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Arab Soccer in the Diaspora

By David Golding


In a qualifying match against Brazil for the 1990 World Cup, Chile was on the verge of elimination when the goalkeeper Roberto Rojas cut himself with a razor and writhed on the ground next to a firework that had been thrown from the stands. What happened after that resembled a Zionist or neocon dreamscape: angry protestations, a bloodied body ceremoniously hauled away in a mock martyr’s cortege, and a subsequent humiliation of the supposed victim. Video evidence showed that the wound was self-inflicted and FIFA banned Chile from competition in the next World Cup (Rojas received a lifetime ban, which was lifted in 2001 after years of penance and ostracism: of course, the fact that he had been following orders from management was largely overlooked).

Eduardo Galeano, in his left-wing elegy to soccer, interprets the incident moralistically. Cheating, according to Galeano, inevitably proceeds from the capitalist usurpation of soccer, but only unsuccessful cheating is punished. Successful cheating, like Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal in the 1986 World Cup, is a sign of entrepreneurial spunk if not Calvinistic grace. "In professional soccer,” he writes, “like everything else, the crime does not matter as long as the alibi is good...What sad harvests could come of a power that bestows impunity on the crimes of the military and the graft of politicians and converts them into triumphs?" He then quotes Albert Camus, the writer and Algerian goalkeeper, who said that everything he knew about morals he owed to soccer.

I suspect that Camus, with his petty-bourgeois sportsman’s ethics, would have disapproved of FIFA’s blacklisting of the Algerian national team in 1958. He was, after all, a forerunner of the liberal myth that dominates sports today: the myth that virile individualism and virile camaraderie are effective countermeasures to the brutalizing world of politics and that a conscientious community can transcend both the reactionary status quo and centrifugal demands for justice. FIFA, the most reactionary organization in international sports, is only half-heartedly on board with this program. Rooted in a specifically European pathological fantasy of metropolitan hegemony and forced to resort to neocolonialist tactics by virtue of its global reach, it has a hard time resisting the urge to demand authoritarian measures from the Brazilian government against its meddlesome Third World population or to do business with the shadiest Qatari oligarchs. Which is why it resorts so desperately to the caricatural agitprop of anti-racism. Needless to say, the disciplinary injunction towards tolerance is almost always used to suppress the victims of intolerance.

Another interpretation of Rojas’ stunt is that it was an avant la lettre parable of a panoptic human rights culture: A man thinks he can save his team from losing by bleeding and wailing on television only to be told that television contradicts his suffering and to be condemned for trying to cheat the surveilling gods, the gods who dispense alms to the right victims and humanitarian interventions to their tormenters. Rojas was like Arafat keeping his stockpiles of weapons on the roofs of hospitals and schools (and the Brazilian fireworks were like Israeli cluster bombs). He cheated, and he cheated badly, and there’s nothing more embarrassing to the world than a bungling cheater, like Reagan’s welfare queens or those psychiatric patients who turn out to be faking their conditions because they don’t want to work or because they prefer the company of other psychiatric patients.

Galeano should have gone one step further (of course he couldn’t have, trapped in his leftist soccer-romanticism and soccer-machismo). He should have realized that it’s not enough to lament the capitalist corruption of macho morality. He should have realized that the very appeal to that morality plays into the hands of capitalism’s ideologues, who would prefer that the debate remain a frozen one between realist partisans of the profit motive and reactionary dithyrmabists of the prelapsarian proletarian body. In the figure of Donald Sterling, that debate collapses into an obscene imago. You can sleep with the black players, Sterling told his girlfriend, whom he assumed must share his fetish for “those beautiful black bodies,” but you can’t bring them into the foyer of oligarchic capitalism. In the universe of sports, or in the universe according to Donald Sterling, there’s profit and there’s libido. Like one of Zizek’s parallaxes, they’re two irreconcilable views of the same reality.


