Against sanitised football – part 1

It is awful, jarring, a scraping fish bone stuck in a football fan’s gullet. It is a cringe-worthy television advert produced by Qatar Airways, starring the players of F.C. Barcelona.

If the advert did not exist, it would have to be invented. There is no other existing piece of media that better encapsulates the worldview of football in the market age. It is forty seconds of distilled ideology, crystallised at its purest.

The advert begins by zooming in on a mystical never-never land ‘F.C. Barcelona Island’- an island taking the form and colours of the Blaugrana crest.

On this island, Lionel Messi and co. arrive at the airport. It is one of those ultra-modern airports, a sparkling structure of flowing glass so universal in its blandness that it could belong to any country. An IKEA airport. The sort of airport that countries build to try to prove to the world that they’ve made it.

Messi and the gang roll up to the check in desk in their rock star gear. Behind the players lies a void of squeaky clean airport marble, like a hospital but for rich people. It is notable how the 105,000 fans that attend each home game are absent from this fantasy.

“Don’t worry”, the advert implicitly suggests, “there are no fans in this shiny airport wonderland. You are alone, at last.”

And all of this with Samsung suitcases.

Let us just say that Craig Calhoun, the London School of Economics’ sociologist who has called globalisation the ideology of “wealthy frequent fliers,” would have a field day…

Now on board a Qatar Airways plane, the players jet across the world, making stops in Paris, Tokyo and Miami. At each location they enter party mode, rejoicing in a World Cup-like carnavalesque atmosphere in which everyone dances along smiling in the most artificial of ways.

I wonder what Barcelona’s socios, the locally based members of the club, made of the advert.


Of all clubs in European football, Barcelona has always been associated as a bastion of identity politics. Its footballing kernel is inseparable from its left-wing collectivist politics. During the Spanish Civil War, the club became the canvas upon which political activists projected their dreams of a progressive Spain.

The FCB Board may not like this. Indeed, Sid Lowe has shown that the club’s administration has often chosen to stay passive in its support of politics. But the club cannot have its cake and eat it too. It cannot invoke Catalonian nationalism, producing a rather pricey away shirt in the colours of the Catalonian flag, but then separate itself from leftist politics. To do so would be self-contradicting: Catalonian nationalism was a social movement as much a political one.

The board does not have a monopoly over the meaning of the club; it is the fans that project identity onto the team.

So intense are the emotions provoked by the club that the Board is having to expand the cemetery adjacent to their stadium, so that more fans can rest in perpetuity next to their ‘home.’

How depressing it is to see the Club allow its image to be manipulated so vulgarly in the pursuit of profit. Barcelona is supposed to mean something, to be a shared emotional space in which a chronology rooting back to the 1930s is evoked and celebrated. It is not supposed to be a commercialist utopia we can all fly to.

In an age in which the largest football clubs, such as Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich, resemble transnational corporations flogging their brand in international markets, a sea change has taken place in clubs’ identities.

Football clubs are sanitising their identities, removing emphasis from the political narratives that previously gave their teams meaning.

Football has never been just about football.

When eleven players take the field for your side, they become the carnal embodiment of the ‘imagined community.’ As Benedict Anderson argued, in large societies in which we will never meet the vast majority of those who claim the same identity as us – a Frenchman from Paris cannot meet all his fellow Frenchmen – a sense of community is produced not by face to face interaction, but in a collective imaginary in which all members imagine themselves as a single community.

This imagined community is reaffirmed in a shared chronology of the nation, with mythic events such as the French Revolution, the First World War or Neil Armstrong walking on the moon providing a common narrative of identity.

Today, there are no longer one size fits all identity frames like ‘class’, ‘religion’ or the ‘civilisation’ vs. ‘barbarism’ that determine our identities. We no longer live with shared experiences: not all kids now go to Butlins on holiday, or undergo military training together.

Football matches on television, or in person at the stadium, thus offer one of the sole devoted time slots in which society is experiencing the same event at the same time.

In the latest World Cup, 88.4% of Dutch people watched their national team’s victory against Chile. 82.1% of Belgians watched their national team beat South Korea. 81.3% of Greeks saw their team defeat the Ivory Coast.

It is a lot easier to imagine and emotionally invest in eleven men as the embodiment of our nation than it is to abstractly rationalise that that bloke from three hundred miles away, who we will never meet, is also a member of the ‘we’.

The psychological dynamics of football stadiums also result in clubs becoming lightning rods for charged political identities. With the alienation of industrialist society, in which we are encouraged to adopt a ‘professional/corporate’ persona and treats friends as ‘colleagues’, football stadiums offer a unique social function.

They become an enchanted, emotive space, where society becomes one again.

When Lechia Gdansk played Juventus in the 1983 European Cup Winners’ Cup in Gdansk, football became the site of ideological transformation.

With General Jaruzelski having banned Solidarnosc, the Polish anti-Communist shipworkers’ movement, sixteen months prior to the game, the match took on significance when it was announced that Lech Walesa would attend the game.

The leader of Solidarnosc and the subject of a smear campaign by Jaruzelsi, Walesa maintained a real fear that he would be booed by a crowd won over by regime propaganda, an act that would have represented the symbolic death of Solidarnosc.

Instead, as the game reached half time, a cry of “Solidarnosc! Solidarnosc! Solidarnosc!” reverberated around the stadium. As the home team manager Jerzy Jastrzebowski recalls, “we were in the dressing room at half time when we heard it and it sent shivers down our spines, the whole ground singing ‘Solidarnosc.’”

