woensdag 2 juli 2014

Football/soccer as tabula rasa?

There is something about sport that makes it be experienced - and welcomed - like a “tabula rasa” (or empty, blank slate). It must be the mere physicality of it. Here there is just body movement that really matters. No difficult, indirectly driven, and hidden ideas or mental exclusions. Just what you came in the world with and in time naturally grew: your body. You have it and it can make a difference, in a direct way: in the field with a team, or individually.

It may seem like a tabula rasa, but events as the World Cup Football/Soccer – like the one that is going on as I write this (in 2014) in Brazil – contradict this. In fact, most sports do. I will explain why I think this, a bit later on.


First I think it’s good to explain that of all sports, I am most interested in.. soccer/football. That does not make me terribly original; the same can be said of many people in the world. I have played in a local Dutch football club (in the town Nieuw-Vennep, Netherlands) for about 4 years. Roughly between my 8th and 12 years of age. In and around that same period I played a lot of football (I use that term for soccer from now on) on the streets as well. Often with team mates from the same football club, as well as others. I mostly played centre-right in the clubs. I often took the corner shots on the right side, which I enjoyed, but it was probably because the right-forward player preferred scoring chances and positioned himself in front of the goal.

I say this because this experience – actually having played “for real”, under real circumstances – still makes you look different at football games now. More technical, or professional perhaps. More analytical. Others, even while aware of how it works, know the rules and when is scored, have this probably less. They recognize less.

This harkens back to my “tabula rasa” idea on football: simple physical steps: as practical and basic as learning how to walk. Back to basics. That in my case (and for many others in this world) playing in an actual football team is at the same time a memory of childhood and youth, seems to strengthen this “back to basics” idea. A new start, unaffected, with open possibilities.


“Seems” only.. because it is hopeful, though rather naïve. Like with all basic human activities – e.g. sexuality, agriculture, eating, music, beliefs and rituals, and sport and “play” - certain powers (economic and otherwise) for a large part gained control over it, trying to shape it in relation to their interests.

Football is no different. Financial interests in professional football are well-known, but it also is influenced by international politics, race relations, rich and poor countries, social inequality within countries, cultural imperialism, and nationalism.. all this is found in football. Nationalism seems obvious. In the World Cup countries compete. National pride and biases get heightened, mixing with – or even replacing – actual interest in football as a sport/game. “We” have to win. This “we” refers to deeply sensed identities, what you are or want to be. It can be fanatic, but is not always “fixed”.

A too fixed identity cannot help but become dubious: such an unchangeable, exclusionary “blut und boden” idea may be only part of a play, a football game, and nothing too serious. I am afraid, however, that it remains not reserved for this play. I know man kind. In both directions: they feel better than “other” people from other countries – that is why they support their country’s team so much. At least they can identify with it better.. Understandable, some might say: but in a multicultural, varied society..would these same people befriend or “hire” someone they don’t identify with? Just because of his/her ethnicity/background? Maybe they are less inclined to… Football fanaticism – with all its apparent innocence – might stimulate that. Like political competition or populist politics, even “playful” sport competition can sharpen contradictions and social divisions. This just might make social relations more tense.

It is a sport, a game, but not all human beings have psychologically as much talent for “playful, theatrical competition”: many are one of the two: either more competitive or more playful/creative.

That is why I like creative, playful styles of football: both at an individual level, and team-wise. This off-sets the “cold” competitiveness with “creative play”. I therefore like South American football, how some African teams play (I like how Ghana plays in this World Cup 2014 for instance), and the playing styles of several Spanish teams. The rules of the football game are of course internationally the same, but local, “cultural” differences may influence playing styles.

I do not like as much the tactically linear, aggressive, “hit hard, run and score” teams. A style of football that neglects the ground (“groundation” is also a Rasta term), and the middle-field. Neglecting - metaphorically – the joy of the process, by over-emphasizing a peak or end-goal.

The ground-football with short passes (“tiki taka”) of Spain’s national football team, proven to be successful in the period 2008-2012, in line with this, certainly had my appreciation, and not just because I am half-Spanish (on my mother’s side): others without that connection liked it too.