ESPN recently featured the 1973 Chilean national team in its “30 for 30” documentary “The Opposition.” Like all deployments of well-meaning ESPN liberalism, politics, if it can be called that, appears as pastiche or a ménage of nefarious actors. Lip-service is paid to Allende’s socialist project (I think the word “socialism” is uttered a couple times). Pinochet comes on the scene and starts doing unfathomable and nasty things in a soccer stadium. The players who are interviewed, Carlos Caszely and Leonardo Veliz, were well-disposed to the Unidad Popular (it’s implied, but only implied, that the other players might have had different political orientations). In only twenty-three minutes, five minutes are set aside to introduce the American audience, whose eternal historical ignorance is not only assumed but flattered, to the relevant background (I think the word “CIA” is uttered once). There is disembodied pain, decontextualized torture, death and disappearance figures, anger and sorrow (I want to be fair: the Museo de la Memoria y Derechos Humanos in Santiago is an equally depoliticized, and far more expensive and socially relevant, example of the same exercise in oblivion, euphemism, and postmodern obscurantism). In the end, the moral is the abiding moral of every “30 for 30” production: sports represent the highest point of the innate human striving for justice, but because sports are synonymous with the human condition, they are inevitably infected with the gnostic virus of reactionary politics. But in the end, according to the political theology of ESPN, which is an improvement I suppose over the political theology of the Right when it comes to sports, sports always triumphs over adversity. If not now, then later, one day, as befits the Obama-inspired mysticism of late capitalism.

Probably the most committed example of this sports eschatology can be found in Bob Bradley, the former coach of the U.S. and Egyptian national soccer teams. Bradley is often lauded for his “adventurous” choice of going to Egypt, but he’s also lauded, more plausibly, for his role there during and after the Egyptian revolution. There was a shadow of imperialism, if not in Bradley himself, then in his acolytes, but it was an imperialism based in something approaching a genuine universalism (soccer and American hegemony rarely go together, as much as Clinton tried to yoke them). Bradley appeared on “The Daily Show” right before Egypt was eliminated during the final qualifying matches of the 2014 World Cup (he was released afterwards) and gave a convincing account of his minimialist political project. His duty, he said, was to the players, but that duty inevitably involved a political role. John Oliver, taking over for John Stewart, cheerleaded for the union of soccer and liberal opposition. Of course, very few specifics were discussed, but at least a space was carved out in opposition to the Machiavellian politics of the Obama administration and the Caesarist politics of the military dictatorship (naturally, Sisi was the enemy that could not be named, and Mursi was called out).

Egypt performed poorly against Ghana and now Bradley coaches in Norway.


On May 31, Chile hosted Egypt in a game played at the Estadio Nacional. Egypt scored two early goals but Chile came back to win 3-2.

The Estadio Nacional, in addition to being the most notorious of Pinochet’s concentration camps, was also the site of one of the most tragi-farcical events in soccer history (occasionally, Marx’s gnomic prophecy plays itself out simultaneously in Joyce’s Nebeneinander). After the Soviet Union petitioned FIFA to allow their World Cup qualifying match against Chile to be played at a neutral location (understandably, Soviet sensibilities or Soviet Realpolitik were offended by having to play a game in a stadium where thousands of communists were being tortured and murdered), FIFA sent a delegation to Pinochet’s abattoir to investigate. The investigation, in its patent complicity, made the Red Cross visit to Theresienstadt seem like a model of humanitarian responsibility (the regime didn’t even bother with Nazi Potemkinism: it simply ushered its prisoners into makeshift cells and pointed guns at their heads). The FIFA delegates found nothing out of the ordinary and the Soviet Union abstained from the game, forfeiting its bid for the 1974 World Cup. Nevertheless, since it is more impossible to imagine the end of soccer than the end of the world, the game had to be played. In front of a cheering crowd, Chile scored several goals against a spectral opponent. The opposing team may or may not have been the ghosts of the Ukrainian bakers’ team who wore red in 1942 and chose not to throw a game against the Wehrmacht team, although this meant losing their lives in Gestapo prisons (of course there are people in Maidan today who claim this never happened, who claim that the referees were not SS men, that the red uniforms were handed to the players by chance, that the Wehrmacht players conducted themselves with the greatest honor and sportsmanship, that the Germans brought nothing to Ukraine but bread and circuses, or bread and soccer). Alternately, the opposing team could have been made up of time-traveling players from the current Egyptian Premier League, who since the Port Said Stadium riot have had to play their games in empty stadiums. Caesarist spectacles, like scenes in Buñuel’s films, are always incomplete and excessive at the same time. The screams of torture victims fail to interrupt a bourgeois silence or a bourgeois pandemonium. The players never show up or disappear afterwards. The Army orchestrates a massacre, infiltrating the fans of one team and attacking the fans of another team, and then issues a mass death sentence against the fans of the first team. A player is feted by a regime which has kidnapped and raped his mother. A dictator, either out of hubris or unrequited love or simple misunderstanding, calls himself President of a soccer team whose fans loathe him.

