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Socialist football

Written By: - Date published: 1:16 pm, July 8th, 2010 - 32 comments
Categories: socialism, sport - Tags: ,

I’m interested in comparisons between systems that operate via “central command and control” vs. those that operate via “cooperation and emergent consensus”. A classic example is the comparison between a corporation like Microsoft and the Open Source movement (see “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”).

Football legend John Barnes cheekily claims the cooperative model for socialism. The following piece explores these ideas in the context of the beautiful game:

According to football legend John Barnes, England will never win a World Cup until our footballers embrace their inner socialist. “Players from other nations when they play for their country are once again a socialist entity, all pulling in the same direction,” he told the journalist Mihir Bose last week. Apart from citing Brazil and Argentina as role models seamlessly making their way to the World Cup final, he was spot on.

The best football teams are socialist in nature. They play for each other, and individual brilliance is often subservient to the common good. Even the language of team sport is socialist solidarity, unite, goal, come together. Why do you think the word United is so beloved by football people that 15 clubs in England’s top four division divisions have it in their title? Barcelona, possibly the world’s most successful club, are the living embodiment of our old clause four (remember that?) owned by the supporters for the supporters, they have indeed “secured by hand or brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof” as some of us used to say. …

Football’s greatest managers always knew how much the sport owed to socialism. Brian Clough, who gave tickets for Derby’s games to striking miners and agitated for a player walkout (admittedly after he had walked out on Derby), was once asked by the former Labour MP, Austin Mitchell, whether he was a superstitious man? “No, Austin, I’m not,” he answered. “I’m a socialist.” Sure he drove a Mercedes, but he wanted everybody to be able to drive a Mercedes. A slice of bloody cake for all, that was his philosophy.

Bill Shankly, possibly the greatest and wisest of them all, believed football and socialism were inseparable. “The socialism I believe in is everybody working for the same goal and everybody having a share in the rewards. That’s how I see football, that’s how I see life,” he said.

As for the World Cup, we should have known there was no chance of glory for the Three Lions with a Con-Dem coalition. After all, England has never won the World Cup under the Tories or the Liberals, or the Liberal Democrats, or New Labour. As Harold Wilson boasted in 1966: “Have you ever noticed how we only win the World Cup under a Labour government?”

32 comments on “Socialist football ”

  1. Carol 1

    This is an interesting proposition, but I think it depends a bit on how socialism is defined. But to be truly socialist, wouldn’t there also be co-operation between all teams, undermining the need for a strong sense of competitiveness to win?

    I am very interested in the way human achievements require a mixture of co-operation and competition. In fact, I think capitalism includes a mixture of both. Welfare capitalism, IMO, keeps a reasonable balance between co-operation and competitiveness. I’m a leftie, but not sure how much of a socialist I am, or if there’s another better system outside the socialist-capitalist binary. I do favour a kind of Green New Deal at the moment, but am open to ideas.

    The kind of “neoliberal” dominance that we’ve seen in the last few decades privileges individual and corporate competitiveness. In so doing the balance between co-operation and competitiveness is distorted. However, it would not have been able to succeed as much as it has without some co-operation amongst the elite team of the wealthy and powerful.

    So, I ask, what is socialism? Are soccer teams, however co-operative the approach, only conceivable within a competitive capitalist framework?

    • burt 1.1


      I just don’t like socialism, the rest of the stuff the great guru of socialist blibber-blabber John Barnes rabbits on about is purely team spirit. Team spirit transcends political ideology. Barnes is just confused, and with his past its easy to see how he might lose perspective. If the teams that routinely win are the teams where all players are paid the same mediocre salary appropriate for their country, which is the same as the management and the coaches; then he can say socialism wins the game.

      A star team should always kick ass against a team full of stars, that’s got stuff all to do with political ideology.

    • burt 1.2

      As for his romancing about the ‘United’ as in Manchester, he’s off beam big time.

      Wiki : Manchester United

      formed in 1878 as Newton Heath LYR Football Club, LYR as in Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway depot at Newton Heath.

