The news comes after Ofcom, the regulatory body of the British government, announced measures forcing the TV giant Sky to lower prices perceived as threatening competition. Sky hold a veritable monopoly on football and cricket broadcasting rights; the move by Ofcom would force them to sell significantly cheaper to rival companies. The immediate effect, it is hoped, would be to drastically slash the cost of football and cricket coverage by £10, roughly 40 percent of the actual price for that variety of television programming. The two main rivals of Sky, Virgin and BT, are expected to start a bidding war to lure potentially hundreds of thousands of viewers from Sky.
The news is not without intrigue: Rupert Murdoch-owned Sky are major supporters of the British Conservative Party, currently the opposition party in England. The Conservatives hold power in many areas of British governance, and Ofcom is one of them. This places party leader David Cameron in the unenviable position of upsetting an important contributor to their political success by upholding a ruling in their detriment–it would be unprecedented to overturn the ruling (Sky is naturally expected to file as many legal appeals as possible) and could cause the party major political damage.
While the immediate effect of this would be to take less from the armchair fanatic, what does this say about the political implications of the sport? What we mean is not to measure the political “power” of a sport (for example, to enact social change or revolt), but rather to see it as a “liberal” phenomenon.
When such a sport is spread out into the world at the feet of colonizing industrialists, it comes as little surprise. From River Plate to Athletic Club, all the way to the Marinos of Yokohama or the Super Eagles of Nigeria, there are reminders of the ease with which the sport was globalized, slotting seamlessly into the cultural consciousness of many a distant place. While the original Cambridge rules have gradually been altered here and there, the idea, we like to believe, has been constant. Naturally, there have always been ball-kicking games all over the planet, but soccer as such is a phenomenon of a different world order than, say, the Aztec ullamaliztli or the Chinese Cuju.
Indeed, soccer (and here I am being deliberate with the term to distinguish it from football, whose meaning has to do with any ball-foot game) has become the global king of sports in much the same way that Coca-Cola became a drink of choice. Like Coca-Cola, soccer is better or worse depending on where you are and your tastes. You might find yourself sipping a delicious Coca-Cola in Mexico (made with real cane sugar, of course) yet not enjoy the pace of Mexican football. Similarly, you could be in England and damning the contemptibly oversweet Coke, yet being distracted from it by what you find to be a thrilling encounter in the Premier League in the dingy pub that you are sitting in.
While the smoke is coming out of Rupert Murdoch’s ears, many a British fan will sit down and drink a Coca-Cola before watching one of their freshly discounted football matches from the comfort of their well-molded sofa, knowing that the can of Coke is all the more affordable. Why not go for the two-liter next game? Invite a friend, buy some associated products like Tostitos or some sort of crisp, etcetera. Make sure to do it in your official team kit (last year’s won’t do, everybody knows you can get those for pennies in the bargains bin once the new one is introduced), and so forth.
Yet, we cannot underscore the symbolic value of the sport. While we can see it as a source of economic exploitation, we can also see it as something that is served, even created simultaneously by the consumer-spectator. Are we to believe that the world is nothing but Homer Simpsons and Peter Griffins lining up to give away their money and their freedoms? Yet would such characters be funny if there were no truth in them? We identify with them as we do with CR7 breaking out a new muscle-pose or Messi scoring a Maradona-goal every so often. And the truly buffoonish nature of our desire is revealed.
In the case of David Cameron (sorry, soccer fans, no relation to Avatar), he is balanced in a position that reveals this dialectical nature of the soccer phenomenon. On the one hand, refuse to stick your neck out for a very wealthy and powerful supporter in Murdoch. On the other, you fear the reprisals of a multitude that you can never quite trust to be completely complacent.
While in some cases soccer has been a protagonist in military wars (as in El Salvador, Algeria, Angola, or even in the hard-hitting hooligan era of 80’s England), the news today is about a bidding war. The hostilities are between large media conglomerates jostling for size in, as the cliché goes, “an increasing global world.” The interventions of a Liberal institution to offer a minimum degree of protection to the constituents of government.
What is most clear though, is the hope that watching English football becomes easier for those of us who have less important addictions. Is this the dawn of the era of a new Fandom-political citizenship?