Today, of course, there’s no one to stand up to General Sisi on the terrain of soccer. In a predictable paradox (so it’s not actually a paradox), the more the world gets polluted with human rights rhetoric, the more it kowtows to actual authoritarianism. The counterweight of Russia, whether it’s useful or not to leftist politics, leads automatically to a Putinesque cult of sovereignty, a masculine cult in which sports are the summit of repressive self-determination (thus the farce of the last Olympics, in which the U.S. government mobilized the dystopic neoliberal community of corporatized gay sports against the unapologetically fascistic spectacle that Putin dreamed up for himself in Sochi).


If FIFA is the arch-reactionary overlord of international soccer, and ESPN/Bradley are the mediating liberal opposition, then soccer’s savage id, either proto-fascist or more likely under current conditions ultraleftist, is represented by semi-organized cadres of soccer fans. In March, I attended a massive protest in Santiago which drew tens of thousands to the city center. The protest was symptomatic of the political paralysis of the Chilean Left. On the one hand, its numbers, its demands, and its organization were revolutionary. On the other hand, it consented beforehand to a cordoned-off spectacle (commitment to non-violence, semi-approbation by the new Bachelet government, which was ushered in on a wave of leftist sentiment). On the margins of this dubious bargain were the so-called encapuchados, or as some media outlets like to translate it, “the hooded ones,” most of whom were made up of Colo Colo fans. They played a game of positional warfare with the carabineros. If a Beckettian tramp had bothered to do the math, he might have estimated that ten barricades resulted in one armored vehicle sweep, fifty paving stone-projectiles resulted in one water cannon, and two or three Molotov cocktails, depending on the mood, resulted in a draconian release of teargas that choked every old woman within a one hundred yard radius, but not the encapuchados, who of course were wearing hoods (Chile’s former president, the right-wing billionaire Sebastian Piñera, sent a bill to Congress last year that would have cracked down on the use of hoods at protests: the ostensible purpose of the bill was “identity and preventative control,” which is ominous enough, but a corollary purpose was to allow for the maximum effectiveness of tear gas).

The Colo Colo fans, and their girlfriends, were only acting on the rhetoric of the majority. They refused to believe that Pinochet, their former honorary president, was dead. Their demands were the immediate and unconditional surrender of the Chilean state. They were denounced by the official organs of the protesters as violent interlopers. Which they were.

In Tahrir in 2011, the Al-Ahly ultras taught the bourgeoning opposition how to fight the police. But like Hobsbawm’s bandits, or like comic-book characters, they gave their knowledge out of generosity and without any specific end in mind.

It’s probably in the nature of soccer to either act as the violent and proto-political vanguard of the Left, or as the official organ of the Left, or as a romantic trope of the Left, but never more than one at once.


But like most politics, soccer has become dominated more by semiotic warfare than by street warfare. Egyptian soccer star Abdel-Zaher was sent to a Libyan Siberia after he waved the four-fingered “Rabaa” solidarity sign in commemoration of the massacre at the Rabaa Al-Adawiya Mosque in August 2013. “Damn football!” one Egyptian woman wrote on Twitter. “How dare this player show solidarity with these terrorists” (she may have been the same woman I saw after crossing the October 6th Bridge with the Way of the Revolution Front, the woman selling General Sisi postcards, stickers, and temporary tattoos, who accosted a protester and slapped him in the face). In Europe, the comedian Dieudonné, the orphaned or denied child of Michel Houellebecq, who toggles schizophrenically between Voice of the Oppressed and Stooge of the Far Right, has invented a popular gesture known as the “quenelle” (a kind of inverted Nazi salute, an incendiary reappropriation of European genocide, which he describes as an ass-fuck to Zionism, as if to make the classic Freudian argument that sodomy is misplaced aggression in the same way that Zionism is misplaced settler colonialism). François Hollande, France’s smarmy Socialist president who made a campaign video in the banlieues set to Jay-Z and Kanye’s “Niggas in Paris” (and whose neoimperialist dick-measuring in Africa is egging on Obama’s African adventurism), has vowed to crack down on soccer players who adopt “the so-called comic” Dieudonné’s salute. The English Premier League has followed suit. Certain Zionists who double as Pickup Artists have made the chimerical argument that Hollande needs to stifle Dieudonné because Dieudonné prematurely reveals the Left’s neo-Nazi plans for Europe (only once the Left has achieved its majority can it unleash its Third World brownshirts). Meanwhile, the neofascists in Europe have been thrown for a loop. Marine Le Pen, who may also have been one of Houllebecq’s ironic-apocalyptic wetdreams, can’t quite break with her father’s traditional anti-Semitism, which led him to Dieudonné in the first place. The Netherlands’ Geert Wilders, soundly defeated in May’s European Union election, was collateral damage in this Oedipal conflict (he sided with Le Pen over Nigel Farage, who fully espouses the English Defense League’s more ecumenical brand of Islamophobia).

