Wednesday 19 February 2020

"I ran a sport club, make me leader of your country"

This is a full transcript, in the original English, of my interview with Simon Kuper, author of several books on football and politics and economy, amongst others. The edited and published version can be found here, in Portuguese.

Esta é uma transcrição completa, no Inglês original, da minha entrevista a Simon Kuper, autor de vários livros sobre futebol e política e economia, entre outros. A reportagem publicada pode ser lida aqui. 
It’s been 26 years since you wrote Football against the Enemy, a book which argues that football is far more than just a game. All these years later, have things changed?
I think in some ways football has become more important in politics in the last few years, because what you see around the world is that voters are becoming distrustful of parties, so if you are a party politician it is harder to have trust. You see that with Hillary Clinton, for example, and more and more you see the Berlusconi phenomenon, where somebody comes from sport, or from football, and says: "I am a respected figure in sport, I ran a sport club – like Berlusconi, or Mauricio Macri –, or I played great football – like George Weah – make me leader of your country". 

As parties become weaker, this sports route becomes more important. Donald Trump has a background in professional wrestling, that helped him build a name among working class Americans, George W. Bush in Baseball, and so on. So I think that in some ways it has become a more common part of politics. 

We tend to think that sports should be free of outside influence. Is this possible? Does politics ruin football?
I think it is very hard to imagine football without a political and social meaning. What are the institutions in Portugal that get most people motivated and build more loyalty? In all our countries we have seen churches become more important and trade unions become less important, people know fewer people... The institutions that have survived are often football clubs. 

Clubs like Benfica and Porto are some of the most powerful, most popular and most beloved institutions in Portugal today, and of course those institutions are not just sport. Benfica also represent Lisbon and the Benfica-Porto relationship is also about the relationship about the two cities, which in Portugal has been a very political relationship, which has caused a lot of anger and mistrust.

So, football is never just football, it always speaks to much wider tribes and divides in society. 

You mentioned the decline in Church attendance and religious affiliation, for example. Some people compare football to religion, do you put much stock in that?
There are obviously huge differences. Football doesn't promise you an afterlife. I don't think football is a religion in that it can't give full meaning to answer the question of why we are on earth, at least for most people. 

I think the similarity is community. If you think of a parish church in Portugal 50 years ago, it was your community, those were the people you knew, you knew them from birth to death, that was where you belonged, unquestionably, it was a place of social support,  place where you celebrated your big life events, births, deaths, weddings, and of course, for most people in Portugal and in Western Europe that has disappeared. So, for a lot of people the community is now the football fandom, and that is true, even among people who don't go to the stadium... I don't know what the average attendance at Benfica is, but let’s say 50,000, but the number of Benfica fans is much higher, so a lot of those people get a sense of identity, who I am, who is my tribe, in this new and rather lonely world, from football. 

You see it in social media as well. If you look at how people describe themselves on Facebook and on Twitter, often they say: "I am João, 21 years old, Porto fan", and that is the identification that he gives. And you see it also in third countries. "I am Mohammad, I live in Kuala Lumpur, 100% Manchester United". 

So, the identity that they are presenting to the world, first, is football, and that becomes more common as these other identities become weaker. 

How familiar are you with Portuguese football? What news reaches you?
I am more aware of your national team, José Mourinho, Ronaldo, than of your club football.

Surely you have heard of Football Leaks. How familiar are you with this case?

Rui Pinto, a criminal or a whistleblower?
I'd say that it is possible to be both.

I just don't want to step into a field where I don't know the facts.

The past years have given us many suspicions of corruption in Portuguese football. Sporting is involved in the “cashball” case; opponents say Benfica’s leaked emails point to corruption and Porto was at the center of the famous “Golden Whistle investigations” several years ago, although the evidence was considered inadmissible because of illegal phone taps. Fans always whine about corruption when their own teams are in the dumps. In your experience, is corruption really that widespread in football in general? 
I think historically Portugal has more of a problem than Northern European leagues, and in the past, due maybe more to political interference. I think you see that in the figure of Mourinho. Mourinho is a product of Portuguese football and he knows all about all these fixes, or purported fixes, many of which, I'm sure, are absolutely real. 

So when Mourinho comes to England he presumes it is the same system. So, Chelsea are being nobbled by the BBC, and by Arsenal, and by the FA, and they are all trying to arrange a bad fixture list for Chelsea with the wrong referees, and Mourinho says these things partly to draw attention to himself – he is a kind of verbal performer – but I think he also believes a lot of it. And in the English context it is very bizarre, because almost nobody in English football believes that sort of thing is happening in England.

