Football mobilities: Between the Scylla of ethno-racism and the Charybdis of neoliberalism
Football rituals are embedded in contemporary Gesellshaft structures (a-la Tőnnies), constantly updating the mechanisms with which societies change from within and without. Football is the maiden of globalisation: it instigates multiple mobilities of ideas, humans, emotions and technologies. This becomes even more evident when we look closer at the ways individuals and whole imagined communities use the sport to negotiate their place in globalised ethno-racist contexts.
It was football the ensured black migrants’ upward social mobility in postcolonial contexts such as those of Brazil, where originally black workers were seen as less human than white populations (hence not suitable to become professional players). Notably, their professional entry into the sport was equated with an entry into civilised Western modernity, thus bringing together questions of global class and racial hierarchies. Today famous players such as Pelé embody the Brazilian nation’s participation in Western and European mobilities, now supported by global corporations and international organisations. At the same time, such football ‘tokens’ of civility fuel nationalist clashes to promote individual nations in regional contexts – take for example how conflicts between Argentinian and Brazilian fans during matches are filtered through the worship of national players (Pelé vs. Maradona – Carmo, July 7, 2014).
If historically football is an aspect of soft colonialism (the English invented and imported the sport in the ‘developed’ world), its contemporary role in world societies as an arbitrator of (in)justice is far more ambivalent. As a technology of the body, it ‘flags’ the player’s (and his nation’s) ethno-phenotypical fixities, but as a technology represented, interpellated or simply mediated by other technologies (TV and internet industries), it places players and their nations on a global neoliberal map. And there is more: in more recent decades, players such as Pelé, used the power of neoliberal mobilities to also turn themselves into independent brands, thus allegedly escaping harmful ethno-racial stereotyping (as cosmopolitan professionals). It seems that at least for black football players, the sport offers an either-or interpellation of agency: ethno-racialized or neoliberal.
Such interpellations have serious consequences in ritualist terms, both liberating and fettering. Take for example the loud disapproval of Colin Kaepernick’s ‘taking to one knee’ during the national anthem when he played for the San Francisco 49ers, in protest of police brutality against black Americans. Likewise, at the day’s first football game at Wembley Stadium this year, twenty-seven players from the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Baltimore Ravens dropped down and took a knee on the field to the sounds of the anthem (St. Félix, September 24, 2017). This ritualised performance, which both negates and worships the ‘nation’, transfixes audiences and fans: as a transgressive act in front of the camera, it asserts the players’ individualistic identity vis-à-vis that of a national collectivity. Note the tweet by Trump (ironically, a proponent of neoliberal risqué individualism) about the ‘son of a bitch’ N.F.L. players who ‘disrespect’ the ‘Flag (or Country)’ (ibid.) with their bizarre genuflection. This reaction missed the point: ‘there did not appear to be any white players taking a knee’ (Ingle, September 24, 2017). Hence, such defiance could also be read as a sign of deep respect to the ‘nation’, despite its historical and contemporary contributions to racial inequality – a need to both be a cosmopolitan individual and belong. It is as if, on and off the field, football’s ritualist ambivalence bears the mark of black strangerhood (a-la Simmel): never accepted entirely as part of the imagined community, it allows the player to move across semantic fields as a stranger or citizen, who, during the process is often appropriated by global audio-visual markets and turned into a mobility token.
Carmo, M. (July 7, 2014) Canção de “Maradona maior que Pelé” foi “ensinada” a argentinos um dia antes da estreia na Copa, BBC Brasil. Available at www.bbc.co.uk/portuguese/noticias/2014/07/140707_argentina_musica_wc2014_hb_mc.shtml.
Ingle, S. (September 24, 2017). Donald Trump defied at Wembley as Jaguars and Ravens kneel for anthem. The Guardian. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2017/sep/24/donald-trump-defied-wembley-jaguars-ravens-nfl-kneel-anthem.
St. Félix, Doreen (September 24, 2017). What Will Taking the Knee Mean Now? The New Yorker. Available at https://www.newyorker.com/culture/annals-of-appearances/what-will-taking-the-knee-mean-now.
Tzanelli, R. (2013). Olympic Ceremonialism and the Performance of National Character: From London 2012 to Rio 2012. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
 ‘Pelé is known in print-capitalist circuits through his best-selling autobiographies, his starring in several successful documentary and semi-documentary films, and his composition of numerous musical pieces, including the soundtrack for the film Pelé (1977). In 2009 he cooperated with Ubisoft on arcade football game Academy of Champions: Soccer for the Wii in which he voiced-over the coach (Scullion, 2 June 2009). His sign value in global industrial systems makes him both a national and a transnational good – a new cosmopolitan subject’ (Tzanelli, 2013: 116).