Human suffering exists — and football bears its share of the guilt. Need an example? Berlin, on the last stop of the Reclaim the Game speakers’ tour: after over an hour of discussion, the moderator fields a question about what positions football players are taking in relation to the World Cup in Qatar. As rich millionaires, they profit from what the German TV show Sportschau called the “World Cup of Shame”. None of them have distanced themselves from FIFA’s glossiest commodity or getting tangled up in some nonsense about the boycott coming too late: “Overall, I think we’re about ten years too late for a boycott”, says Leon Goretzka.
Raphael Molter is a political scientist and writer who works on a materialist critique of football, among other topics.
Translated by Sam Langer and Joseph Keady for Gegensatz Translation Collective.
Someone in the audience raises the demand for redistribution in football to compensate the victims in Qatar, where possible, but also to give football a different face. How do the experts on the podium react, along with most of the audience? They shake their heads in derision. The very idea that football might be subjected to regulation evidently provokes disbelieving laughter in most people.
On many levels, this anecdote characterizes the current mood of the controversy around Qatar, the World Cup, and organized football. Few sporting events this century have been able to mobilize people in such numbers, or stir such heated debate. A few weeks ago, a Hamburg market research institute caught some attention withindicating that approximately two thirds of respondents said they were in favour of boycotting the German national team. However, about the same amount of people admitted that they would watch the tournament on TV regardless.
The contradiction between ideals and reality is thus reaching the actions, initiatives, and confederations of fans. A boycott — i.e., refusing to consume the broadcasts of a football tournament — represents the redemption of market-driven football. It is the biggest obvious wound afflicting a football world that most active fans in the stadiums got fed up with a long time ago, and that, in Germany, is opposed by a significant majority of the members of the German Football Association (DFB).
In , over 50 percent of respondentssaid they disagreed with the idea that the DFB was helpful for organizing football in Germany. Its support is crumbling and its social basis is disappearing. The question is, why doesn’t this broad-based rejection feed more concrete criticism of the sport’s institutional structures? The discontent among the fans is palpable, and yet the protest just goes round in circles, in what the Marxist theorist Johannes Agnoli once called an “endless process of protest without revolt”.
Symbolic Marketing with No Impact
Most criticism of professional football gets mired in an idealistic pursuit of compliance with universal human rights. The World Cup in Qatar illustrates this subversive frontier of social debate in football.
More than 2.4 million people live in Qatar without citizenship or other forms of official recognition. They are economic migrants, the itinerant labour force of neoliberalism. These are people who come from various states on the capitalist periphery: from Kenya and Uganda, Nepal and India. They have had the collective bad luck of being born in countries that offer them almost no future.
Krishna Shrestna from Nepal, one of the speakers on the Reclaim the Game speakers’ tour organized by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, explained the conditions in his homeland that drove him to migrate to Qatar. After his studies in the capital, Kathmandu, he spent months applying for jobs, but there were never any prospects. As in many other countries on the periphery, the people of Nepal suffer from a national labour market that offers few prospects or opportunities, and most importantly, barely any jobs that offer full employment and financial security. Added to this, the population has grown continuously over the past ten years, which currently means that almost 400,000 people reach working age every year. Most of them have to emigrate.
Instead of criticizing this state of affairs, the global football community remains silent. It only began making noise when migrant workers started dying on World Cup construction sites and reports of structurally inadequate labour protections and wage theft began to surface. Criticism of these conditions prompted even the German men’s team to wear black shirts with the white inscription “HUMAN RIGHTS” during an international match against Iceland. It was a purely symbolic action that garnered a bit of attention and, above all, good marketing, with no effect on human suffering in Qatar. One is given the impression that the criterion for hosting a major sporting event is to be found in the defence of human rights.
Next comes the demand for climate-friendly hosting of the event, with admonitions for sins against sustainability, like the air-conditioning systems in Qatar’s stadiums. But this does not produce any perspective or critique — instead we are left with an inadequate description of what actually exists.
We Need a Critique of Market-Driven Football
How else could critique be expressed? Let’s begin with an explanatory approach to how football functions in its current form.
Some years ago, journalist Christian Bartlau suggested describing the game as “market-conforming football”, analogous to Merkel’s “market-conforming democracy”. The fact that football has taken on the logic of capitalism and that this logic now dictates how football operates can be explained by capitalism’s expansionary dynamics.
In the world of football, no decisions can be made that do not conform with the logic of capital, and so the concept of market-conforming football, on the one hand, theorizes the alienation from the game that many fans experience — particularly stark during the “ghost matches” that were held during the COVID-19 pandemic — and, on the other hand, the logic of economic valorization in a football world that needs its fans in the stadiums, as well as on the couch, in order to accumulate profit, and has to contain them accordingly.