      It goes on;

      In January 1902, with debts of £2,670 equivalent to £210,000 in 2010 the club was served with a winding-up order. Captain Harry Stafford found four local businessmen, including John Henry Davies (who became club president), each willing to invest £500 in return for a direct interest in running the club and who subsequently changed the name; on 24 April 1902, Manchester United was officially born.

      Well perhaps the Newton Heath LYR Football Club started socialist but it had to be bailed out by wealthy private investors which gave birth to Manchester United. (familiar theme for socialism…)

      Barnes might want to read Wiki, he might notice the ‘United’ kind of represents the mergers of teams that went on in the formation. Typical socialist, always re-writing history.

  2. Herodotus 2

    I heard on the radio (Cannot find links) that the English team were on a 180k sterling/week salary, and now they had escaped holidaying in S.A. with family. The socilist of 70’s (Liverpools Shankly) is a long way off where these players are now. The game may be followed by the socialist but is managed and owned by the elite and played by a very isolated privledged few on many millions of pounds per year, and this for a 20 something.
    R0b your comment is for me similar to the NZ lab party want was is not what they stand for now, sometimes it would be good to go back and regain some of the innocence and purity of the original idealisms. With NZ Lab we can only hope that this spirit is recaptured.

    • burt 2.1

      Labour needs to do some serious naval gazing, harking back to what worked before they lost their way in the 80’s isn’t the answer. Re-nationalising everything and dominating the economy with state monopolies was 70’s and 80’s. It was Muldoon policy, before that it was great depression policy, it’s not todays solution. Till Labour stop pissing around with targeted vote winning strategies they will never win our hears and minds, they might win some votes but that’s not the spirit I think you are referring to.

  3. Bored 3

    Remember Guernica!!!!!

    PS That was deliberately inflicted, what the neo libs did was self inflicted.

  4. Olwyn 4

    I don’t think that the South American teams consistently live up to the socialist ideal, since they can be overly reliant on individual stars. Toward the end of the game this morning, Pedro made a fabulous break down the centre but apparently seeking glory for himself, failed to pass the ball to Torres and consequently lost it to a defender. The coach promptly took him off and replaced him. While it didn’t cost Spain the game, you might say that this little mishap resulted from Pedro’s failing to be socialist enough.

    • Carol 4.1

      I’m confused? Are you saying Spain is a South American team?

    • Lew 4.2

      I considered making this reflection on Pedro’s bad decision, but a Randroid would argue that he failed to act in his own self-interest. Setting up the freshly-substituted striker to score would have brought him almost much glory as scoring himself, and was a much surer thing.

      As tempting as arguments like this are, I don’t think they’re generally very valid at the player level. But in general I think the case does hold for the England team, which is a collection of individuals who barely train when they’re encamped together, and who were and usually are predominantly picked on star profile and club-level reputation rather than on raw merit. Brazil, who left out two of the most famous names in world football — Ronaldo and Ronaldinho — due to form slumps. England’s star players — like Beckham, Ferdinand, Owen — were left out due to injury. (not that brazil did all that much better than England, but they sure did look more convincing.)


      • Fabregas4 4.2.1

        Nope, he acted in his own self interest – he had replaced Torres in the team and if he had passed to Torres, and he had scored, then he (Pedro) risked being left out for the final (probably will be anyway).

  5. Olwyn 5

    No. I should have added an “and” or a sentence separating the two statements. I do think the Sth Americans can rely too much on stars, and I also think that Pedro’s nano-second of individualism was a mistake, given that Torres, a brilliant striker, was right there and waiting for the ball.

  6. The Voice of Reason 6

    Great post! As a former member of the Auckland City Socialists Football Club I can tell you that a team with a common goal can often play well above the levels the individual skills suggest. Even if it’s just in the 4th Div of the Business House League.

