The People's Game

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As the World Cup 2014 knockout rounds progressed, the bombs began to fall in Gaza. The latest Israeli campaign against the Palestinians has, as of this writing, devastated homes, schools, hospitals, and has killed over 800 Palestinians – including four boys playing soccer on the beach.

Football holds a special significance for the Palestinian people. In an embattled and occupied land with devastated infrastructure, football is a vitally important outlet for youth; as one young footballer put it, “the only hobby Palestinians have left is football.” Like the Algerian team in the 1960s, the Palestinian national team – which is ranked 74th in FIFA standings (its highest ever) and has just qualified for the Asia Cup – is an important representative for Palestinian national identity, humanity, and dignity within the international community; a powerful way of showing the world that the Palestinian people survive and continue to struggle for freedom.

Perhaps because of this, Israeli forces have especially targeted Palestinian football – kidnapping, imprisoning, killing, and severely injuring players (in two cases, shooting them in the legs), imposing travel restrictions on the national team, and bombing the Palestinian national stadium in 2006 and 2012. Just two weeks ago, nine Palestinian civilians were killed as an Israeli missile targeted a beach where football fans were gathered to watch the World Cup. Since 2010, several international organizations have been documenting the attempts on the part of Israel to destroy Palestinian sport, and have brought grievances to FIFA and UEFA (the European football confederation, of which Israel is a member).

Mahmoud Sarsak, a player for Palestine’s national team who went on hunger strike while imprisoned in Israel, said that “Israel works endlessly to repress Palestinian football, just like it does many other forms of Palestinian culture…There can be no place in football for segregation and oppression.” Sarsak, like many Palestinian footballers, citizens and their allies, continue to speak out against Israeli occupation and oppression, and stand up for the freedom and dignity of the Palestinian people.

Solidarity with the people of Gaza! Free Palestine!

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On the final podcast of The People’s Game 2014, Alan and Meleiza share their final reflections on the World Cup as a social text, its political implications, and of course, our favorite soccer memories across the 64 games played on the field. We also feature a final conversation between Margaret Prescod and Coach Mickey; and Alan & Meleiza’s guest appearance on the Pocho Hour of Power radio show.

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On today’s show, two of the foremost academics who study the significance of global football join Alan and Meleiza. Laurent Dubois reflects on the dynamically surprising 2014 World Cup, and shares his experiences as an active member of the futbol Twittersphere. Robert Edelman, one of the world’s preeminent sports historians and a Russia scholar, looks back on this year’s tournament and forward to the meeting of the kleptocrats – Blatter’s FIFA and Putin’s Russia – in 2018.

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In our final national broadcast episode, we ponder our collective experience of this extraordinary tournament. German partisan Elaine Teng and Argentine fan Karen Anzoategui reflect on Sunday’s final; plus three of the leading radical English-language commentators on global football – Andrei Markovits, Robert Edelman, and Laurent Dubois – offer their insights on this year’s World Cup.

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It’s Tuesday after the final, and the World Cup withdrawal coma is starting to set in. But if we can’t have more futbol, then we’ll just keep talking about futbol. Alan and Meleiza reflect on why the World Cup is such a monumental planetary event, and the stuff of so many dreams. KPFK’s Margaret Prescod speaks to Jules Boykoff, whose recent article in the Guardian talks about why and how FIFA must be reformed now. Finally, we feature a conversation from the morning of the World Cup final between Dave Zirin and Eaton Thomas on WPFW’s The Collision.

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In 2018, the World Cup’s next stop is in Russia, a country with a great radical tradition, but one with layers of contradictions – many of them embodied by the Spartak Moscow football club.

As historian Robert Edelman writes: “Spartak Moscow emerged from the rough proletarian Presnia district of Moscow and spent much of its history in fierce rivalry with Dinamo, the team of the secret police. To cheer for Spartak was a small and safe way of saying “no” to the fears and absurdities of high Stalinism; to understand Spartak is to understand how soccer explains Soviet life.”

This photo depicts Spartak players in a scrimmage in Red Square in 1936, a few years before its stars were purged by the KGB.

Today, sadly, Spartak’s ‘ultra’ fan groups are associated with far-right nationalist and xenophobic political strands, straying far from the club’s roots in Red Presnia and the 1905 Revolution.

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On today’s podcast, we collectively reflect on the World Cup on the day after the carnival, not entirely ready for it to be over. First, we speak to Elaine Teng, who talks about what it was like to be in southern Germany when the German national team won the World Cup. People’s Game Argentina correspondent Karen Anzoategui shares her reflections, as will correspondent Fernando Romero, who was in Brazil for part of the tournament with the Mexican national team. Finally, Alan and Meleiza share their summary thoughts on the 2014 World Cup: why they think socialism won at the end of the day, and how this year’s World Cup cycle confirms that soccer remains unique in the world as the people’s game.

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Socialism conquers the world! One of our final reflections on this year’s World Cup.

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A final reflection on this year’s World Cup:

Global football is a historical product; it has been shaped from its beginnings by multiple forces, shot through with politics, culture, pathos and pride. And, like all other social phenomena, it has two sides; it has always been a contested terrain. Thus, though not always, if you look at it with a certain kind of eye, you can, at certain times, see the world reflected in soccer.

In this way, there is a weird kind of affinity between the contemporaneous events of Brazil being hammered by German goals, Rio’s favelas being bulldozed by developers, and Gaza being hammered by Israeli bombs. In their own peculiar fashion, what we witness politically is the attempted breaking of a subaltern nation, the punishing of insurgent citizenship by the relentless powers of the dominant global order; and we feel, though hopefully to vastly different degrees, a similar sense nonetheless of shock, revulsion, outrage, and disbelief at the suffering we must witness.

From the failed experiment with a win-at-all-costs approach, to the spaces of the stadiums, to the fact that the commodification of players and Europe’s buying-up of the best from the Global South produces a national roster that cannot cohere as a team, to the physical and psychic toll on the workers, most visibly the players themselves – what happened to Brazil on the field somehow encapsulates the country’s experience with the neoliberal grand slam.

But what we also see in the face of these travesties is a refusal to be broken, of solidarity across borders, of collective compassion, respect, and strength – the little girl singing the Brazilian anthem with all her heart, German players embracing their vanquished, protestors continuing to brave the shock troops on the streets outside the Maracanã, Algeria pledging its World Cup prize money to Gaza.

And Germany showed how a different kind of model can produce a different kind of game: how investment in what’s widely regarded as a public good cultivates undeniably superior levels of quality, beauty, and dignity in collective team play. Of course, Germany does this because it can; because Angela Merkel has the privilege of not practicing what she preaches, and imposes, on other national economies.

Who knows what horrors we have yet to see in Russia by 2018, or in Qatar by 2022. We have already seen death, repression, and corruption; and we will most likely continue to see in some quarters a brutal, conservative style of play, a viewing experience that lies somewhere between the boring and the painful. But perhaps the best moments of this World Cup also remind us that another football, and another world, is possible – in the ever-present, indomitable heart and soul of the people, and the people’s game.

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The brilliant, collaborative, whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts German national team won the World Cup on Sunday. This is the product of Germany recognizing the need to allocate resources to build an institution valued by the entire society. Germany has the most coherent, well-funded national soccer program in the world, and it should be no surprise that they just won the World Cup. Socialism works. Socialism wins.

On today’s podcast, Alan and Meleiza review the final with Pablo Miralles in Shanghai. Alan and Meleiza also review the World Cup in light of the big themes surrounding the people’s game: of history, capitalism, politics, the way we live and the way we play.

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