Like a lot of children Frantz Fanon, the legendary Martinican-Algerian revolutionary, loved playing soccer as a youngster. Returning to his place of birth Martinique in 1945 after fighting in Europe and North Africa in the Second World War, he continued to play soccer in a local team.
Soccer was always part of Fanon’s life. Nearly a decade after the war, he tried to create a therapeutic community at Blida-Joinville Psychiatric Hospital in Algeria. He organised a soccer team at the institution and arranged for matches with other teams in the community.
In The Wretched of the Earth, perhaps Fanon’s most famous book, which was written in 1961, he reflects on the anticolonial struggles in Africa and warns of coming challenges. The book was prescient and still remains relevant. But Fanon’s remarks on sport, which come in the central chapter, Pitfalls of National Consciousness, have been little discussed.
He writes, “The youth of Africa should not be oriented toward the stadiums but towards the fields, the fields and the schools. The stadium is not an urban showpiece but a rural space that is cleared, worked and offered to the nation. The capitalist notion of sports is fundamentally different from that which should exist in an underdeveloped country.”
The context and framing of Fanon’s remarks is important. Remember, this was a period of epochal transformation: the end of formal colonial rule marked by independence.
Imagine the possibility of building solidarity and sociality in the midst of such turmoil? The idea that all are equal and the future is possible only together was one of Fanon’s guiding principles.
One can only imagine what Fanon would have made of soccer today, especially that it has become so hugely popular and so driven by money.
Soccer has 4-billion followers worldwide. According to the sport’s controlling body, Fifa, 270-million people (4% of the world’s population) are actively involved in the game.
In professional soccer, obscene amounts of money are made. English Premier League team, Manchester United, rated as the most valuable team in the world, is worth $3.69bn.
In the pyramid of global soccer, with its players owned and managed by agents, third parties, management companies and so on, local football leagues are often very small cogs in a hierarchical system. In Europe, the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, the Bundesliga in Germany, followed by Serie A and Ligue 1 in Italy and France, respectively, vie for the best players.
The European war of the clubs is played out in the highly mediated Champions League. Fans support clubs that use illegal and semilegal means to extract players from the global south often through systems that mirror the move from periphery to semiperiphery to centre (from Brazil to Portugal to Spain, or from West Africa to France and England and so on).
Everyone is aware of the transfer sagas. They include the valuations of humans, with transfer fees having already exceeded $110m for some top players — and likely to go even higher now with transfer season open again — the scouting for young talent, the clubs’ rhetoric of war chests, the endless TV sport-show speculation about signings.
The mythology of nation is recreated in this “traditional” sporting event as an act of nostalgia and modernity
The culture industry was wonderfully reproduced at Wembley Stadium in May, when Arsenal won the FA Cup, beating Chelsea 2-1. The event was introduced not only by the national anthem, standard fare at these things, but also a minute’s silence for the victims of the bombing in Manchester, the laying of wreaths, black armbands, and “I love MCR” signs that were shown multiple times on TV.
The mythology of nation is recreated in this “traditional” sporting event as an act of nostalgia and modernity. Here, globally networked, televised for a fee-based international viewership, is “England”.
After they won, Arsenal played The Clash’s 1979 punk-rock anthem, London Calling, to celebrate the Emirates Cup win at Wembley. The iconic English cup, branded as the oldest association football competition in the world, is now named after an airline.
One element of Premiership football is its international cast of star players. Only a minority of English players play in the Premier League — the most branded, most watched league in the world. The Emirates (Arsenal’s branded stadium), whose name also evokes the shining lights of Abu Dhabi turbocapitalism and the super-rich, was opened by the royal right-winger Prince Phillip.
Sepp Blatter, formerly the head crook at the sports controlling body Fifa, ranked the Queen of England as having more football knowledge than former Italian prime minister, AC Milan owner and and now fraud, Silvio Berlusconi.
All in all, these are the types of nasty people who own the clubs and run a game. Everyone is aware of this hypercapitalist story, but the outrage is usually directed elsewhere. Fans want rich owners and often turn a blind eye to how they’ve got these riches.
Sport is also bigger than politics; people talk and argue about sports minutiae all the time. It is a space in which ordinary people are allowed to be passionate and knowledgeable. Politics is elitist, technocratic and its discourse is typically opaque. Soccer — very often couched in masculine terms — is populist.
Soccer is a social game, a team game. And we can imagine how Fanon considered it to be therapeutic when he had everything centred on his “patients” taking charge — from creating the pitch and fielding a team, to finding “opponents” and working out schedules.
All this was part of the social therapy that Fanon envisaged would help break down institutional hierarchies in the psychiatric hospital and foster social relations to challenge the alienation that was part of the institution.
When Fanon writes of sport “expanding minds” and the task of “humanising”, he is concerned with a mental and psychological liberation, namely freeing the mind from the nervous conditions induced by colonialism and war and unthinking reproduction in which Europe is looked to for models.
Fanon sounds a bit schoolmasterly telling the youth what they should do. But the larger question in these days of corporate global football dominated by European leagues and its teams, with each a “brand” most likely owned by multinational capital, is how this model can possibly be followed in the global south?
Fanon’s answer is unequivocal: “Comrade, the European game is finally over.” Instead, “The African politician should not be concerned with producing professional sportspeople, but conscious individuals who also practice sports.”
But today, one would be hardpressed to find an African politician who would advocate this perspective.
Politics is a dirty and corrupt game for personal game. The pragmatic African politician dismisses Fanon’s notions as utopian. They are not concerned with social transformation but adaptation to becoming cogs in the machine of global capital by any means. What can we make of Fanon’s notion of what sport could be? He offers a wholly different conception and imagination of sport, decolonisation, and the nation.
Can we imagine a different notion of sport?
Not necessarily noncompetitive, but competitive in a different way: a decolonised notion that is radically anticapitalist, radically anticommercial and antibourgeois. This is what Fanon is asking us to think about.
• Gibson is an associate professor of interdisciplinary studies at Emerson College. This article first appeared on The Conversation.