Conference Report: “Soccer as the Beautiful Game: Football’s Artistry, Identity and Politics”

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Matthew L. McDowell
University of Edinburgh


matt-mcdowellOnce upon a time, a conference on football taking place at an American university might have seemed like a contradiction in terms. But nowadays, Americans are getting used to the idea of what we call ‘soccer’ nudging ice hockey as the country’s ‘fourth’ sport (behind baseball, American football, and basketball): no mean feat for a sport whose (wrongfully) assumed failure exemplifies American cultural exceptionalism in the minds of some. This conference, organised by Hofstra-based historians Brenda Elsey and Stanislao Pugliese, and a host of other personnel, sought to confirm that this narrative had indeed changed. It featured a very healthy percentage of American-based scholars, and still managed to invite a decent number of scholars from abroad. And – good to see – there were also a large number of Hofstra undergraduates who came to engage with some of the world’s leading academics on the subject of ‘the beautiful game’.

Of course, this was a diverse bunch. The phrase ‘something for everyone’ can be used at any conference (not least sports conferences), but this was an especially disparate gathering. As ever, that is part of the reason why one goes to conferences: to meet people from different disciplinary and socio-cultural backgrounds. This was a particularly intriguing group for me, as an American who has spent almost a decade abroad in Scotland. When I set off to the University of Glasgow to begin my PhD in history in 2005, there were not many options available in America to pursue research projects on the history of world football, so getting to meet Elsey, Peter Alegi, Lindsay Krasnoff, and Joshua Nadel – American-based authors of some of the most influential books on world football’s history and culture – was admittedly a thrill. Having already met Brian Bunk, Jennifer Doyle, David Kilpatrick, and a few others at Football 150 in Manchester, and from viewing those I follow on Twitter, I already had an idea that big things were happening in the US. The idea of Michigan State University’s Football Studies Forum, whose members’ presentations were a main event on the third day, was unheard of when I began my PhD. Clearly, ‘soccer’ is now taken more seriously in American universities’ ivory towers.

Alegi and Alex Galarza (and probably others) have already done an excellent job of recounting the specifics of what they attended, so I’ll try to offer something a bit different. Given my training, I naturally gravitated towards historians when choosing what panels I attended. Some of my personal favourites included co-organiser Elsey’s paper on the history of women’s football in Chile, and its continual maltreatment at the hands of male historians and journalists who continue to refuse to acknowledge its existence, despite the evidence. Chris Bolsmann’s presentation on the South African National Football League (NFL) during the 1960s and 1970s, which detailed its high level of play and reliance upon British and European labour, asked uncomfortable questions about global football’s role in solidifying the apartheid state – questions that are typically asked solely of cricket and rugby. Charles Little, meanwhile, gave us a history of the relationship between football, gambling, and match fixing on Singapore, and problematic discourses on the history of gambling that do not acknowledge gambling’s centrality to Singaporean society (despite it ostensibly being one of the least corrupt countries on earth). Bunk introduced us to one of football’s biggest failed business deals: the International Management Group’s (IMG) attempts to successfully represent the Brazilian great Pelé during the 1970s.

The two keynotes emphasised that football – in particular its governing institutions – is also responsible for a great deal of human misery.

One cannot talk about this particular conference without talking about Pelé, who received an honorary degree from Hofstra. The guest of honour was an hour late arriving at his own ceremony, though we suspiciously left the auditorium (packed with local youth soccer teams) on time after Pelé’s speech. Surely this was planned? In the meantime, my conversations with fellow academics during this long wait – both in the flesh and on Twitter – revolved specifically around the relevance of hero worship towards Pelé in the day-to-day struggles of footballers (the overwhelming majority of them without Pelé’s success, money or celebrity) and their supporters. With speeches from Brazilian and other overseas student football players based at Hofstra praising Pelé to the hilt, as well as expressing the positive effects that the game had on their lives, one did not want to be a party pooper.

But the reality is that, while Pelé’s artistry on the pitch might be an aesthetic ideal for the game to strive towards, it comes up far shorter when providing an accurate reflection of its dirty politics and finances. The two keynotes by Doyle and David Goldblatt emphasised that football – in particular its governing institutions – is also responsible for a great deal of human misery. Goldblatt’s plenary was a manifesto for a popular takeover of the sexist, undemocratic, and corrupt FIFA, particularly with regard to being able to get representation on its board. It sounded great, but Doyle’s ‘abolitionist’ perspective on the Women’s World Cup, shown through discussions of official and unofficial artistic representations of World Cup-related art from South Africa and elsewhere, presented a challenge to this utopian argument. How, Doyle asked, do we get around FIFA and the ‘unavoidable’ power structures which hold it in place?

These are big issues, but they are bookended by a variety of regional cultural variations and customs that FIFA and its gilded showcases pay little heed to. If some of the questions from audience members were awkward and occasionally misguided, it is because, perhaps, the consumer view of world football in the US is the (male) English Premier League and the World Cup. Some audience members still believed the myths about women’s lack of participation and interest in sport (a dubious folk myth that, as Doyle said, can easily be refuted by audience numbers for the WNBA being greater than that of Major League Soccer). Other incidents were more amusing: one question addressed to Magnus Forslund, after his paper on Swedish football’s inability to introduce more modern and professional structures, can be paraphrased thus: ‘What is Zlatanera?’ (Maybe we should have invited Ibrahimovic instead of Pelé.) Nevertheless, it is important that those academics who work on the history, culture, and politics of football keep the conversation going: as Soccer as the Beautiful Game has proven, there are still people out there waiting to talk to us.

Copyright © Matthew L. McDowell 2014

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