(On the terrace rooftop of a hostel in Cairo in December: A pasty, balding British guy was ranting to someone at the front desk about a homosexual plague that was overtaking England, about how all the men in England were becoming pretty boys. That’s one thing I agree with the Muzzies on, he said. I reckon we need a General Sisi in England, he said. That’s one thing I don’t like about the English Defense League, he said. I’m all for standing up for England against the wogs, no offense, but you shouldn’t bring in the fags to help you out. What’s that called? A Pyrrhic victory? You kick out the wogs only to get the fags in their place. Like kicking the shit out of Hitler only to hand over Eastern Europe to the commies. To tell you the truth, I’d take Hitler over the commies, and the wogs over the fags, know what I mean?)

Meanwhile, Dieudonné laughs himself, as they say, all the way to the bank, or to the abyss.


It seems miraculous, but it’s not, that the charlatanic spirit of Pamela Geller, with her mysterious photographs of Haj Amin al-Husseini meeting with Hitler (photographs that are currently making their rounds on Washington D.C. buses), has made its way to Chile. In January 2014, the Chilean soccer club Deportivo Palestino was fined for their new jerseys which included a map of mandate Palestine in lieu of the number 1 (which means that whoever wore jersey number 11 bore witness to the vertiginous nature of history, as if the nostos were forever being reduplicated in a series of simulacra mocking the irredentist hopes of the Palestinians, or as if the tragedy of Palestinian history could be papered over in a mad Borgesian experiment). Someone who calls himself the president of the Chilean Jewish community (Nabokov should have written the novel and set it in Patagonia) accused the team of using soccer to “lie and hate.” The Simon Wisenthal Center demanded that Palestino be penalized “for fomenting terrorist intent” (this in a country where everyone takes pains not to foment terrorist intent and not to foment the fomenting of terrorist intent). Chileans themselves were divided. Many remember the Jews who fought against the Pinochet regime (and those who fought for it) and the Palestinians who fought against the Pinochet regime (and those who fought for it). The Palestinian diaspora in Chile is the largest in the western hemisphere. But everyone remembers, or everyone who bothers remembers, that Israel sold weapons to Pinochet after Carter deemed him a pariah (the U.S. government also remembers Carlos Cardoen, father of the cluster bomb and the Chilean wine industry, who sold the right weapons the Saddam Hussein and then sold the wrong weapons to Saddam Hussein). And then there are other Chileans, Chilean soccer fans for example, who stick to a kind of cynical xenophobia. They remember that Palestino was once a great club and is now only a mediocre club. They consider the jersey change a publicity stunt designed to play up the club’s Palestinian allegiances in a bid to expand its market (they also remember Palestino’s ambassadorial trip to the Occupied Territories, where they played a series of friendly matches, a trip that was viewed skeptically in some quarters). They don’t think highly of Palestino soccer or, particularly, of Palestinians.

It’s possible that if the Palestino club went with this Ehud Barak-inspired colorful rendering of the West Bank for number 7, they might win over, at the very least, some anomic leftists and South American Lollapalooza attendees, who measure their radicalism in psychedelia.


