. Just recently, FIFA Secretary General Fatma Samba Diouf Samoura claimed at the 2018 FIFA conference on Equality and Inclusion, that football can change the world; that it can be used as a tool for social change.

Utilizing her own appointment as the first female Secretary General at FIFA as an indicator, she seems to be leading change within the sport, increasing numbers of women administrators in FIFA from 32% in 2016 to its current 48%. But her claim is not just about hiring more women – it is about inclusion, it is about understanding and underscoring that football has the ability to transcend religion, race, and gender (for some critical reading on issues of race/gender, see The Place of Afro-Brazilian Women in the World Cup, by Melissa Creary and Erica L. Williams).

Messi love in Siddiq Goth, Malir, Karachi. Image from https://scroll.in/article/667739/in-karachi-a-unique-celebration-of-the-world-cup

The Secretary General brings with her the postwar optimism that surrounded the UN – not surprisingly so, given that is her experience prior to FIFA. And in some measure, she is not wrong; there is certainly something about football that brings much of the world together, for example I’m thinking of all the neighborhoods, particularly in the postcolonies, that go all out and decorate their neighborhoods in team colors, like at Siddiq Goth in Malir, Karachi. In these neighborhoods, however, violence and aggression do not break out during the World Cup – at least they have not been reported as resulting from sporting aggression. Being a Baloch neighborhood, there are other issues of violence that continue to plague many of the residents, and it seems as if football provides some respite.

There is something familiar that Secretary General Samoura is trying to do that, at least from the outside, looks somewhat impossible, and yet necessary. She is attempting to un-do a system that was created to reflect (and maintain) a certain world order, a particular power structure that we all love and loathe simultaneously.

The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) was founded in the rear of the headquarters of the Union Française de Sports Athlétiques at the Rue Saint Honoré 229 in Paris on 21 May 1904. Image from http://www.fifa.com/about-fifa/who-we-are/history/index.html

FIFA was founded in Paris in 1904, conceived of as an umbrella sports organization within Europe. With France leading the meeting, Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland in attendance, and a remarkably absent Great Britain, FIFA was created. As FIFA’s history web-page (very pointedly) relates, “When the idea of founding an international football federation began taking shape in Europe, the intention of those involved was to recognise the role of the English who had founded their Football Association back in 1863.” Apparently the Football Association had been contacted, but there were delays in getting feedback from everyone involved to move it forward. But really, how could they have moved it forward? Great Britain and France were not really on good terms. In fact, the founding of FIFA happened a little over a month after the Entente Cordiale (April 8, 1904) — an Anglo-French agreement that ended (or started the end of) the antagonism between both powers primarily to grant freedom of action to Great Britain in Egypt and to France in Morocco. This agreement did not create an alliance, but it did set the stage for diplomatic cooperation that would help in their stance against the German’s leading up to WWI. Also part of this agreement, and arguably more significant, was France renouncing its exclusive right to certain fisheries off Newfoundland, and Great Britain ceding the Los Islands (off of French Guinea) to France. Moreover, Great Britain agreed to French control of the upper Gambia valley, defined the frontier of Nigeria in France’s favor, and zones of influence for the French and British in Thailand were outlined. Indeed, as Matisse was imagining how to represent a world in a particular manner and form in Paris, in just as vivid and non natural strokes, the colonial powers were distributing the world and its resources, and conjuring up new worlds within which football would bring people on the European landmass together.

I do applaud FIFA Secretary General Samoura’s efforts to transform a remarkably colonial, racist and misogynist organization, but I also want to draw attention to what happens when there are aggressive transgressions that contest the histories of power, its abuse, and how the bodies that perform them on the field are held to different standards. In this case, it is about the history of wars, aggression and sports that continues to play itself out on the field and in the stands. There are particular ways in which we see brown bodies claim their space on the field — where it becomes less about the patriotic jerseys and claims to nationhood that football teams obviously represent – and it becomes something slightly more nuanced, an historic global resistance that pulls people together because the tension of being pulled apart becomes obvious through some action done to that body as a power play. This can be done through the media and narratives spun around the players, or can be done by the powerful sports institutions themselves. It is the responses that those athletes have to such explicit racism that I am always watching for because it, in that moment, becomes emblematic of all of our struggles.

FIFA World Cup Final 2006. Italy v. France. Berlin. Zinedine Zidane (France) headbutts Marco Materazzi (Italy). #epic

Gearing up for the World Cup, there is always a lot of activity in the football world. In particular, last week I read a headline about how Zinedine Zidane resigned as Real Madrid’s Head Coach. As ESPN’s Dermot Corrigan reported: “Zidane shocked the football world with Thursday’s snap decision to resign just days after securing a third Champions League trophy in just two and a half years as Madrid coach.” The mode by which many sports reporters articulate this decision is telling: they focus on the quickness of it, the knowing that he might be getting fired anyway, and the overall snappiness of it is reminiscent of the tone used after the 2006 FIFA World Cup Final. It was in that World Cup Final that Zidane, famously, ended his last game as Captain of the French Team by getting a red card in overtime after headbutting Marco Materazzi. At the time, his actions were called into question as unsportsmanlike and acts of a hooligan. What else could one expect, they asked us from their news rooms, from an Algerian Kabyle descent child who grew up in poverty in northern Marseille? Reporters continued to bring up Zidane’s childhood in order to explain his actions. He was cast as violent, unpredictable, and uncivilized.

Halfway around the world, however, in Brooklyn NY, the entire crew of football enthusiasts cheered for him. Caught off guard, we knew the headbutt was not just for whatever verbal altercation that had ensued. We raised our fists and yelled at the projection in the side room of a dingy restaurant in Williamsburg.

I cannot help but think of the many ways by which we love and loathe colonial structures (cough archaeology cough) and how these choices to decolonize or address issues of equity and inclusion are not limited to academic discourses but are emerging in multiple disciplines, and practices. Right now, because of how toxic the world has become, the academy is starting to feel like bare-knuckle fighting among ourselves – allies, accomplices, friends, and others. I wonder if our disciplines are ready for that change or if we will have to continue to slowly headbutt our way through, red card after red card.

One Reply to “Hooligans, Aggression, and the FIFA World Cup: How Football Reflects upon Race/Class/Gender/Power”

  1. I am reminded of a scene from Robert Parker’s Double Deuce. Parker’s hardboiled detective Spenser and his black friend/amoral alter ego Hawk are, in effect, superheroes. They are big, they are tough, they are ruthless, and they have just won a fight with a teenage drug gang that rules the ghetto from which the novel takes its title.. In a reflective mood, Spenser turns to Hawk, who grew up in a ghetto, and asks why the gang’s members had fought while knowing that they they had no chance of winning. Hawk’s reply has haunted me ever since I first read it. I am writing from memory and the wording may not be exact, but this is what Hawk says: “Everybody needs respect. Some people get it for what they own. Some people get it for what they know. But what if you don’t own anything or know anything that others value. If you don’t fight, you’re zero.”