So people will get very angry at the referee, but they don't have this belief that everything is fixed, everything is corrupt, and I think they are right, I think that in most Northern European countries football is not fixed, not corrupt. With a figure like Mourinho you see this Portuguese mindset of everything is corrupt, transposed into a country where it just seems a bit bizarre. 

Britain has enormous flaws, enormous problems, but I don't think the whole football system is secretly rigged, which he does seem to think. 

Up to what point should the state be involved in seeing its domestic football?
You need a rule of law environment, so if people are fixing football matches, that should be a crime. It is not a crime in all European countries. So you need a robust law that says that if you fix a football match that is a criminal offense, and then that needs enforcement, and that needs to have police involvement.

But in terms of running day-to-day football I'd be happier if it was done by a football association that is separate from the state but overseen by the state. Often, around the world, we see football federations that are completely corrupt. Argentina, under Julio Gondona was an example where the money was just stolen and none goes back into football, in those cases you need a state that steps in. 

So the football federation should be regulated, but not state-run, ideally. 

How about football violence? In Portugal the current law, still being fully implemented, calls for segregated seating for organized football firms (ultras), issuing of fan IDs, and calling for all football supporter groups to be legalized and form associations if they intend to benefit from club support. Do you know of any other country that has taken these measures to try and fight football violence? What do you think of them?
The thing is we know a lot about football violence because Britain had the unfortunate distinction of being the first country where this was a big problem. 

So from the 80s the British government has had 35 years, really, of trying to work out what to do, and it has mostly been successful in that football violence in Britain is much lower than it was.

I think the football ID scheme is very damaging, because it makes it very difficult for casual people to go to a football match. They did this in Italy at one point. You have to have an ID, so if you and your friends decide one day that you want to go to a football match it is impossible because you haven't ordered your IDs weeks before and it is exactly the kind of casual fans you want to encourage, as well as women, to keep the stadium atmosphere a bit less insane and fanatical, which is the situation you'd have if you only had ultras. So I think fan ID is just an obstacle to a majority of fans.

You really only need to think about a small group of people. And the best way to deal with these people is through the police. Because what you have in a country like Portugal, Italy or Argentina, is that the ultras and the club are very intertwined. So the ultras know where the club's president lives, the president needs their support, he needs them not to be chanting against them, money is often exchanged, favours are done, if they are violent then the president doesn't dare to step in... These kinds of cosy relationships between ultras and the club are very dangerous.

I spoke to one Italian club president and he said: “What can we do? We are afraid of these people”. The club doesn't have the resources to deal with criminals, and when you are talking about hooligans doing violence that is criminal. You need the police. 

And it is not very complicated, because you are not talking about very many people. You don't want the police to worry about 50,000 people, because we are only talking about 500. You want the police to know who those 500 are, if somebody shouts something racist, or hits somebody, or throws a firework in the crowd, that is all on CCTV now, we know exactly who those people are. One good thing that has happened now in Britain is that the police come along on Monday Morning and say they saw you shouting racist abuse, essentially the club then bans you from the stadium and you have to report at the police station during a match, so you can't go. 

I think we need a much more micro approach to those specific people, run by the police, not by the club.

Here in Portugal we are often told about the English example, and how Britain managed to eliminate hooliganism. Is that true?
Very largely, yes. People always say, well yes, but they fight outside the stadium, but there is very little evidence of that. British society, like all Western societies, has become much less violent in the last 25 years. You have far fewer groups of young men getting completely drunk and hitting each other in city centres, which was a normal thing around 1990, even leaving aside football. So society is much more peaceful.

I would happily take my children to any football match anywhere in Britain without fear. And you get these stories about how the Cardiff fans are going to meet the Swansea fans in a pub a mile from the stadium and they are going to have a prearranged fight... Football hooligans like to talk this up, because it makes them look macho, the police like to talk it up, because it retains funding for anti-hooligan policing, and the media like to talk it up because it is an exciting media story. But there is very little evidence of anything like that... I mean, when was the last person killed in a hooligan battle in the UK? I am sure there have been one or two in the last couple of decades, the only media coverage I can remember is when Leeds fans went to Turkey and that happened in Istanbul.

Many English fans bemoan the fact that with its effort to modernize and stomp out violence the FA and the Government also, effectively, destroyed football as a popular sport, making it too refined and too expensive for ordinary families or working-class people to attend. Your thoughts?
You must also remember that society has become less working-class since 1985, which was the peak of football hooliganism, which was obviously not necessarily a working-class activity, but this is a much richer country, just as Portugal is a much richer country than in 1985. So people say oh, in the 1950s when my grandfather went, and you look at those photos and it was men in cloth caps, from a different era, men who worked in factories which no longer exist, there were no women, no ethnic minorities, in the 80s it was still terrifying for ethnic minorities, so we have a different country, also a different football audience, which is more feminine, ethnic minorities are now safe in the stadiums. So I don't think that safety and gentrification are the same thing. In Germany and Spain tickets are still quite cheap, but it is also not dangerous, you can also go to a game in Germany and pay 10 euros, often, for a big game, but you are safe. So I don't think it necessarily goes together. 