I have travelled to Cuba and Jamaica in the Caribbean several times, in the period 2001-2008. One trip involved the two countries over a period of about 3 weeks (two weeks Cuba and from there a week to Jamaica). In retrospective, it would be interesting to look at these travels from a “sports” perspective. Not that that was any consideration in my choice to go there: I was more focussed on music, culture, sociology, and history. But of course: sport cannot be separated from these broader areas.

An interesting difference: in Cuba baseball (ironically: like in the “nemesis country “ the US) is the biggest, most-practiced sport. In Jamaica it is – like in much of the world – football/soccer, though followed closely among older people by cricket. In Cuba, also other sports than baseball have some practitioners and aficionados, especially basketball and athletics. Baseball is most massive though, like football in Jamaica. When children play sports, they mainly play this sport: it became that culturally ingrained.

It is known that Bob Marley loved playing football, and he was reputedly quite good at it. It was a football injury that made physicians discover the cancer he had. More recent artist Lutan Fyah was a professional footballer before he chose a career in reggae music. When I was at Buju Banton’s Gargamel studio in Kingston, Jamaica – in 2008 – the young people present (artists and friends) placed two small metal goals within the yard to play football from time to time.

(I took the above photo at the Gargamel studio in Kingston, Jamaica in 2008)


In the lyrics of reggae music, however, references to football are rare. Not even indirect references – as metaphors of life or sayings – are found that much. Some artists (deejays and others) sing or chat about how they used to play football when they were younger. In fact, references to other sports (boxing or cricket) are a bit more common in Jamaican music. A ska song by Alton Ellis gave the example of a then well-known boxer – Bunny Grant - as model to strive for instead, for youths prone to violence at parties (on the song ‘Dance Crasher’, from 1965).

A song, ‘Big Fight’ (1976), by dee jay/chanter Prince Fari further opposes in a metaphorical boxing game the dreadlock Rasta against Babylon.

Special occasions, such as World Cups – also the one in Brazil in 2014 – inspired some Jamaican reggae songs, also when Jamaica went to the World Cup, held in France in 1998.

Therefore, a cultural link between reggae music and football/soccer seems far-fetched. Overall it is reserved for the play area, outside of music and dance. Brazilian football seems to be the most popular, as among many people in the Caribbean. British football is also followed relatively much..

The latter brings me to another point: football is known as an English invention. Like cricket, British imperialism helped spread it, albeit football was deemed more working class than cricket.

While other expressions of British cultural dominance among African Jamaicans were reworked or cast aside, football was maintained. It must be – again – the mere physicality of it, the “tabula rasa” idea. Defeating the British in their own sport, as before with cricket, became a not-so-hidden desire. An idea of rebellion, in a playful way.

Furthermore, again, a cultural difference may also create - to a degree - an own football playing style, expressing a type of cultural identity. The same way some called – albeit somewhat stereotypical - Brazilian football “samba football”.


An interesting topic is the relation of race to football. A likewise interesting study was based on football commentary on Dutch television in the season 2007-2008, specifically regarding the ethnic and racial stereotypes that were expressed by the commentators. This was a study by Jacco van Sterkenburg, finished in 2011. See this link (with summary in English of the study) at the Utrecht University: http://dspace.library.uu.nl/handle/1874/205609.
A main conclusion was that Surinamese, black, or African football players tended to be more often described in ”animal-like” terms – strong, athletic, fast – whereas white, European players were described more as tactical, intelligent, and resourceful. Also the stereotype of the “slick” and selfish Latin American recurred.

I was not that surprised by this study’s results. In that sense football, and everything around it, reflects life: with all the good and bad. Stereotypes, racial, and national preference. The façade of respect for your opponent is held up often, and some commentators or fans genuinely respect some players of other teams, or try to remain open-minded. However, personal biases often do come through in the end, even if hidden behind semi-neutral analyses.

For instance: my whole life I heard that the Netherlands – with the generation of Cruyff - were so original in football. Innovative – with the concept of “total football” – introduced by Cruyff in Barcelona, Spain, and then with worldwide influences. The reality is that “total football” was played in Latin America historically - by some clubs - before it was in the Netherlands. Even the Spanish way of playing (“tiki-taka”) that many deemed attractive – and with which Spain won the World Cup of 2010 in South Africa – was described by some as a belated result of Cruyff’s/Dutch innovations in Barcelona. There is in reality no evidence for this relation.