Football is thus integrated into capitalist relations, and can be considered part of the entertainment industry. Surplus value — generated by the players and fans who are the immediate and necessary producers of the product, namely football — is redistributed in favour of the powerful, who control the game.
The only drawback is that the concept of market-conforming football does little to explain to us who these “powerful” people are — and this is where the inadequacy of the prevailing left-liberal critique of football becomes clear. At first glance, this criticism works with the help of critical theories and concepts, but it delivers no satisfactory answers. Its analysis of the interrelationships in market-conforming soccer remains inadequate because, while it does highlight the inherent contradiction between the ideal and the reality of the sport, it also simultaneously reduces this contradiction.
If the complex problems presented by the game of football are simply whittled down to the presence of better or worse football officials, what is the core of the critique? The problem lies in being unable to recognize the overall composition of the object: the exalted ideals of football are themselves part of a commercial reality enacted through the rules of the football associations.
If we want to criticize football in a way that has an effect and changes the sport, we have to deconstruct it in its totality. The basis of every critique has to be a desire to change reality, and that critique begins at the point where the relationship between football and society is distorted: football’s own institutional makeup.
If we want to change the conditions, and not merely improve the circumstances in the football associations through “better” officials, then our approach cannot be morally normative — it has to have a material basis. Such a critique does not stop at the mere defence of human rights — which inherently presuppose domination for their enforcement — but rather sets its sights on the abolition of the principle of domination. A critical examination of market-conforming football must produce a critique of capitalist football.
The Fans Are Only a Means to the End
If we conceive of football as a field where social forces collide, then we ought to speak more concretely about a “material condensation of a power relation between classes und class fractions”. The way that Marxist theorist Nicos Poulantzas described the bourgeois state can actually be applied to this game with a round leather ball. As sports journalists Klaus-Dieter Stork and Jonas Wollenhaupt put it, “The stadium, too, pushes left and right, high and low together in one place. VIP lounge guests and ultras, left-wing and right-wing fans, never come as close to each other as they do here.”
We can understand the football stadium as a microcosm of our society, reflecting the bourgeois domination of its relations of power and force. Social struggles inevitably make their way into football and nowhere else can so many of the problems of capitalist societies be marvelled at in such a practical way. The reception of the Qatar World Cup bears this out.
This is the point at which the category of critique meets with that of emancipation. With his categorical imperative, Immanuel Kant already described the requirement that humanity never be treated “merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end”. If we use this category to examine the logic of capitalist football, then the club members who form the basis of all football clubs and associations are only rationalized fractions with the means to legitimize an alleged social relevance.
Football carries its democratic facade before it like a shield, ready to defend against anything. But the people who, by definition, make the sport what it is are not in the centre, but rather only a means to the end of procuring power and distributing it to the functionaries of football’s bureaucratic elite.
The Stadium as an Emancipatory Space
Accordingly, a Marxist critique of football cannot only attack the simple form by which value creation is immediately organized within the sport. How capital is accumulated in football, and under what conditions, are not the only questions.
Rather, we should pay attention to society and its processes, focusing on the entirety of the social conditions under which football exists. Emancipation from relations of domination requires an understanding of the specific, historical conditions under which institutional football emerged, and a rejection of any attribution of a natural or absolute character to the sport. This dialectical materialist method highlights the changeability of relations.
For this reason, Marxism does not simply function as a theoretical approach for academic study, but rather is derived from reality, and this reality manifests in social movements: the climate movement around Fridays for Future, anti-racist movements, self-organized unionization attempts by migrant workers — and the anti-commercial ultras. These movements can all play their part as what Eleonora Roldán Mendívil and Bafta Sarbo call “partial moments in the dialectic of capitalism and resistance”.
Thus, if football is understood as a social field that reproduces domination and coercion, then the stadium becomes a space pointing toward emancipation all the way to a non-violent, domination-free society. The democratization of football will thus involve not only the question of equal participation for all, but also the democratization of the wealth generated by the fans, the dismantling of private property in the form of clubs, youth training centres, and stadiums, and all the economic decisions that immanently force us to look beyond football.
The outrage over the World Cup in Qatar is too great, the social conditions pertaining to migrant workers too dire, and the role of football too weighty to let the critique remain trapped in a fog of normative morality. The floating starship that is professional football will not be brought back to earth by better decision-makers. It must be deprived of fuel. That is the only way the diffuse criticism can be combined into a condensed, integral critique for the purpose of emancipation from the coercive relations of capitalist football.