Workers and Players

by HARRY BROWNE

"France’s dishonor is complete,” said one newspaper headline. A thousand other headlines across France and the world said something similar. So why do I, as an Irish fan carrying seven months of ill-will toward the French for the way they qualified, feel so hollow inside?

For one there’s the creepily medieval evocation of ‘dishonor’. There’s the hysterical nationalism implicit and explicit in the outcry, with politicians from Sarkozy on (further) down getting involved. And finally there is the nature of the sin that brought the French debacle to its ignominious conclusion: not so much poor performances, as the fact that players stood up to management and showed solidarity and collective purpose when a comrade was victimized by that management.

In my world, that’s no sin. You can argue that refusing to take part in a training session is a fairly tame form of strike. But any more radical action — i.e. refusing to play their final game — would have brought disproportionate punishment on the players and their successors in the blue jersey: a multi-year ban from international competition would have been likely. Instead, they face a flight home to France in economy class, a small price to pay for making a point about their rights as workers as well as players.

It is always interesting to see how people who might be expected to have some sympathy for worker power are derisive when it comes to player power. The cult of discipline and ‘no-nonsense management style’ is powerful in sports, and in talk about sports, where it doubles as a useful propaganda vehicle for hierarchical forms of authority in other walks of life. Most of us have been in workplaces where the phrase “be a team player” is dragged out to signify “do as you’re told”.

But even when we recognise that as corporate rubbish in our own lives, too many of us believe in the myth of the all-powerful manager as the only route to sporting success. It’s funny that two of the ex-players who have been most critical of the current French team themselves gave the lie to that myth in their own World Cup careers. Zinedine Zidane, the team captain, clearly took over the running of the French squad on behalf of the players in 2006 and brought them to the final. Franz Beckenbauer, now a conservative voice of the soccer establishment, led the West German team that revolted against its management in 1974, winning a tripling of their win-bonuses and winning the trophy too: the night they won the final, the West German players boycotted their federation’s official celebration party and went drinking with their friends and families. 

So the French revolt violated one of the game’s conventional public norms rather than its inviolable principles. The real problems with the mini-Bastille-storming were that it failed to produce a noticeable improvement in the team’s performance, and that its terms of reference were put into the public domain. Nicholas Anelka’s halftime verbal assault on coach Raymond Domenech was, once it was leaked by someone in the dressing room, front-page news in France: “Va t’enculer, sale fils de pute!” ["Go bugger yourself, you dirty son of a whore!"–Eds.] Now, this anatomically awkward instruction is not one any of us would care to receive in our workplace, but Domenech was under no obligation to obey it, and clearly it was an angry outburst rather than a considered attempt to undermine the manager’s tactical authority. Compared to the tantrums consistently employed by many coaches, it’s a minor lapse in manners.

In any case, Domenech’s own level of respect for the traditional dignities of the game was exposed when, on Tuesday, in his last-ever act in the French dugout, he refused to shake hands after the match with South African manager Carlos Alberto Parreira, who had previously spoken critically of France’s qualification fiasco. There’s no doubt: to rebel against the execrable Domenech and the federation that supported him was necessary for this set of players to begin to regain some respect for themselves.

But surely we can’t be expected to sympathise with ‘workers’ who earn millions of dollars every year? It is true that footballers’ salary levels are irrational, as the sound of soccer bubbles popping across Europe in the next few years will demonstate. But while it was the collective action of players, in clubs and in courtrooms, that brought their salaries to the levels of the skilled working class and beyond between the 1960s and 1980s, the wage inflation of the last decade or two, fueled by enormous TV money, is much more the result of crazed investors getting into a competitive death-spiral, knowing that the success of their ‘product’ “turned more than anything else on the quality of the labor force”, to quote football historian David Goldblatt.

In other words, players can’t entirely be blamed for the madness of what they earn. And in the World Cup they are playing for entities (national teams) different from the ones (clubs) that pay them the big money. The match fees for appearing in the nation’s colours are typically relatively modest — so much so that the England players donate theirs to charity. And the Spanish team’s historically enormous tournament-win-bonus of almost $800,000 per man, which sparked so much outrage before the start of the World Cup, is just a few weeks’ club salary for some of the top players. Playing well in the World Cup may of course improve your marketability and thus, eventually, your wages, but playing poorly in the World Cup could have the opposite effect, so players in this tournament risk embarrassment, injury, fatigue and even loss of earnings in order to turn out for their countries. That’s why it has become common for leading players to ‘retire’ from international football years before they finish at club level; but few players have the nerve to spurn the exploitative international scene entirely. (I say ‘exploitative’ because, unlike most clubs, FIFA and the participating national federations make a considerable ‘surplus’ from the men’s senior international games and tournaments.)

