June 25, 2014

“Soccer is popular because stupidity is popular.” Jorge Luis Borges was not a fan of the beautiful game.

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We've all got World Cup fever, but Borges would remind us that it's not all beauty and fun.

We’ve all got World Cup fever, but Borges would remind us that it’s not all beauty and fun.
Photo by Grete Stern, via Wikimedia

The world is in the midst of a love affair with soccer that happens every four years. Everybody loves Messi! Dempsey is a national hero! Suarez is biting people again! This year, even Melville House got in on the soccer action. But it’s been a fraught World Cup, with accusations of corruption at FIFA, protests in the host country of Brazil, and obviously, the aforementioned biting; as Shaj Matthew reminds us at The New Republic, not everybody loves the beautiful game.

In “Why Did Borges Hate Soccer,” Mathew takes a look back at the Argentinian writer’s absolute hatred of the sport, and finds that a combination of aesthetic, philosophical, and political interests informed his opinion. He thought the sport was “aesthetically ugly,” but he also saw a far deeper ugliness there. Mathew writes:

His problem was with soccer fan culture, which he linked to the kind of blind popular support that propped up the leaders of the twentieth century’s most horrifying political movements. In his lifetime, he saw elements of fascism, Peronism, and even anti-Semitism emerge in the Argentinean political sphere, so his intense suspicion of popular political movements and mass culture—the apogee of which, in Argentina, is soccer—makes a lot of sense.

Borges could not abide the nationalism that he saw as inherent to fandom. Mathew quotes him as saying, “Nationalism only allows for affirmations, and every doctrine that discards doubt, negation, is a form of fanaticism and stupidity.” Mathew goes on to explain that this “nationalistic fervor” allows for governments to use beloved players to boost their own legitimacy. This happened to Pele, who was hailed as a national hero by the Brazilian military dictatorship that was rounding up political dissidents.

Josh Jones at Open Culture also notes that Borges’ elitism almost certainly influenced his opinion. (The US is virtually the only country in the world in which soccer is not played primarily by the working class  but by the upper classes.) But Borges’ primary objection was the way in which fandom could be coopted, and countrymen could be turned into mindless fans, cheering on their team without thought.

In 1967, Borges wrote a short story called “Esse Est Percipi” (“To Be is to Percieved”) that tells the story of a country of soccer fanatics, shocked to find out that the games they’d been listening to on the radio were all a figment of someone’s imagination. Mathew writes, “This story goes back to Borges’ discomfort with mass movements: ‘Esse Est Percipi’ effectively accuses the media of complicity in the creation of a mass culture that reveres soccer, and, as a result, leaves itself open to demagoguery and manipulation.”  (You can read the story here.)  “We want to be a part of something bigger, so much so that we blind ourselves to the flaws that develop in these grand plans—or the flaws that were inherent to them all along.”

 

Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.

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