    There have been experiments with democracy in clubs in recent times, including an internet based buyout of a small lower league English club a couple of year ago, where the fans also got a say on each weeks playing eleven. Barcelona is the most famous example of a fan owned club, but there are plenty of others. Sadly, most languish in obscurity for luck of funds. There are also plenty of clubs with left wing support bases, too, even if the ownership is private. The Italian team Livorno spring to mind.

    It beats me that a club like the wonderful West Ham United can’t be bought by the fans. Valued at less than 100 million pounds two years ago, when the then Icelandic owners were busy going bust, I would have thought that a kitty of say, 20 million quid, and some creative financing, would be enough to take control. That’s only 1000 each from the 20 thousand who turn up at Upton Park each home game.

    Two small points. Sir Alex Fergusson, despite the title, is a former watersider and proud unionist and remains a socialist to this day. And socialist is not the only left wing way to play. The Luther Blissett League is an anarchist take on footy, with 3 teams playing at the same time on the same field. You wouldn’t want to be the ref!

    • Herodotus 6.1

      Re the Hammers unfiortunately as far as I am aware no premier team makes money, so as a fan you pay your 1000 nicker then what happens as you continue to go down the debt trail. (as an aside I think the Green Bay Packers are also owned by the community) I think the bundesliga is the only substainable league financially, with the majority of the players being home grown and willing(?) to play for less than they could get elsewhere within Europe. Like the rest of the world the soccer clubs require a hugh shake up and to be brought back into reality how can Man City reportly afford 100 million quid for Kaka and be able to financially justify it.

    • uroskin 6.2

      If they played with two balls (and two teams) there would never be a dull moment. Action would be guaranteed somewhere on the field!

  7. Quoth the Raven 7

    I’m interested in comparisons between systems that operate via “central command and control’ vs. those that operate via “cooperation and emergent consensus’

    In other words the state vs civil society. The coercion and compulsion of the state vs the voluntary cooperation and emergent order of a free society.

  8. Bill 8

    Are people aware that the British Labour Party was going to legislate that fans of football teams going into receivership would become the owners through a mandated share option?

    I remember linking to it at the time on the grounds that if a government was able to envisage a fan takeover of a sports team, then they could have no excuse (in my book) for not legislating for worker takeovers of other, non-sporting companies going into receivership.


    Never had a problem with competition; not until it gets all cut throat which is what a capitalist/corporatist environment gravitates towards. That the system itself is bailed time and again, or that what are considered to be crucial parts are safe-guarded and bailed, is a sign of the failure of competition and the triumph of hypocrisy as a guiding principles.

    Co-operation does not preclude competition. Nor does it deaden individual talent and flair. What it does do is demarcate parameters of, or for competition (in part through rewards or lack thereof), in a way that competition does not become a zero sum game among players, but becomes a dynamic whereby overall results are enhanced and a generally harmonious environment maintained.

  9. SHG 9

    Manchester United, the most successful team in English soccer, is run as a dictatorship by Sir Alex Ferguson, the greatest manager in soccer history.

    That is to say ManU is operated along entirely socialist lines where everyone contributes, so long as he does what Ferguson tells him to do.

    • Fabregas4 9.1

      Anyone who played for Birkenhead United Over 35’s 2nd division would know one Brian Powell (Bonnie Ladd) who leads his (reasonably successful) teams by the Fergie or possibly Stalin like mantra of my way or the highway, but also embraced capitalism by charging every player $5 per week to play, and communism by leading the drinking every Tuesday and Saturday nights.

      Just to prove that football transcends all economic and political ideologies.

  10. Santi 10

    If so the All Whites under helen Clark should’ve been world champions. Good joke!

