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World Cup 2022: Capitalism can’t kill football — try as it might

The passion of fans globally for the Qatar World Cup is evidence, as is the legacy of Maradona and Garrincha.

Argentinian fans dancing inside the FIFA Fan festival
Argentinian fans dancing at the FIFA Fan festival in Qatar [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

A week or so before the kickoff of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, I was walking in the coastal city of Zihuatanejo in Mexico’s southern Guerrero state when I passed a group of children playing football with a plastic Coca-Cola bottle. They were as gleefully animated as any group of children playing football anywhere, while the Coke bottle was, I thought, regrettably appropriate in a world governed by corporate toxicity.

It was particularly appropriate, perhaps, given that Coca-Cola and football go way back. The company, which has been an official World Cup sponsor since 1978, entered into a formal association with FIFA in 1974 – although its logo has saturated World Cup events since 1950. The partnership was initially ostensibly meant to promote youth development programmes, since there is clearly nothing better for youth development than ingesting sticky brown liquid that is bad for human health.

Of course, that alliance is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of global capitalism’s efforts to suck the soul out of football and eradicate any remnants of primordial joy by monetising and commodifying everything on and off the field. Given the deluge of corporate propaganda that we call “sponsorship”, the uninitiated football spectator would be forgiven for thinking Adidas was a football team – or that matches are waged between Emirates and Etihad airlines.

And there’s nothing like sponsoring football’s biggest competition to improve one’s international branding. Chinese firms have also caught on – they’re leading in spending for the Qatar World Cup.

In his book, El Fútbol a sol y sombra (Football in sun and shadow), first published in 1995, the renowned Uruguayan writer and die-hard football fan Eduardo Galeano remarked how every footballer had become an “advertisement in motion”- though not everyone was happy with that arrangement. In the mid-1950s, he recalled, when the prominent Montevideo club Peñarol had endeavoured to impose company advertising on its shirts, 10 members of the team had obediently taken to the field with the updated jerseys while Black player Obdulio Varela had declined: “They used to drag us Blacks around with rings in our noses. Those days are gone.”

To be sure, it’s never just fun and games when obscene quantities of money are involved. Take the case of Horst Dassler – the son of Adidas founder Adi Dassler, himself charmingly a former member of the Nazi Party – who in 1982 started a company called International Sports and Leisure, which promptly acquired exclusive marketing and TV rights to FIFA operations, including the World Cup. This was done by paying bribes to then-FIFA President João Havelange – the same Havelange who had graciously appeared alongside Argentine dictator Jorge Videla during the 1978 World Cup in Buenos Aires.

That dictatorship was ultimately responsible for murdering or disappearing some 30,000 suspected leftists in a seven-year dirty war that was green-lit by – who else? – the United States, which was always eager to have more maleficent right-wing regimes on board in its quest to make the world safe for capitalism.

In 1998, Havelange was replaced by Sepp Blatter, who has also been accused of rampant vote-buying and manipulation of financial data and who, according to Galeano, made Havelange look like “a Sister of Charity”. Galeano died in April 2015, a month before the US Department of Justice sensationally busted fourteen FIFA officials and corporate executives on corruption charges, with US Attorney General Loretta Lynch lamenting that the individuals had “corrupted the business of worldwide soccer to serve their interests and enrich themselves”.

But as the US well knows, corrupt self-enrichment and corporate impunity are business as usual in capitalism – which has also produced a “gentrification” of the sport itself, as researchers have shown. A study published by the Royal Society in December 2021 found that the “excessive monetisation of football” had led to increasing inequality between teams in major European leagues and a growing predictability of match outcomes. Even as those responsible for the sport’s governance claim to be globalising football, in reality, the process replicates the inequality endemic to corporate globalisation.

Indeed, the very spirit of professional football has been corrupted by the conversion of the sport into an industry – resulting in a regimented and technocratic game that aims to turn players into robots. As Galeano put it, this approach to football “forbids all fun”; in the interest of maximised productivity and increased profit, it “negates joy, kills fantasy, and outlaws daring”. Magic, after all, is not profitable.

Mercifully, however, there have always been folks who refuse to get with the programme. In Galeano’s view, Brazilian footballer Mané Garrincha, born into poverty in Rio de Janeiro in 1933, was hands-down the player who brought the most happiness to audiences in the entire history of football, turning the game into an “invitation to a party”. So much for the doctors who pooh-poohed the prospect of any athletic future for “this misshapen survivor of hunger and polio… with the brain of an infant, a spinal column like an S and both legs bowed to the same side”. (Capitalism won in the end, and Garrincha died, poor and alone, in 1983.)

Argentina’s football virtuoso Diego Maradona, also from the wrong side of the tracks, defied boundaries, too – including by denouncing the tyranny of television in sport, advocating for labour rights in football, demanding financial transparency from football clubs, supporting the Palestinian cause, and generally driving the powers that be up the wall. On the field, he continued injecting old-school magic into modern mediocrity until he was expelled from the 1994 World Cup.

Meanwhile, more recent resistance to football’s descent into soulless, money-driven depths was seen last year, when furious fans in the United Kingdom helped force the collapse of a Super League scheme designed to further line the pockets of elite club owners.

Sure, capitalism has certainly scored a major goal with professional football.

But the sport remains a source of popular passion and an affirmation of collective identity for countless people, on sports courts, grass pitches and dirt patches from Mexico to Mozambique – far from the billions of dollars swirling through the football industrial complex.

As the 22nd World Cup kicks off in Qatar today, Galeano would no doubt have criticised the whole televised spectacle. And yet he would have no doubt watched it on his TV, beer in hand, hoping for a glimpse of forbidden fun – a moment of unadulterated brilliance and beauty. Because as with the kids kicking the Coca-Cola bottle around Zihuatanejo, there’s something about football that capitalism just can’t kill.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.