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It has been called the beautiful game; in the past even during war the opposing sides played a game; it has made some of its players stars and household names, football or soccer has a global appeal. From the townships in South Africa, to the Brazilian Favelas, the makeshift pitches the world over to the highly pristine pitches in academies, kids the world over learn to kick a ball, and play the game that requires speed, agility, and dexterity in the feet. Kids who just play for fun in an after-school club or to bond with friends. The appeal of this game has been intertemporal.
Generations of kids, begged their parents to stay longer out to play with their friends, asked for another ball, shoes or shorts and each family responded according to their means. After all, football is/was a working-class game. The relative low cost makes it accessible; it allows plenty of kids to play together and build relationships. Football was an equaliser that did not care who you are or where you come from.
I remember as a kid, year after year playing in the summer with the same kids in teams between Greek and Yugoslavians. We were keeping score and the losing side was buying the other side ice-creams. Not quite the golden ornate cup but a wager worth playing 10 games across the summer. We called each other’s teams with the name of the country we came from. My lasting memory was the last time we played together before the civil war in Yugoslavia erupted. The Yugoslavians won and they were chanting “Yugoslavia, Yugoslavia”. Those kids did not come the following summer. In the next summer, the same kids would be carrying the flag and arms of one of the opposing sides armed to kill each other. When football is not the game, disputes are resolved in brutality.
In the past decades, football’s appeal made it the game to watch. The transition to professional football made the game lucrative, some clubs acquired big budgets and of course attracted a finer audience. The pundits, as a former footballer put it, started eating “prawn sandwiches” an indication of their more expensive tastes. Still people stick with the sport because of their own memories and experiences. My first ever game was with my grandfather. We went to the stadium of the club that was to become the team I support for life. The atmosphere, the emotional roller coaster and most importantly a shared experience with someone very dear, that even when they are gone, you carry the sounds, the emotions with you forever.
Some footballers started earning enormous fees for playing the game; the club colours became trademarked and charged over the odds for a simple scarf or a top. The rights to the games sold to private companies requiring people to pay subscriptions to watch a simple game. People objected but continued still to support, although some people were priced out of the game altogether. The game endures because it still resonates with people’s experiences.
In particular, the national games have kept some of their original appeal of playing for your country, playing for your colours! Football is an unpredictable sport and in international events you can have an outsider taking the cup against the odds! Like Greece winning the UEFA Euro in 2004! The games in international tournaments leads to knock out games, with the drama of extra time and of course the penalty shootout. Nail biting moments shared with family and friends. These magical moments of personal and collective elevation, as if you were there with the players, part of their effort, part of their victory.
When the host country was announced some years ago that will be hosting this year’s world cup there were already calls for investigation into the voting process raising concerns. Since then, there have been concerns about the safety of those who work on the infrastructure. Thousands of migrant workers, many of whom are/were undocumented have worked in building the stadiums that the games will be played in. There are accusations of numerous deaths of migrant workers (an estimate from The Guardian comes to a staggering 6,500 deaths). This has raised a significant question about priorities in our world. It is unthinkable to put a game above human life. This was later followed by “the guidelines” to teams and visitors that alternative sexualities will not be tolerated. Calls about respecting the host’s culture adding to the numbers of people calling for a boycott. So why I won’t be watching this time around?
We have been talking for years about inclusivity and tolerance. Women’s rights, LGBTQ+, immigrant rights, worker rights and all of them being trampled for the sake of a competition. Those who have been asked about the issues from the football federation, former footballers and even governments have played down all these concerns. In some cases, they opted for a tokenistic move like rainbow-coloured planes or include the rainbow on national team logo. Others will be issuing rainbow bracelets and some saying that they will raise issues if/when given the opportunity. This sounds too little considering what has happened so far especially all the fatalities caused building all the constructions. If we are not to uphold civil rights and if we are not ready to act on them, why talk about them?
I remember the game for being inclusive and serving to get people together; this competition is setting an incredibly horrible precedent that human life is cheap and expendable; that people’s rights are negotiable and that you can stop being who you are momentarily, because the game matters more than any of the above. It does not! Without rights, without respect, without life there is no game, there is nothing, because there is no humanity. These games do not bother me, they offend me as a human being. If people died to build this stadium then this space is not fit for games; it’s a monument to vanity and greed; hardly sportsmanlike qualities.