It has been about four and a half years since Colin Kaepernick, Eric Reed and other players on the 2016 San Francisco 49ers took a knee to protest police brutality. That was a year and a half after the members of the St. Louis Rams came on to the field gesturing “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” in response to the state-sanctioned killing of Michael Brown. In 2012, following the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, Dwayne Wade, LeBron James and other members of the Miami Heat declared on social media in the midst of their championship run that they were Trayvon Martin. Many people, mostly white, lament at the politicization of sports longing for the good old days before athletes used their voices to address social issues, but those types never question the National Anthem that is being knelt over, bemoan military involvement in pre-game rituals or cry foul at the celebratory visits championship teams make to the White House. Sports have always been political.
Many authoritarian states have used association football as a means of propping up their regimes. This practice was pioneered by Benito Mussolini. Upon his ascension to the prime ministry, Mussolini immediately began to invest in overhauling the country’s athletic infrastructure, building large stadiums to encourage the development of football as a cultural institution to distract the citizenry from the fact that the government could not be bothered to meet their needs. In what may have been an attempt to centralize internal power, Mussolini tried to consolidate all of Rome’s football clubs into one, as the most dominant clubs in the country did not find themselves situated near his government’s seat of power. This desire to wield athletic prowess as a symbol of empire logically also manifested itself in the international game. Italy hosted and won the 1934 World Cup, the proceedings of which celebrated the perceived might of the fascist government.
If Mussolini used sports as a sleight of hand to distract Italian citizens from the fact that the government was not being run in their best interest, Francisco Franco tried to weaponize football against political dissidents. In their nascency, football clubs were just groups of locals who all enjoyed playing a sport. They are naturally institutions of local culture. Franco’s ascent to power came at the expense of Catalonian and Basque separatist movements. But even separatists like sports. Following their loss at the hands of a fascist culturally Castilian dictator who recognized any cultural plurality as a threat to his political power. Both FC Barcelona and Athletic Club de Bilbao of Catalonia and the Basque Country respectively. Both Catalonia and the Basque Country were uniformly opposed to the Nationalist faction that Franco came to be the leader of. Franco criminalized the Basque and Catalan, banning the languages from educational institutions and official documents. The football clubs became a means of expressing one’s own identity. Franco could not ban the football teams without risking mass demonstrations, so he decided to do battle with them on the pitch.
Real Madrid became his Death Star, an institution of empire. It is the team endorsed by the Spanish Crown, representing everything the Republican coalition had struggled against. Where Athletic Club and Barcelona became two of the country’s most successful clubs through their academies and drew their funds from their supporters, Franco bankrolled an influx of talent developed elsewhere. Instead of institutions that encouraged young players to think for themselves and develop their own talent, Real Madrid became a parasitic force demonstrating Castilian supremacy. And, yet, despite this fact, Barcelona and Bilbao continued to compete with empire. Where Bilbao instituted a policy of only signing players who identify as Basque, Barcelona welcomed all comers, but both maintain their commitment to the development of talent internally rather than leaching off the fruits of other institutions. While Real Madrid do have an academy, themselves, its name betrays a world view: La Fabrica, or, in English, The Factory. Furthermore, Barca’s greatest periods of success were built upon talent developed at the club, rather than proven commodities, like Real Madrid’s Galacticos. Both Barcelona and Real Madrid have been immensely successful clubs. While Bilbao has struggled to compete in an increasingly globalized sport with their Basque identarian policy, they remain one of three founding members of La Liga to have never been relegated.
Athletics are inherently political because existence is inherently political. As institutions, they shape our worldview. People’s associations with one another are political. Treating players as products that can be manufactured and purchased is problematic. That thinking and instruction robs them of their agency. Next week’s column will continue where this leaves off and will politicize association football tactics and instruction and segue into a discussion of how gridiron football’s primary form of instruction lends itself towards authoritarianism and empire and suggestions from a fan on how to mitigate that.