Predictably, in this past World Cup, we heard a lot about the moral shortcomings (fascist recidivism, homophobia, anthropophagy, the supposedly unchivalrous and effeminate “flop”), of certain players and fan groups. Mexican fans casually tossing out “puto” at rival goalkeepers (who, in the macho mythopoeia of the soccer imagination, inevitably take on a kind of Proustian-botanical passivity and whose status as coquettes or choosy whores makes the jouissance of the game possible) were deemed just as guilty as Croatian fans playing Ustasha dress-up. But even here, a certain deflection/projection is at work. Just as the excoriation of Qatari royalty serves as an alibi for the crimes of the European ancien régime, the supposedly colorful and unregenerate fascism of eastern European soccer fans becomes a mask and a pretext for the sordid antinomianism of western European fans, who have institutionalized a sadistic-ludic reenactment of Europe’s past atrocities, as if to say that history is a nightmare from which it is too much fun to awake. In the Netherlands—a country that may be the worst exploiter of what Norman Finkelstein calls the “Holocaust Industry” (although Hollande’s seemingly magnanimous 2012 speech commemorating the Vel d’Hiv Roundup, which turned out to be a disingenuous lustration in preparation for a kind of neoconservative “human rights”-inflected militarism in Mali and Libya, wants to ensure that France takes the lead on that front—AFC Ajax baptizes itself “the Jews” while their rivals, Feyenoord from Rotterdam, respond by adopting a thoroughly fictive solidarity with Hamas, whom they, along with the Israel Lobby, evidently identify with Nazis (a common chant: “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas”). According to the Feyenoord fans, whoever doesn’t jump is a Jew and yelling “Auschwitz” at crowded trams is a good joke. Nevertheless, this didn’t prevent them from chanting the name of Pim Fortuyn after his assassination in 2002 (Fortuyn was the openly gay far-right Dutch politician who promised to send Dutch troops to defend Israel were he elected prime minister).

Years ago, when Sol Campbell, a black-English soccer player who was rumored to be gay, left Tottenham to join Tottenham’s rivals, Arsenal, Tottenham fans responded with the usual Philip Rothian paraphernalia and jokes about bananas. Tottenham’s fans are nicknamed the “Yids” and the club has a long-standing connection to London’s Jewish community. The Arsenal fans, who also have a large Jewish fan base, responded with hisses (onomatopoetic of the gas chamber).

In Brazil, it was impossible to watch a game without seeing Israeli flags in the stands and impossible not to feel a growing anxiety over the ineffable connection between this nihilistic pastiche and Israel’s preparations for yet another massacre in Gaza. This level of affectless, banal, and dehistoricized libidinal investment in violence is completely unrecognizable outside of Pasolini’s Salò.


Holocaust jokes were also trending on Twitter after Germany’s disgraceful victory against Brazil (as the 1982 Germany-Austria Anschluss, in which, after Germany scored an early goal, the two teams colluded to make nothing happen in order to prevent Algeria from advancing, proved, the Germans are perfectly capable of not scoring when they want to). But Holocaust jokes are a cop-out and lazy history. Fassbinder’s masterpiece, The Marriage of Maria Braun, situates West Germany’s first World Cup victory in 1954 in the context of the failure of de-Nazification, in the continuity between the Third Reich and the phoenix-like West German state, not in the mirage or fetish or repetition syndrome of a single crime. The film ends with the suicide of the star-crossed lovers (or if not the suicide, then the carelessness of the lovers: a malaise and amnesia that is worse than suicide and makes suicide impossible) and a beautiful Bakhitnian polyphony: Germany’s goal as announced on the radio (echoing Adenauer’s previous radio address on German rearmament) and a series of photographs (summoning the opening photograph of Hitler) of the federal chancellors from Adenauer to Helmut Schmidt (with the notable absence of Willy Brandt, the one-time hope for rupture and discontinuity of German liberals like Fassbinder). The announcer: “It’s all over! It’s all over! Germany is world champion!”

West Germany won again in 1970, after the defeat of the New Left (and while original cadre of the RAF were in the Ajloun mountains lecturing Palestinian fighters about the superiority of western values and the revolutionary necessity of fucking). In 1990, a reunited Germany won a retroactive victory against communism and for the new European order. Against Brazil, Germany’s refusal to let up in the second half smelled of Merkel’s unsavory Lutheran-Kantianism. Against Argentina, German players appeared impatient to be declared world champions and were compelled to score a goal in the 113th minute in order win the prize that they already considered theirs. Germany’s message to the rest of the world these days is clear: you savages agreed to play the game and it would be unethical for us not to teach you what it means to lose.

From July, 2014

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