  11. Quoth the Raven 11

    On the comparison between “central command and control’ vs. those that operate via “cooperation and emergent consensus’ Kevin Carson’s recent piece The Thermidor of the Progressives Managerialist Liberalism’s Hostility to Decentralized Organization that looks at this area as he does so often (so read his other work if you’re interested in this) An excerpt

    The agenda of the Progressives (and of their British Fabian counterparts) initially had some anticapitalist elements, and inclined in some cases toward a paternalistic model of state socialism. But they quickly became useful idiots for corporate capitalism, and their “socialism” was relegated to the same support role for the corporate economy that Bismarck’s “Junker socialism” played in Germany. The New Class tended to expand its activities into areas of least resistance, which meant that its “progressive” inclinations were satisfied mainly in those areas where they tended to ameliorate the crisis tendencies and instabilities of corporate capitalism, and thereby to serve its long-term interests. And since genuine working class socialism wasn’t all that friendly to a privileged position for the New Middle Class, whatever form of “socialism” the latter supported tended toward an extremely managerialist model that left the old centralized corporate economic structure in place with “progressive” white collar managers running it “for the workers’ good.”

  12. uke 12

    Sport, at its deepest level, ultimately seems to work as a metaphor for War not for Society.

    Different codes are organised styles of warfare, played out in a relatively harmless and symbolic way. They less represent social systems, like socialism or capitalism, I would think, than warring tribes or nations.

    Nonetheless free-market capitalism does have an “eternal war” paradigm of constant competition, natural selection, boom and bust etc. etc. Life as an endless game of football with as many teams as individuals?

  13. marco 13

    So if two socialist teams play each other does that mean the result would be a draw? What on earth would the point of playing be?

  14. jcuknz 14

    I thought Spain goes on to the final becuase they had the octopus on side?

  15. burt 15

    If football was socialist then the outcome of the games would be decided before they took to the field. The rules would be changed on the fly while the game was progressing to try and constantly balance the game so the ball always stayed exactly in the middle of the pitch. There would be no winners and losers because by law the score would always be nill all. The teams would be picked on a rotation of people from the ‘wanting to play waiting list’ and while the game was being played the one and only TV channel provided by the state broadcaster would broadcast the game and there would be curfews to ensure everybody watched it.

    How fricken ridiculous, one of the worlds most competitive sports with the most highly paid players is socialist…. Where do people get this crap !

    • felix 15.1

      There would be no winners and losers because by law the score would always be nill all.

      Sounds remarkably close to actual football…

  16. Carol 16

    I just saw a report on Al Jazeera NewsHour on Triangle, about an alternative “world/people’s cup” being played in Cape Town. It looks like the games are being played in public parks, and is for poor people who feel they are left out of the World Cup.

    Some people interviewed complained that the amount of money spent on the WC would have been better spent on improving things for Sth Africans in poverty. They made comparisons with the kind of homes many poor live in, with the luxurious apartments/hotels provided for foreign visitors for the cup (though I guess they are bringing overseas funds into the country).

    On the other hand, some people interviewed claimed that the cup would have longer term economic benefits for all the country.

    Also questions were asked about whether the benfeits from income and the new soccer stadiums would mean poor people (boys) would ever get access to being professional footballers.

  17. Arsene Wenger the skilled, thoughtful and academic (he can speak and read three languages and has a Masters degree in Economics) Manager of Arsenal has been quoted (and I have a T-Shirt from philospohyfootball.com to prove it) as saying:

    “The Act of playing for the team makes every individual stronger”.

    Seems very Left, Socialist and ‘ahem’ correct to me.

    C’mon you Gunners!

    • The Voice of Reason 17.1

      Ha! I was wondering when you’d comment, Fab. I do think Wenger has an obvious faith in the system, rather than the individual, and he is clearly a good judge of talent, which is a marxist fundamental. From each according to his talents, to each according to his needs.

      No question that he’d have got a lot more out of the French national team than the wretched Domenech, who clearly couldn’t get his players to focus on the big picture. Any ways, bon chance for the coming season, I’ll be with the claret and blue battlers, blowing bubbles.

  18. “Bill Shankly, possibly the greatest and wisest of them all’

    was known for saying that “Football is not a matter of life or death it is much more important than that”

    until he was on this death bed and then he said

    “Shit, had that wrong”.

    (as the doctors and nurses ignored his heart failure choosing instead to watch a Carling Cup Third Round Replay between Doncaster and Scunthorpe on the telly in the corner).

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