What is true is that in Britain the stadiums are modernised and that attracted more families and what had been a game for 17-year-old boys who were willing to put up with terrible toilets and pushing in the stands and discomfort, has become much more a kind of game for all age groups. 

At the top-level British football is very expensive, that's true, so going to Arsenal or Chelsea will cost you an enormous amount of money, and they've priced out the poor, but at the lower levels that's not really true. 

Could you say that is where the pure football remains, in the lower levels, the people's sport?
What is the people's sport? I was never an Arsenal fan, but because I live near there and my cousins are big fans, I've been to Arsenal quite a lot and you'd see the crowds change over the decades. I first started watching Arsenal in the 80s and I see them occasionally now when I'm in London. 

In the 80s it was white men with working-class or lower middle-class accents, who were not necessarily poor, many of them drove in from the suburbs. And now it is a much more urban audience of modern londoners. 

But those older white men, living in the Northern suburbs of London, are still largely there. And tickets for Arsenal are about the most expensive you can buy in Europe, it is something like 1000 pounds a year for a season ticket, which is around 1,100 or 1,200 euros. So it is a lot of money. But the average salary in London is about 30,000 pounds. So if you are really an Arsenal fan, this is not such a big deal. If you are big Arsenal fan you spend a big part of your social life thinking about and talking about Arsenal, to pay 1,000 pounds a year is not a big dissuasion for those people. 

Remember that the London region is still about the wealthiest in the EU. So when people compare the old stadiums of the 80s or 70s with now, remember it is also a different country, it is a much richer Europe that we inhabit, and football, to some degree, reflects that. 

Are football fans one of the last social groups that you are allowed to discriminate against?
No, I think that being a general football fan is a very popular and highly admired thing to be. So you see football fans appearing in television adverts for cars, you see politicians pretending to be football fans, or some of them really are football fans. A football fan is a highly regarded figure in society, if you think of the general person. 

So when the European championship starts this summer, on Portuguese TV you will see endless advertisements for cars, for television screens which show people wearing Portugal shirts and cheering goals, because that is now our image of happiness and togetherness in society. 

Around ultras there is some demonization. Of course, not all ultras are violent at all, but I think much less than before. I think social fear of hooliganism is greatly reduced.

Before every big tournament you used to have the fear that hooligans were going to wreck everything. I lived in France during 2016 and during the Euro the great French anxiety had nothing to do with hooligans, it was about terrorists. So the obsession with hooligans has largely gone away. I think football fans have a much better reputation, including ultras, than they have had for decades. 

You were in France when Portugal won the European Cup, did it surprise you? 
I have been around football long enough to know that there is a lot of chance in football, so let me say, first of all, that I hugely admire Portuguese football, but you have had much better national teams than in 2016.

When I think back to the team of 2004, with players like Figo and Ronaldo, but also Maniche and Miguel, Ricardo. I thought that was just a magnificent team. I am a Holland fan, I grew up in Holland and I remember you beating us in the semis, and it was 2-1, but really it was 5-1, Holland never had a chance. The way Portugal keeps the ball, controls the game, Deco was a beautiful example of that, to me that was some of the most beautiful football I'd ever seen. 

In 2016 you didn't have that kind of team, it was a very beatable team. But strange things happen in football. I think Portuguese football, like Dutch football, is highly intelligent, which means that teams can win without having very good players, because of good positioning. Portugal is very good at controlling the tempo of the ball. Holland usually loses to Portugal because Holland is used to controlling the tempo of the game. And then you play Portugal and they do that, so it is very confusing.

So I think that Portugal 2016, like Holland reaching the World Cup Final in 2010, is a tribute to a football culture of high intelligence, that two not very good teams went all the way, and of course you had Ronaldo, although he missed most of the final, but went all the way based on a bit of luck and a lot of football intelligence.

Portugal deserve to win a trophy because you have an incredible football history, for such a small country, so you didn't necessarily deserve to win in 2016, but you had it coming. 

Have you ever been to see any games in Portugal?
Yes, I took my kids to see Benfica-Marítimo a few years ago, it was a very pleasant experience, I have to say. I like the stadium, it was relaxed.

I went around Portugal during Euro 2004 and went to all sorts of towns that I'll never go to again. I was in Braga, Coimbra, Porto, as well as Lisbon of course. So just the joy of travelling around this beautiful country... That's one of the things I love about these tournaments.

Fotos de Simon Kuper: Gustavo Lopes Pereira/Clube de Lisboa

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