Critiquing What We Love

In the run-up to the World Cup, countless advertisements from around the globe began to build the hype for the 2010 tournament in South Africa.  The vast majority of these ads – including some mentioned elsewhere in this dossier – displayed a striking consistency in their reliance on tired stereotypes and discourses barely modified from the colonial roots from which they sprang in their portrayal of “Africa’s World Cup.”  One ad, however, deserves a second look for the way it both surfaced and dismissed the broader social and cultural issues underlying the World Cup:  titled “United,” it features U2’s song “Magnificent” with a voice-over by Bono promoting ESPN’s coverage of the event.
“It’s not about politics,” Bono tells us, “or religion, or the economy.  It’s not about borders, history, trade, oil, water, gas, mineral rights, human rights, or animal rights.”  By deploying Bono – at once recognizable as both mega-star and outspoken advocate for a neoliberal orientation to solving global social issues – ESPN made his initial assertions both compelling and counterintuitive.  He continues to describe, for nearly the full minute length of the ad, what the World Cup is not about: social issues of great importance.  Not until the final 12 seconds does the song itself crescendo along with Bono’s voice:  “This is about the one month, every four years, when we all agree on one thing,” Bono concludes.  “32 nations.  One world watching.  2010 FIFA World Cup.”  The ad thus declares at once universality for the sport it celebrates and a symbolic space outside of the global and local struggles faced by supposedly unified human beings in everyday life and politics.
“United” thereby manages to surface an ambivalence that has followed the World Cup, and football more generally, for decades.  This ambivalence vacillates between seeing football on the one hand as an indicator of broad social trends and of geopolitical intrigue, and on the other as just another form of entertainment, whether played on neighborhood sandlots or in corporate-controlled stadiums.  As the province of good family fun or thuggish hooligans; as a source of innocent joy or criminal and financial manipulation.  In recent years, a spate of popular and academic books analyzing the game and its importance – from Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World (2004) to Simon Kuper’s and Stefan Szymanski ‘s Soccernomics (2009) to Peter Alegi’s African Soccerscapes (2010) – have further contributed to this ambivalence.  Is football an escape from the more challenging elements of daily life, a proxy for those struggles, or both?
Nikhil Singh’s description of the authors in this dossier as “football enthusiasts (who also happen to be social and cultural critics)” also exposes these tensions.  Do those of us who exist within both of these two social categories – football enthusiasts and social/cultural critics – inhabit that space as a contradiction or as a concurrence, particularly during the hype of the World Cup?  For fans of the game, this month represents the most intense fluctuations of our addiction, emotionally and even physically, as we re-arrange lives to accommodate as many as four matches per day, often at odd hours if we live in time zones other than where matches are being played.  Yet it also represents the moment when our addiction reaches the height of its commoditization, attracting the greatest number of fellow-travelers into the incessant rehashing of matches, their nuances, and their social and political implications, while we often frame our support for one team or another based on some broader claim of postcolonial, moral or aesthetic politics.  This is not to say, of course, that football is not political or big business during the intermittent four years, but rather that the commercialization and politicization of football builds to a crescendo, like Bono’s voice, during the tournament.
For those of us with deep ties and personal and political commitments to South Africa, these contradictions and concurrences became especially acute during this particular World Cup.  The opportunity to witness the tournament here – whether our affiliation with South Africa is by birth or choice – was an opportunity not to be missed.  Yet the impact of the Cup on the politics and economy of the host nation, and particularly on the coffers of a government already struggling to provide basic social infrastructure for its people, from health care to a social wage to economic opportunities, remains undeniable.  Likewise, the oft-spoken of “vibe” here in South Africa has been equally undeniable, with excitement surrounding the Cup spreading far beyond the hardcore fan base of the sport or the tourist enclaves, most notably toward women in huge numbers across the social spectrum who are often marginalized by men’s focus on football.  So while accolades pour in for South Africa’s successful hosting of the tournament – by FIFA’s and the government’s particular standards, which appear to concern primarily commercial and security interests – the ambivalence remains around the long-term social and cultural impact.  And this ambivalence is felt deeply, rather than as a passing acknowledgment of the abstract complications of our world.
The dilemma is not that these ambivalences exist; the World Cup can be a simultaneously transcendent and prosaic experience, as well as both inclusive and exclusive, in multiple contexts.  Rather, the problem arises when the two sides of this ambivalence are imagined as clearly demarcated spaces of physical being or intellectual labor rather than mutually constitutive.  The thrill we feel, along with countless others, watching the World Cup is part of what allows the crazy twists of political economy surrounding the tournament; yet, the joy people feel in experiencing the sport and its flagship event cannot be reduced solely to that political economy, or the social dilemmas it both generates and reflects.  In other words, the ambivalence must remain alive, in multiple registers, and open to both critique and pleasure.
More than 20 years before the “United” ad, during the states of emergency in South Africa, U2 released their live album Rattle and Hum.  In the middle of a track written for Artists United Against Apartheid, Bono pauses to call for sanctions against the apartheid regime.  “Am I bugging you?” Bono sardonically asks his audience at the end of his diatribe.  “I don’t mean to bug you.”  Now, in 2010, the sarcasm in his question seems to disappear, giving his (new) audience permission to ignore the deeper implications of the Cup and a way out of the ambivalence.  Yet for those of us who care about both football and South Africa, this route – while tempting – is far too easy.
Ron Krabill is Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences at the University of Washington Bothell and on the graduate faculty of the Department of Communication at the University of Washington Seattle.  He is the author of the Starring Mandela &  Cosby: Media and the End(s) of Apartheid, due out from the University of Chicago Press in August.  Ron is currently in South Africa leading the UW undergraduates in a course titles, “Critical Perspectives on the 2010 Football World Cup,” which includes a community media partnership between Cape Town Community Television, 911 Seattle Media Arts Center, Seattle Sounders FC, and the Simpson Center for the Humanities at UW, wherein small teams of students and young South African media workers are filming short videos on the local impacts of hosting the World Cup.
Photo by Kwame Nyong’o.

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