The state television was so concerned about the ramifications of the chanting on public opinion that it delayed the broadcasting of the second half for six minutes. When the game finally came back on, it was broadcast without sound.

The symbolic authority of the regime had been compromised; all of Poland could see that workers had turned against the workers’ party.

Trying to separate football clubs from these histories is wrong. We cannot sanitise football clubs, removing them from the meanings that their communities have invested in them, before branding them as ‘global products’ to be sold via merchandise.

We cannot, for example, market Roma abroad as the team to support without mentioning their fans’ neo-Fascism. If we do so, it is not Roma we are ‘selling’, but a lie, a fiction.

I am reminded here of Ernesto Laclau’s theory of the role of the ‘empty signifier’ in neo-liberal capitalism. Laclau argued that in order to amplify their market appeal, brands would ‘empty’ themselves of their controversial significations, their political roots, and market themselves using bland, catch-all terms with which anyone could associate.

When Barcelona markets itself abroad as mes que un club, because it shows ‘solidarity’ and the value of ‘passion,’ one has to resist the temptation to yawn.

Any fan in the world could project their own commitments onto such phrases and be a Barcelona fan. The brilliance of the marketing strategy is that the words solidarity and passion essentially mean nothing; who can object to such principles? It is the same logic as when Obama ran on the mantra of ‘change’ in 2008. Change? Okay. But which change?

The risks football clubs face is that they risk becoming noting more than the empty slogans they promote. A group of deracinated super-clubs whose meaning can only be expressed through your keyboard’s dollar sign.

Keep an eye out for Part 2, on the site tomorrow.

The Author

Alexander Shea

I study the links between football and international politics at Oxford University. I specifically study football ultras in Europe. As I am a Spurs fan, football to me is both wonderful and barbarically painful. I want to become a football journalist so any help along the way would be appreciated!

3 thoughts on “Against sanitised football – part 1

  1. I tell you what many Barcelona fans think of what you discuss in your spot on article :I’m disgusted, I feel let down and whenever in a forum some barca hater throws at our face all of what you said I feel sick because is nothing I can say that would stand. We have gone from hero to zero in a presidents term.

  2. “I want to become a football journalist so any help along the way would be appreciated!”

    You might start by standing out from the crowd. ‘Exposing’ the contradictions between a football club with historical connections to a progressive political agenda and the objective of maintaining a challenge to be an internationally successful team is hardly groundbreaking. Why? Because there is only FC Barcelona. Barça bashing has become so common on internet football blogs, by journalists, wannabe journalists and trolls alike.

    Més que un club? You know as well as I do where the phrase comes from and it has nothing to do with claiming that we are somehow ethically superior to other clubs. So why do our detractors seek to portray it that way. Because it forms a convenient tool in the portfolio of weapons used to denigrate Barcelona. Because Barcelona has become the most successful team of the 21st Century while utilising players who were nurtured by the club to be not just great players, but instrumental in changing the way the game is played. Players who cost nothing in today’s global transfer frenzy yet re-invented modern football whilst winning everything there is to win at club level and contributing three-quarters of Spain’s World and European winning team. These are some of the more obvious reasons for hating Barcelona? Strange but true!

    Catalunya is, along with the Basque country, the only progressive region of a ‘Spain’ dominated by reactionary Catholicism and the wealthy landowning and business heirs of Franco’s legacy. Every opportunity is taken to penalise and threaten the region by the Madrid elite. From levying prohibitive levels of taxation and reductions in the allocation of expenditure to the threats by the President of the Spanish LFP, Javier Tebas (an unrepentant Felangist) that any attempt by Catalunya to persue independence would result in expulsion from La Liga. More recently the rightist mayoral candidate for Madrid argued that ‘seperatist scum’ like Barça and Bilbao should be excluded from using the Bernabéu as a venue for the Copa Del Rey and if it did go ahead then the Police should have water cannon and riot measures in place in case they dare to disrespect the King or the Spanish national anthem.

    Real Madrid is the club patronised by the wealthy business and land owning elite and receives endless support from the political right in Spain. FC Barcelona are the only club with the finacial and footballing muscle to counter that dominance. Barça cannot afford to be a Livorno or a St. Pauli they have to compete with the devil and if that means taking ‘money for old rope’ from Middle Eastern despots to maintain the club’s place at the top then I may not be happy about it but I’m prepared to turn the other cheek, at least for the moment. Besides, you’re a Spurs supporter, why do you care?

  3. The globalisation of European football brands is establishing a footballing elite and an oligopoly for the rich clubs. In my opinion the days when a team like Nottingham Forrest could win the European Cup are gone. We now have a situation where EUFA have increased the prize money for the Champions League which means the clubs who are rich enough to win their domestic league and progress through European competitions will have more financial rewards heaped on them widening the gap not only between themselves and other domestic competitors but also creating an ‘us and them’ in European football.

    There is no doubt that the big European clubs are heartless globalised businesses. One of Liverpool FC’s supporters groups proudly have the Bill Shankley quote “the socialism I believe in is everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards. It’s the way I see football, the way I see life”, this is the same club that created a near ghetto around their ground to force out residents so their could redevelop their stadium. I’m sure Bill Shankley is spinning in his grave! But Liverpool FC and Barca etc are not alone in marketing themselves in this way and as long as their customers keep paying, they won’t stop.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *