I use football as a diversion.
I want it to provide a distraction from regular life and to be fun. Regular life can be difficult, after all, and not a lot of fun. It is easy to get mired in what we as a species are experiencing: rising temperatures leading to catastrophic climate change (including high beer prices!), the resurgence of right-wing political movements and open-ended wars.
In the United States alone, the government is hell-bent on the evisceration of its own workings, an act of self-sabotage worthy of an ESPN “30-for-30” were it not so dangerous. Racially-motivated political attacks, voter suppression, the refusal to protect permanent residents from dismemberment at the behest of foreign governments and more proof of that self-destruction of government programs is just a short list of what has happened this week. Maybe even just in the last 24 hours. It can be hard to keep up. It seems like a distant memory when a man accused of multiple sexual assaults was confirmed to the highest Court in the country, but it was just days ago and he has already lent a hand to increasing the burden on Native Americans attempting to vote. The savvy reader will note that’s not even the voter suppression I was referring to in the previous sentences. This is.
There is a lot to worry about, especially if you are not a straight, white, upper-middle-class male such as myself. I own a home, have a good marriage, have 2 wonderful children (happy first birthday to my little one!), and have a good job. My life is relatively easy, but the global and local crises are stressors that affect me, my family, and my friends. My daily conversations are made up of tear-inducing rage-scream conversations and I am routinely up late, unable to sleep because of thoughts crashing through my mind after the latest news story. I fervently want to sit on the couch on weekends and watch 90 minutes of football without thinking about anything. Drown my sorrows in a Messi freekick, ooh and aah at an Arthur pass, and flail helplessly as Luis Suarez’s latest touch puts the ball out for a throw.
But we need to talk about Bad Things. If we don’t talk about them, they fester, they grow, they engulf Good Things. Information is good and too much information isn’t really a problem, it’s just a thing to navigate, but the ever-more-pervasive information sharing through Twitter, push notifications from news outlets, and Facebook meme posts that replaced the FWD: FWD: FWD: ALL CAPS SUBJECT! emails from your grandma have combined to amplify a lot of sordid messages.
He was a glorious player and so much fun, but now Ronaldinho has etched his name in the books as someone backing a torture promoter and homophobe. On the day of the first round of the Brazilian presidential elections, Ronaldinho, the buck-toothed party machine and product of Porto Alegre, has aligned himself with Jair Bolsonaro, a right wing demagogue whose policies essentially boil down to violence and neocon talking points. Their relationship was discussed by Jacobin, a “socialist quarterly magazine”, as early as January 2018 in a piece entitled “Ronaldinho and the Right Winger.” There was a weird rumor that Ronaldinho was going to run for public office, but nothing came of that and a lot of people, myself included, forgot about what seemed to be some weird nonsense a former player was getting drawn into.
A short list of things Bolsonaro has advocated: beating your children to ensure they don’t become gay, wishing your children would die instead of being gay, torture of political opposition, murder of political opposition instead of torture because it is more effective, and outright racism. Jacobin from that January 2018 article:
[Bolsonaro] told a PT congresswoman she wasn’t deserving of rape when she raised its use by the dictatorship against women political prisoners. This has been supplemented over the years by incidents in which he described women politicians as “sluts” and “dykes,” pronounced he would prefer to see his son dead than gay, and said black activists were “animals” who should “go back to the zoo.”
Most recently he dedicated his 2016 vote to impeach Dilma Rousseff to Carlos Brilhante Ustra, a colonel who headed the torture program during the country’s military dictatorship. Dilma, a former Marxist guerrilla, had been one of the program’s victims — a fact Bolsonaro knew too well, referring to the colonel as “the source of Dilma’s dread.”
Ronaldinho has declared himself in favor of these things by tweeting out his support of Bolsonaro’s presidential candidacy. He wants a better Brazil for everyone, he declares, conveniently forgoing any true inquiry as to exactly who counts as Brazilian in his chosen candidate’s view.
I became a fan of FC Barcelona because I was smitten by the club’s combination of dazzling play (Xavi, Iniesta, este es una fiesta!) and political awareness (mes que un club!). It felt like a beautiful oasis in the midst of a desert. It was the early 2000s in the United States and football was a reprieve from ESPN talking heads, wars in the Middle East, and my college homework. I watched everything I could get my hands on, made time in my schedule for Champions League matches, escaped on weekends to become an expert at finding working streams in an age when that was a genuine skill. And while my classes taught me history, politics, and bowling (no, seriously, I took bowling for college credit), I also learned about Catalan identity, the Barça Foundation, and the OECD ODA target. UNICEF was plastered all over the club and I swooned the swoon of the sated liberal: I was home.
It used to feel like the biggest challenge to football’s place as a retreat from the real world were hooligan fisticuffs spilling out from back alleys and injuring innocent bystanders. There were occasional moments of mayhem – Euro 2016, the Port Said massacre – and there are still plenty of fights, but the larger societal forces warping communities, political parties, and countries into zealous adherents to twisted ideologies are also at play in football’s wider context. What used to feel like a local game with insights into local tensions and communities – Athletic Bilbao vs Real Sociedad! Celta Vigo vs Deportivo La Coruña! – has become a continent-striding colossus trying to suck up resources in a quest for domination.
It seemed like my favorite club was combating this. There was the UNICEF agreement and the push to bring the charitable foundation – Fundació Barça – to the fore. The club contributes 0.7% of its corporate income to fight global economic disparity, which for FC Barcelona in 2017 amounted to almost €5 million. That is not exactly chump change although it wouldn’t even get you Douglas in today’s market. Still, it is something and something is far more than nothing. FC Barcelona is, after all, the self-appointed club that Stands for Something.
The Foundation uses sports, and I’ll just quote the mission statement in its entirety here, “to provide support to the most vulnerable children and youth – through sports and values-based education—with the goal of contributing to a more egalitarian and inclusive society.” This is an extremely laudable goal and one that should be supported generously by a globally recognized brand that has earned more since I started writing this than I will make over the next 6 months at my desk job. As a Barça soci, I contribute indirectly to the Foundation and its lofty goals of, and here I’ll just quote the Our Commitment section:
We are aware that social problems like the exclusion and marginalization of children and youth stem from social instability and violence. That’s why — as a highly committed and responsible organization teaching the values inherent in sports — we strive to leverage the strength of our world-renowned brand to bring about change across the globe.
The global reach of Barcelona’s social media is in the hundreds of millions. To be allied with Barcelona is to be given a platform. Barcelona’s spokesperson, Josep Vives, has stated that Barcelona is against Bolsonaro, but also stated that Ronaldinho has the right to make his voice heard how he wishes. Both can be true, but it cannot be that Barça – mes que un club – simply shrugs and moves on. To appeal to the sense of community, togetherness, and protection for the vulnerable as a marketing gimmick and then to raise a few eyebrows and move along when the highest profile ex-player in the club’s history serving as a global ambassador endorses the ultra-right wing, is a betrayal.
It is a betrayal of the members, of the fans, of the vulnerable.
The Barça Foundation, whose website is lots of hashtags and pictures of Pique laughing with children, boldly states “TAKE SIDES!” in all caps over children running. Take sides, then, Barcelona. And the take the side against authoritarianism, against homophobia, against racism, against misogyny, against machismo, against hatred, against political violence, and against torture. Take sides.
Remove Ronaldinho as global ambassador for the club and the Foundation. Speak up for the people you claim to value, whose vulnerability you speak of in your very mission statement, and whose exclusion and marginalization you decry in your commitment statement.
Take sides. Do the right thing.
And then let us continue to speak of the bad things, of those things that threaten us all, even if it makes us uncomfortable.