Thursday, June 30, 2011

Soccer Net Working

(A football post for a change - this also available in the July 2011 issue of Scroll online magazine.)

After Barack Obama completed his landmark march to the White House in 2008, few questioned his right to the most powerful position in the world. The punch-line identifying him echoed “Yes We Can” all around, and the populace overwhelmingly agreed.

Analysts at Edelman Research put the campaign leading up to his victory under the microscope and are of the opinion that he won by “Converting everyday people into engaged and empowered volunteers, donors, advocates – through social networks, email advocacy, text messaging and online video.”

Indeed, his run to the Oval office was perhaps the broadest use of the social media for social change – leveraging on its key channel – a more focused version of Facebook. It was not only a platform where his followers could keep a tab on the development of the campaign, it was also a place where they could connect, interact and collaborate.  It did not only capture the attention of people, but enabled them to team up as activists. With this, the presidential candidate was able to garner 5 million supporters on fifteen different social networks. By November 2008, Obama had close to 2.5 million Facebook supporters, out-performing Republican opponent John McCain by nearly four times. On Twitter he had more than 115000 followers, more than 23 times that of McCain. People spent 14 million hours watching campaign related Obama videos on YouTube, with more than 50 million viewers. The wonder of YouTube stems from people not having to be forced to watch the action whenever Television channels decided to beam it. They could log in at their own convenience and click a button to follow the proceedings.
Obama, thus, did not only paint the American political history in hitherto unknown shades, he also ensured that political campaigns would never be the same again. Activism was mobilised online, with a prominent central hub which grew more and more powerful as more and more connections passed through it.
Very few high stake elections will henceforth be fought without a decisive battle, even war, carried out in the virtual world of social networks. 

A common room where one can reach millions of connected individuals, Social Networks are the recently discovered gold mines of the seekers of high office.
However, what did this very tribe of ambitious men and women do in the days prior to the Web 2.0 revolution? Did they try to hitch themselves to some other popular frenzy which gathered together hundreds of thousands of potential votes?
They have always done it. From traditional media to the silver screen, no popular vista of modern life has been spared political colouring.
That brings us to the one phenomenon of the modern world, the paramount passion of the greatest cross-section of the world population. The hundreds of millions who throng to the stadium-temple, are glued to television sets for a vision of their gods or listen to the transistor for the description of their feats oblivious to all else. Their idols descend on the turf, and blaze the flanks through the magic of their invaluably insured feet, firing the imagination of countless many, using their divine skills to guard one their citadel and to put a round checked ball through the three straight posts into the net of the opposition.

1978 - Kempes for Argentina
For ninety minutes, or a series of ninety such minutes during a high profile tournament, the football fan ceases to be a distinct individual whom life weighs down with mundane problems. While the pagan mass lasts, the fan is many. Along with his brother worshippers, he shares the conviction that they are the best, the adversaries are cheats, all referees are crooked. He seldom says “My team plays today.” It is always “We play today.” He is certain that as the twelfth player he wills the winds to propel the ball into and away from the posts when opportunities and dangers present themselves. He is a molecule of the soccer swarm, one of the many specks that create the summation of souls that rise and fall with the fortunes of the team. An entity that is connected by one singular target – known fittingly as the Goal.  Linked by the allegiance to the abstract concept of a team, the devotion to one hero, and the unifying passion for the beautiful game.


Before the coming of the internet, was there a better way to target a substantial mass of humanity than setting sights on the soccer fans?

Like God, soccer inspires devotion among believers and distrust among intellectuals.

In London 1902, Rudyard Kipling trivialised soccer and those who contended their souls with “the muddied oafs at the goals”. Seventy six years later, Jorge Luis Borges gave a lecture on the subject of immortality at the same hour when his native Argentina was playing its first game in the 1978 World Cup, a trophy ultimately they won through the brilliance of Mario Kempes and others.

Conservative intellectuals deride the game through their staunch belief that soccer-worship leads people to think with their feet, which is the only way they can think, fulfilling their dreams with primitive ecstasy, with animal celebration overtaking human reason. And, leftist intellectuals denigrate the sport because it castrates masses with cheap entertainment, derails their revolutionary ardour. The spread of soccer is an imperialist trick to keep oppressed peoples in an eternal childhood, unable to grow up.
However, the mass appeal and the congregation of millions of connected people always made soccer very much a population goldmine to be tapped, much like social networks of today.

