June 01, 2011

"Fair Play" in a "Man's Game"

2011, the 1848 of the twenty-first century, has given us ample demonstration of the fate of tyrants. When the going gets tough, the iron fist squeezes all the more tightly, and the people, like sand, slip ever more quickly through its fingers. Humanity, when pushed to the limit, has an indomitable spirit. This has been a good year for getting rid of the atavisms of absolutism, and it promises more to come.

One thing has been constant since the last war. Under the banner of football, nations otherwise in strife and discord have come together, symbolically to represent the spirit of man and the ideal of fair play. It is the motto of FIFA, and it defines its importance. But like other mottoes, it has become a dead letter. FIFA is a corrupt nation, its ministers motivated by greed and self-importance, its president a tyrant by any other name. There are probably no lives at stake. Probably. But the humanity that the beautiful game is supposed to represent is being dragged through the mud, and we are all losers for that.

The art of the press conference, as perfected by Syria, Libya, and Egypt

What is so disappointing about this affair is that no revolution seems plausible. In the spirit of fair play, sometimes the fair thing to do – the just thing – is to rise up and overthrow. This group of salesmen – for that is what FIFA is – will quietly endorse the incumbent president because it appears the least troublesome, and the least costly, thing to do. Representing a sport (that used to be) defined by never giving up, by playing to the whistle, and by heart, these men will keep quiet and capitulate. They will be ‘fair’ to sponsors, and to television networks, for fear of losing money. And the game, a game that once defined manliness in its activity, its sportsmanship, and its passion, will die a little bit more.

Whether it is war, oppression, or just sport, the indomitable spirit of people remains. At root, football is what it always was: a group of men kicking around a ball. The sooner we get back to that, the better.


  1. Dusting up the Lockean right to revolution, doctor? Glad to see it-

  2. Kings of Denial seems to be a major theme at present. It seems to me that rarely have there been quite so many examples on full public display of dictators and tyrants up against it either in the media or through local rioting on the streets or Nato bombing.

    I would be really interested to hear your thoughts /insights from your perspective as historian and social commentator.

    What has history taught us? What is it, apart from the charisma of the authoritarian that keeps dictators, for instance Mugabe and Gadaffi, in power for years? Chose these two because of the peculiarity of ANC support for both. (The habit of the long term oppressed still seeking to befried oppressors put simplistically)

    Blatter seems a different case, where maintaining the status quo is easier than change, as long as everyone is getting their share of the pie - probably a commonality in each case.

    Links to reading on the topic would also be appreciated.

    Thank you

  3. Sad to say that the only way in which history tends to teach is through those who would corrupt it for their own ends. Historians are - should be - guardians in this sense.

    Money and the realistic threat of violence, assisted these days by control of the media (through money and the realistic threat of violence), puts/keeps people in power. The courage of the oppressed gets them out.

    Reading matter on these subjects is vast, but you could do worse than reading Machiavelli, 'The Prince', and book VIII of Plato's 'Republic'. That ought to be enough for a few weeks at least.

  4. The caption to the photo is gold. "You cannot question me"...goodness gracious.

  5. Umm, wonder who did play the News Corp role in Plato's Republic? Thanks!

  6. That would be the poets, I suppose.


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