Jorge Luis Borges: “Soccer is Popular Because Stupidity is Popular”

borges-libray of babel

Image by Grete Stern, via Wikimedia Commons

I will admit it: I’m one of those oft-maligned non-sports people who becomes a football (okay, soccer) enthusiast every four years, seduced by the colorful pageantry, cosmopolitan air, nostalgia for a game I played as a kid, and an embarrassingly sentimental pride in my home country’s team. I don’t lose all my critical faculties, but I can’t help but love the World Cup even while recognizing the corruption, deepening poverty and exploitation, and host of other serious sociopolitical issues surrounding it. And as an American, it’s simply much easier to put some distance between the sport itself and the jingoistic bigotry and violence—“sentimental hooliganism,” to use Franklin Foer’s phrase—that very often attend the game in various parts of the world.

In Argentina, as in many soccer-mad countries with deep social divides, gang violence is a routine part of futbol, part of what Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges termed a horrible “idea of supremacy.” Borges found it impossible to separate the fan culture from the game itself, once declaring, “soccer is popular because stupidity is popular.” As Shaj Mathew writes in The New Republic, the author associated the mass mania of soccer fandom with the mass fervor of fascism or dogmatic nationalism. “Nationalism,” he wrote, “only allows for affirmations, and every doctrine that discards doubt, negation, is a form of fanaticism and stupidity.” As Mathews points out, national soccer teams and stars do often become the tools of authoritarian regimes that “take advantage of the bond that fans share with their national teams to drum up popular support [….] This is what Borges feared—and resented—about the sport.”

There is certainly a sense in which Borges’ hatred of soccer is also indicative of his well-known cultural elitism (despite his romanticizing of lower-class gaucho life and the once-demimonde tango). Outside of the hugely expensive World Cup, the class dynamics of soccer fandom in most every country but the U.S. are fairly uncomplicated. New Republic editor Foer summed it up succinctly in How Soccer Explains the World: “In every other part of the world, soccer’s sociology varies little: it is the province of the working class.” (The inversion of this soccer class divide in the U.S., Foer writes, explains Americans’ disdain for the game in general and for elitist soccer dilettantes in particular, though those attitudes are rapidly changing). If Borges had been a North, rather than South, American, I imagine he would have had similar things to say about the NFL, NBA, NHL, or NASCAR.

Nonetheless, being Jorge Luis Borges, the writer did not simply lodge cranky complaints, however politically astute, about the game. He wrote a speculative story about it with his close friend and sometime writing partner Adolfo Bioy Casares. In “Esse Est Percipi” (“to be is to be perceived”), we learn that soccer has “ceased to be a sport and entered the realm of spectacle,” writes Mathews: “representation of sport has replaced actual sport.” The physical stadiums crumble, while the games are performed by “a single man in a booth or by actors in jerseys before the TV cameras.” An easily duped populace follows “nonexistent games on TV and the radio without questioning a thing.”

The story effectively illustrates Borges’ critique of soccer as an intrinsic part of a mass culture that, Mathews says, “leaves itself open to demagoguery and manipulation.” Borges’ own snobberies aside, his resolute suspicion of mass media spectacle and the coopting of popular culture by political forces seems to me still, as it was in his day, a healthy attitude. You can read the full story here, and an excellent critical essay on Borges’ political philosophy here.

via The New Republic

Related Content:

Borges: Profile of a Writer Presents the Life and Writings of Argentina’s Favorite Son, Jorge Luis Borges

Jorge Luis Borges’ 1967-8 Norton Lectures On Poetry (And Everything Else Literary)

Jorge Luis Borges’ Favorite Short Stories (Read 7 Free Online)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Comments (12)
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  • Greg says:

    I don’t agree with Borges re futbol/soccer. But I came naturally (un-dogmatically, without any sort of demonstration) to many of the same ideas re the NFL, and lost all enthusiasm for the game. The controversy re brain injuries in retired players, and then the union deliberations on making some sort of settlement on that, shook me up. At the same time, the stadium-building racket (Dave Zirin has covered this stuff extensively) has emptied civic coffers, all while the league is more profitable than ever before. And this is putting aside the nauseating nationalism and conservative horseshit associated with the game…

  • chk says:

    esse est percipi translates as ‘to be is to be perceived’, not as ‘it is to be perceived’, so i suggest you correct your mistake.

  • Blueraven says:

    There is a very interesting organization, affiliated with the U.N. It examines the idea of sports and ethnicity, and its impact on social, psychological, political, identity, geopolitical, gender, it also explores ingenious sports, the definition of sports, athletics. the social role of athletes etc etc…

    Here is their facebook page. if interested

  • Josh Jones says:

    You are right, thanks. Made the correction.

  • JP says:

    A 4 page article prints 19 pages that are 99% irrelevant? Give us and the planet a break. Can we please have a decent print format?

  • Donald Clark says:

    Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga shows that play and sport are core, cultural, human activities. We all want transformative experiences, some through music, some through art, some through travel, some through sport. This piece has the odour of someone who didn’t get out much as a child. Also ignores the fact that hndreds of millions actually play sport – it’s not just a spectacle. The Greeks knew a thing or two about what it takes to be human and the value of sport – to separate body and mind is a mechanical, Cartesian conceit. I’m with the Greeks!

  • DF says:

    Why would you print it? If your concern is the planet and use of paper, don’t print it at all.

  • NS says:

    In some ways I envy those who can have transformative experiences via sport and football.

    To me, Soccer/football always felt repressive rather than expressive, encouraging homogeneity rather than individuality while ostensibly promoting the reverse.

    And sociologically nothing is more depressing than someone who can talk of nothing else but football.

  • John says:

    You are taking the phrase too literal, OK yes, Borges didn’t like soccer, but I think that the critic goes beyond the sport itself. It’s a critic to the sport like a modern version of Roman Colosseum, where poor, uneducated masses are are distracted by a show, while politicians lie and steal everything they can, but it doesn’t matter because my favorite team won last Sunday. It’s the modern “bread and circuses”. Did you know that the Argentine soccer league is managed by the government? It’s called “futbol para todos” (soccer for everyone). Basically, the government takes everyone’s taxes to subsidize soccer, the most popular sport in the country. I don’t like soccer, but those who actually like it can watch it for “free” thanks to my taxes. See, this is why Borges was right.

  • Michael Leddy says:

    The statement attributed to Borges appears in an interview with Mario Vargas Llosa. Vargas Llosa introduces it by saying “Como dice Borges” — as Borges says:

    So it seems to be a paraphrase of Borges’s point of view, not a quotation. I would still like to discover the source.

  • Banake says:

    Borges was based.

  • soporific says:

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