My friend is not an elitist. To the contrary, he has spent decades of his life fighting social inequality, racism and championing the rights of disadvantaged groups. Therefore, I was taken aback when he surmised that “football is the opium of the people”.
The reference, which summons a famous Marxist maxim about religion written in a specific historical context, suggested that governments use mass sports events to distract from political problems or social conflicts.
He is partly right. Not only do governments invest in sports as a form of distraction, but they also often turn sports into a form of political legitimization. While all governments play this game, the US excels in it.
In his seminal 2010 documentary, “Not Just a Game: Power, Politics & American Sports”, journalist and filmmaker Dave Zirin illustrates beyond doubt that sports arenas – from elementary schools to the Super Bowl – are political spaces used exclusively to push dominant political lines, if not outright propaganda. The film is based on Zirin’s important book (2009), People’s History of Sports in the United States.
Ruling powers rightly understand that sports is a critical form of popular validation. In the FIFA World Cup 2022, held in Doha, Qatar, the viewership is predicted to be over five billion people, according to NBC Sports estimations. The last summer Olympics held in Tokyo were watched by an equally impressive number: over 3 billion people, according to the International Olympic Committee.
When half of humanity tunes in to follow an event, any event, this will naturally attract the attention of big corporations, especially those who produce consumer products and, of course, politicians.
This is exactly why some world leaders were keen on attending their country’s football games in person. French President Emmanuel Macron’s few seconds’ appearance, waving to the crowds in the France-Morocco semi-final, was hardly an illustration of the embattled President’s love for football. It was a golden opportunity for him to be viewed as a symbol of a victorious and united country.
Indeed, football often unites us beyond class, religion and race, a near impossibility in today’s fractious politics everywhere in the world.
But this is where my friend goes wrong. The fact that governments, all governments, exploit sports to serve political agendas does not mean that their objectives should go unchallenged. Indeed, they do not.
Sports arenas are contested spaces. They are not owned by a government, a company or a famous publication. The latter are all, of course, keen on controlling the meanings, presentations and, if they can, the results as well, of major sports events. But they cannot, simply because the spectators are always resisting, championing their own meaning of sports, and fighting back to reclaim these spaces in ways that accurately represent their communities and their nations – thus, their own popular aspirations.
This is why we loved Morocco’s unprecedented achievements at the World Cup. One would venture to claim that no other team in football history has carried such layers of meanings as Morocco has. The very choice of words the media used to illustrate Morocco’s achievement was itself telling of a bigger story: the First Arab and African country to ever reach the World Cup semi-finals.
The fact that we chose to highlight these specific indicators, not others, spoke a great deal about the current inequality that exists, not only in sports, but in the world at large. Then follow the numerous sub-meanings: the fact that the legendary Moroccan goalkeeper, Yassine Bounou, insisted on speaking in his Arabic mother tongue at the press conference following his country’s win over Portugal on December 10, even though he speaks several other European languages.
Additionally, the fact that players carried Palestinian flags, kneeled down to pray after each game, thus illustrating their Muslim identity, were all significant examples; let alone the emphasis on Arab unity throughout the entire competition, an effort that was championed by millions of ordinary spectators and backed by the players.
This is only a small part of the story. Every team, from Japan, to Saudi Arabia to Senegal represented something, carrying popular, cultural, and even political messages. Not even mainstream media could easily ignore this.
In its article entitled “Waving the Flag of the World Cup’s Unofficial Team”, the New York Times spoke about how the Palestinian flag was displayed “in all its glory”. Australian, British and numerous other media, including traditionally biased pro-Israeli media companies, echoed the same message. That ownership of the Palestinian narrative and the genuine love which was displayed by millions of football fans have imposed a new form of representation of Palestine in the world’s collective imagination: love, hope, power and victory – to be compared with the typical, often negative, representations of violence, victimhood, defeat and desperation.
Though other sports can serve as a space for ordinary people to communicate their collective solidarity or aspirations, football is unique in this way. Unlike tennis, golf or gymnastics, for example, football is far more accessible, and does not fall into socio-economic spaces that are only available to middle or upper classes. Football is the sport of the poor, whose idols, the likes of Pelé, Maradona and Ronaldo – now Hakimi, Salah and Ziyech – were brought up in struggling, working-class communities.
Unlike other sports, football demonstrates that class and social mobility is very much possible. The reason why the Williams sisters are celebrated tennis champions, aside from their actual brilliance on the field, is that, typically, Black athletes do not belong to a social or economic class that makes such an achievement a regular occurrence. The same can be said about Tiger Woods in golf, and a few other examples.
The fight for ownership over the meaning of football will continue, long after the World Cup is folded, at every stage and in every neighborhood, from Nairobi to Rabat to Brasilia. Yes, football is about winning a match or a tournament but, ultimately, it is about something bigger – unity, hope, power, social conflicts and, yes, popular resistance. Even if, at times, we seem oblivious to these subtle meanings, they will always, always be there.