During the summer of 1916, in the midst of the Great War, an English captain named Neville launched a military attack by kicking a ball. Leaping out from behind a parapet which was serving as his cover, he chased the ball toward the German trenches. His regiment, hesitant at first, followed the leader. The captain was blasted by the gunfire, but England conquered that no-man’s land and celebrated the victory as the first of British soccer on front lines. Signs of galvanising power of the game was indisputable.

Berlusconi with Kaka and the rest of AC Milan

The saga continues to very modern times. Silvio Berlusconi, whom The Economisthailed  as the man who screwed an entire country, was the owner of AC Milan when he won the 1994 Italian elections with chants ofForza Italia from the stadiums. He had promised to save Italy the same way that he had saved Milan’s all time champion football superteam, and voters forgot that several of his own companies were on the very verge of ruin.
In between Neville and Berlusconi, there have been plenty of connection between soccer and politics. Politicians and dictators have frequently exploited fans by creating a link of identity, and activists have forged new ways of spreading their cause by aiming for goals other than the one under the crossbar.
In 1934 and 1938, Italy won the World Cup in the name of the fatherland and Mussolini. The players started and finished each game by saluting the crowd with their right arms outstretched, giving three cheers for Italy. That way, Mussolini’s  personal end with severed gonads seem to prove that in the end the ball game is a great leveller.
Italian Salute in the 30s

For the Nazis, soccer was a matter of the state. A monument in Ukraine still commemorates the players of the 1942 Dynamo Kiev team, shot to death in their jerseys because of committing the insane crime of defeating Hitler’s squad in a local stadium, in spite of warnings – “If you win, you die.”
So, we have some splendid examples of activism through soccer as well.

In 1934, while Bolivia and Paraguay were fighting the bloody war of Chaco, disputing a pathetic piece of deserted land, the Paraguayan Red Cross formed a team which travelled across Argentina and Uruguay, playing exhibition matches, raising enough money to attend to the wounded of both the armies.
Franco on the field

Later, in 1937, when General Franco, with the help of the other two stalwart leaders in this narrative, Hitler and Mussolini, was busy bombing the Spanish Republic to smithereens, a Basque team was playing matches in Europe, and Barcelona had crossed the Atlantic to entertain crowds in USA and Mexico. The Basque government had sent the Euzkadi team to publicise their cause and raise funds for defense. Barcelona’s president had already fallen to Franco’s bullets. Both these teams embodied democracy under siege.
The Franco dictatorship, however, found an unbeatable travelling embassy under the name Real Madrid. Winning four Spanish Leagues in a row, five European Cups and one Intercontinental, the team charmed spectators everywhere. Jose Solis, one of the political honchos of the regime, voiced his gratitude in 1959 saying, “Thanks to you, people who used to hate us now understand us.” Soccer network was manipulated by the dictators as well.
Censorship of soccer activism has also taken place. Most of the players of Barcelona and Basque, after their heroic games in the face of invasion, could not come back to Spain. After the Republic was defeated, FIFA declared them to be in rebellion and threatened them with permanent suspension. Some of them managed to find positions in Latin American teams.

In 1950, when the Hungarian star Kubala – later a member of the all conquering Real Madrid – formed a national team in exile, it earned him a two year suspension from FIFA. When other Real Madrid stars – Puskas, Czibor and Kocsis among them – played for another Hungarian team in exile after Soviet tanks had crushed the uprising at the end of 1956, FIFA suspended them for over a year.
When in 1958, in the midst of the war of independence, Algeria formed a soccer team, it had in its line up players of the calibre of Makhloufi, Ben Tifour and others who were professionals in France. Blockaded by the colonial power, Algeria only managed to play against Morocco. The obliging opponent was promptly kicked out by FIFA for playing a renegade and unauthorised national side. The association also banned the Algerian team, while the French soccer league blacklisted the players, preventing them from returning to professional league. However, when Algeria won independence, the French had no alternative but to call up the players who delighted the fans.

With the coming of social networking and the commercialisation of the game, the goal of political propaganda can be achieved through other strategies for man to man collaboration. The referee may not continue to be the only whistle blower in the universal game that is played out. 

However, the parallels are striking, and there are lessons to be learnt, if only to prevent foul play and penalties leading to undesirable sudden deaths.