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

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.  For those inter­est­ed in explor­ing Franklin Foer’s book, see How Soc­cer Explains the World: An Unlike­ly The­o­ry of Glob­al­iza­tion.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2014.

via The New Repub­lic

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Video: Bob Mar­ley Plays a Soc­cer Match in Brazil, 1980

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

Jorge Luis Borges Draws a Self-Por­trait After Going Blind

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

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