This World Cup marks the first one for which FIFA has made payments directly to players’ clubs to compensate them for the time spent at the tournament. For many club fans this seems fair enough — if we’re lucky enough to have top international players at our clubs, we know how costly World Cup fatigue will probably be for our teams’ performance next season. However, it underlines the fact that, highly paid though they may be, footballers are wage-slaves, effectively owned by the club to which they are contracted during the season.

And that season is punishingly close to all-year-round. The major European leagues traditionally run roughly August to May, but the first qualifying round for next season’s European Champions League actually starts next week. The profane Frenchman Anelka and his Chelsea team-mate Florent Malouda, who was the best of France’s bad lot at this tournament, will be playing for  the 2010-11 season’s first English trophy, the Community Shield, against Wayne Rooney’s Manchester United on August 8, just four weeks after the World Cup final.

I have written previously about how the French team’s multi-ethnic make-up has been used, and abused, for political purposes. It is predictable that some racists in France have already tried to exploit this crisis in disgusting ways. They are the ugly flip-side of those who tried to draw excessively positive lessons about French multiculturalism from the team’s previous successes. Let that be a lesson: don’t hang important concepts on the success of a football team, because when the team fails — as it inevitably must, eventually — the concepts may be tainted with it.

In a twist on theatrical tradition, the French tragedy has been accompanied by an English farce. First ex-captain John Terry promised in a press conference that the England players were planning a clear-the-air meeting with their tough Italian manager, Fabio Capello. Then Terry’s colleagues revealed that, uh, no we weren’t, sorry for the misunderstanding there boss.

There is even a bedroom element to the farce, with players hinting that they’re getting horny in the “five-star prison” from which their wives and girlfriends are barred. Capello, with his halting English, plays the all-too-familiar role of the jumped-up Johnny Foreigner, stealing a muscular Schwarzenegger tagline to call Terry’s intervention a “big mistake”. Of course, at the first sign of success for the team, the myth of the strong manager returns with a vengeance.

The dopiness of all this is not surprising. When England are on the field, I’m convinced that if it weren’t for the vuvuzelas you’d be able to hear an English player’s neurons creaking into action every time he receives the ball — which is of course too late to begin pondering what you’re going to do next with it.

Luckily for England, their crucial match against Slovenia on Wednesday found them in a familiar and comforting place, like one of the European-zone qualifying games at which they have excelled over the last two years. They faced an at-best-mid-ranking European opponent, as well as a European referee who gave them every reasonable break. (It did seem extraordinary that a referee from Germany was in charge of a game that would help determine his country’s next opponent.) As a result, in England today, after a 1-0 win against poor opposition, hope springs eternal.

But for many of the right-wing British papers, England’s few days of crisis and near-rebellion have been yet another opportunity to play one of their nastier cards. Their pages have been full of stories and columns about the dangers of under-educated young men getting too much money and celebrity — money and celebrity for which those papers and Rupert Murdoch’s TV-rights payments are hugely responsible.

It is no exaggeration to say that in both England and France there remain class and national elites who hates footballers and football culture, for a combination of social and ethnic reasons. In recent days they have been able to channel that hatred into populist rage directed at the national teams, with the same terms dominating in both countries — “selfish”, “pampered” and, crucially, “overpaid”.

Here’s Leo McKinstry in the Daily Mail on Monday, with a classic right-wing non-sequitur: “It’s increasingly apparent the England footballer reflects the worst, most destructive values of our society. In the past decade, Britain has lost its soul and character through shallow commercialism and mass immigration.” For the time being, at least until they are swept aside by Germans, Argentines or Brazilians, those despised players will again have to be treated like national heroes in the popular press.

Many of the French players will never again enjoy that dubious privilege, as many of them will ‘retire’ and be dropped by the incoming French manager, the generally well-admired Laurent Blanc. The team of the Domenech era has been put out of its misery, in a suicide assisted by Mexico, Uruguay and South Africa. But that’s okay: at least they went out in a blaze of unity of a kind that they hadn’t experienced on the field for many years. And anyway, as Bruce Springsteen sings, “Everything that dies someday comes back.”

Allez les bleus.

HARRY BROWNE lectures in the School of Media at Dublin Institute of Technology and is author of CounterPunch’s Hammered by the Irish. Contact harry.browne@gmail.com 

 

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