Whose ‘Beautiful Game’?

Soccer is the Beautiful Game. Or that’s what we’re reminded of over and over as the World Cup approaches. Don’t get me wrong: I love soccer. It’s probably my favourite sport to play. But I worry that many critiques of the World Cup fall back on this idea that soccer’s ‘beauty’ is something inherent, essential – and thus soccer is apolitical. Critics indeed often argue that if we just get rid of FIFA and all the other political bodies using sport to advance their own agendas, we’d get back to the sport’s roots – its true nature.

But nothing about sport is natural or apolitical. Some physical exploits may be beautiful, of course, but the game itself is not fundamentally so. The Garrincha turn is beautiful. Spain’s tiki-taka is incredible, as is Ronaldinho’s elastico. But let’s be frank about this pattern: when we’re talking about soccer’s ‘beauty’, we’re generally talking about the daring moves of male athletes.

It might seem obvious to say that there is inequality between men and women* in soccer, and that this is political. But how gendered ideas affect sport runs far deeper than a simple exclusion of women.  We must also look at how women’s inclusion, in critiques of FIFA and the World Cup for example, are gendered, political, and harmful.

To demonstrate my point, it’s worth looking at two popular 2014 World Cup critiques that have been circulating recently.

First, John Oliver has been making the social media rounds for his rant against FIFA.
This spot is premised on the idea that FIFA has corrupted soccer. Don’t get me wrong, Oliver is spot on with some of his points. I am the last person that will defend this ‘non-profit organization’. But why does an attack on FIFA have to depict women in such a misogynist way? Oliver kicks off the segment by telling Americans that they may only be familiar with soccer as that sport from which they pick up their daughter, but that it means far more to people throughout the globe. I recognize that this is satire – and I do love me some satire – but why is it young female soccer players that have to be the brunt of the joke? Surely soccer means a significant amount to these young women. To his credit, Oliver derides sexist comments made by FIFA chief Sepp Blatter that women should wear more revealing outfits. Yep, good ol’ Sepp actually said this. But, for some reason, Oliver still feels the need to display an image de-clothing the only other female soccer player that has the misfortune of appearing in the segment, and then dress her up in a Hooters uniform. Sure, this is a ‘critique’ of Blatter, but why are the only two images of women in soccer uniforms a mocked adolescent and a woman who is stripped to her underwear?

This is how women get ‘included’ in sexist ways by people who are posturing as critical.

Even those critiques that understand sport to be extremely political are often quite male-centred. Take, second, Dave Zirin’s recent book Brazil’s Dance with the Devil, which is garnering significant publicity in American media. In his book, this sports critic documents the beauty of the game, and charts the soccer heroes of Brazil and the physical majesty that has made them so. There is much to recommend this book, and I’d check it out if you want a quick understanding of some Brazilian sports history or mega event-related displacements. To his credit, Zirin mentions that women have long been excluded from soccer in Brazil dating back to their official ban during the Vargas administration, and that they still have an extremely difficult time securing funding. Such is the case in so many countries. Good on Zirin for mentioning this. But this is what we feminists (and I’m drawing on the great Chandra Mohanty here) call the ‘add women and stir approach’. An author using this approach will write a book about soccer and spend one small section of a chapter detailing how it affects women, only to return to the narrative that it is political bodies such as FIFA and nationalist governments that are ruining the game. But the marginal inclusion of women only reinforces the dominant masculinism – or male-oriented perspective – of the narrative. And this male-oriented perspective isn’t restricted to the playing field. Zirin celebrates the ‘beauty’ of football viewing spaces like Brazil’s (pre-refurbished) Maracana stadium, but this nostalgia erases the fact that this, like many of Brazil’s botecos/bars, is a gendered space (read: often male-dominated and aggressive). Sure, they’re beautiful to some, but not everyone can, nor wants, to participate equally. These male-centred critiques can be more insidious than the obvious exclusion of women from the playing field, which is, at the very least, easy to see (or not see, as the case may be).

How can sport exist devoid of the power relations that exist between those who play the game? Who manage it? Who write and talk about it? People are political, politics is power, and thus sport will always be political and imbued with power. The rhetoric of the Beautiful Game makes it far too easy to pass the buck. We need to MAKE it a beautiful game (for those who like soccer which, granted, isn’t everyone!). This requires constant work and effort to battle gender discrimination, which is much more fundamental to sporting culture than one small section on women would have us believe.

If we got rid of FIFA, we’d be getting rid of an ostensible monarchy that is taking countries for a ride for billions of dollars. We’d be getting rid of many an old, white fascist. We’d be getting rid of some extremely sexist individuals.

But don’t for a second think we’d be returning to a Beautiful Game devoid of any form of politics or power.

Don’t for a second think that FIFA’s abolishment would suddenly have droves of people interested in the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada.


*here I’m speaking of ‘women’ as a category that is maintained by FIFA’s divisions into male and female sides. Of course, not everyone identifies as a woman in such a way, and much has been written about the (re)production of gender through sport. A prime example of gender policing is sex-testing at the Olympic Games.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>