Also the political influence that some even claimed is nonsense. Cruyff went to play for FC Barcelona in 1973, when Spain was still a dictatorship under Franco (until 1975). Some claimed that making Barça (Barcelona) as a football team strong helped the rebellion it symbolized as a free place of Catalan nationalism, and therewith – a strange causal connection, by the way – changes in the whole of Spain politically, the dictatorship by then being in its latter days. Of course this is nonsense as well.

The essential injustice of the dictatorship of Franco was its suppressing of basic human rights of all Spanish citizens. Catalan (or Basque) nationalism was far from the only thing it repressed: that was more a marginal consequence of a “one state” policy.

Besides, free-thinking Scandinavian, French and other tourists that came to visit Spain in the later days of the dictatorship, had at least as much influence on many Spaniards’ mind-set as Dutch footballers of one Spanish club. Even more influence, though, had the Spanish people’s own discontent with the dictatorship, as well as liberal, democratic ideas from abroad. More than a football player like Johan Cruyff, who stated not to be too interested in politics, and was even slightly conservative.

Claiming ownership of things one has not really contributed to is a wicked, false, and covert way to show a sense of superiority. More refined and seemingly “sophisticated” than the fools who throw bananas at black football players, or shout racist remarks, but in a deeper sense part of the same basic emotion: “we are better”.

Football commentaries, for instance during the last (2010) and this World Cup (2014), differed in quality in my opinion. Some commentators showed in some remarks a bias, some with racist or stereotypical overtones. Mostly it was hidden and subtle. Dutch commentators focus all their analyses on the Dutch team when still in the race – even when other teams play -, showing their bias thus. In other countries the same might happen. National bias is of course there, not just in the Netherlands. He is a good player: a pity because “we” have to play against him in the next match.

I am sad to say that commentaries made during matches of African teams were still a bit more about the “physical”, than about their intelligence. Teams like Ghana and Nigeria had interesting, thought out tactics. The mid-field, passing focus of Ghana was at its best moments, as good as Spain’s in its heyday of 2010. Players positioned themselves well in the field and behind players. This was not or rarely mentioned.

Often commentaries were more neutral and seemed better to me: good things were mentioned by any player (of any race), but some stereotypes recurred here and there.


The final thing about football and race relations is the distinctly multicultural make-up of many national teams. Many see this as a positive sign of integration and possibilities for ethnic minorities and migrants in these countries. France for some time now, as well as of the Netherlands, England, and Belgium (this 2014 world cup), and more than before Germany, set themselves apart with their multiracial and multicultural national teams. In these countries there are relatively many ethnic minorities, and there is also a longer history of migration, also related to former colonies. In that sense it is a bit reflective of the societies.

Yet only in that sense. That ethnic minorities are represented in football teams with a higher percentage than their actual demographic representation in the countries, is a sign that sport allows possibilities that are absent elsewhere in society. Sport (and likewise music and entertainment, for example) are of course also known as alternative, playful areas where more is possible without affecting the structural status-quo of racial power and privilege.

Chris Rock, the US comedian, pointed at the fact that Blacks/African-Americans dominate main sports in the US (basketball, baseball a.o.) as a result of slavery: the historical selection of Africans with certain physical characteristics for slave, plantation work, during the slave trade. This most probably plays a role, but so does social and economic exclusion in other parts of society.

Thus, the tabula rasa, clean slate idea I associate with the interest in sport/football of so many people seems to apply here, but only limitedly, and relegated to the margins of society and power, to an area of mere “play”. That is: a freer area of possibilities: but without any influence or change toward meaningful equality or dignity in the rest of society.

Perhaps that is why sport/football references are relatively rare in the lyrics of socially conscious reggae music artists, even though football is a popular sport in Jamaica. Social critique and “consciousness” require attention to injustices that matter, that are real and powerful as part of an oppressive system. Football is from that perspective a distraction at the margins of that same system.