I am often asked, given my love of soccer and my criticisms of how the World Cup is organized, whether it is possible in the twenty-first century to have the spectacle of top-notch organized sports and have it done ethically? Or, can it at least be done more ethically than the neoliberal carnival of debt, displacement and militarization we normally see?
Well yesterday, I witnessed a better, more humane version of the mass spectacle of soccer, and feel remarkably rejuvenated for the experience. No, I’m not talking about the World Cup final between Argentina and Germany. I’m not talking about an event that is supposed to be the apex of “the people’s game” that the people cannot afford to attend. I’m not talking about an event surrounded by a one-kilometer exclusion zone and guarded by a small army for the pleasure of a den of thieves including Vladamir Putin, Angela Merkel, Dilma Rousseff and their pied piper of graft, FIFA chief Sepp Blatter.
I’m not talking about a final game that took place while protesters who had been promised by their government that they could assemble peaceably were tear gassed and shot with rubber bullets at the supposed fan-fest put on by FIFA for tourist consumption.
I’m not talking about an event that displaced thousands of people for the almighty purpose of producing billions in profits for Brazil’s construction, real estate and surveillance industries. I’m not talking about an event that put a fortune in the hands of Israeli armament companies and counterinsurgency “advisers” who market themselves as bringing the hands-on experience they have had turning Gaza into an open air prison, and then sell that experience to countries hosting the Olympics in the World Cup. I’m talking about another game entirely.
I’m talking about the game yesterday between the Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers here in the Emerald City. It was just me and 65,000 of my closest friends chanting, screaming, yelling and of course standing for the full ninety minutes as the Sounders beat the Timbers 2-0, led by the inimitable Clint Dempsey, scoring Seattle’s opening goal and then hitting the cross bar at the end on a shot that would’ve been highlight material for the next year. Having recently returned from Brazil where I attended World Cup matches, it was not difficult to count off the ways that this experience was not only different but also “ethical” in the way a FIFA-run tournament could never be.
Let’s start with the ticket prices. We were right there just a few rows up from the field for $24 bucks a pop. Twenty-four dollars would pay for about two minutes of World Cup action, especially if you bought your tickets through FIFA’s don’t ask, don’t tell network of ticket brokers.
Speaking of the stadium, there was also not a one-kilometer exclusion zone surrounding it and people could actually—even without tickets!—get near the facility that their tax dollars purchased. It is also worth adding that the Sounders play in the home of the Seattle Seahawks. As of now, anyway, there are no demands to build a new publicly funded stadium just for them.
I loved everything about the Sounders-Timbers game. I loved the singing of Woody Guthrie songs. I loved the signs. I loved the colors. I loved the group-cussing (to each their own). I loved the chants and cheers that made it seem like everyone in the crowd had been rehearsing for hours before the start of game time. I loved that it seemed to be a combination of sports and Queen at Live-Aid.
I loved the fact that the 6-year-old I was with had the time of his life and didn’t sit down for ninety minutes. And I loved the play. Maybe it wasn’t World Cup semifinals quality but it was passionate and powerful. Its very existence stands as a threat to FIFA: a living embodiment of the idea that there is an alternative to their wretched stench.
The Sounders-Timbers game, coming just hours after a desultory World Cup Final, entirety convinced me like little else that sports truly is like a fire and you can use a fire to cook a meal or burn down your house. In the hands of FIFA, the house of international soccer is burning down while they play a chorus of discordant violins. But this doesn’t have to be the case. If we want ethical soccer on a local, national or global scale, then along with the out-of-control flames of greed, corruption displacement and match fixing, FIFA itself will need to be extinguished.