After All This, Football

Kevin has already written about what La Liga re-starting means and how sport itself is (and should be) taking a backseat to both world and local events, so as usual go read him instead of me.

A few words:

It has been strange sitting here in my house while tens of thousands of my neighbors die. The first notable cluster in my region was 4 miles from my house and it presaged the crushing horrors that awaited only a week away. I remember looking out the window of my newly created home office during the second week of March — with Italy seemingly on fire, the contagion erupting around me, and my faith in the CDC shaken by the news that failed tests were leaving us high and dry — and wondering how long this would last. How bad would it get? I had the unshakable feeling that an invisible killer was coming for us. My county alone is going to top 1,400 deaths today and my state has more deaths than all of Spain. It came for us.

My family has been spared — no one I am immediately related to has contracted the virus — but so many others have not. The stories of loss are there to see, even just from my neighborhood: a seemingly healthy firefighter; my wife’s coworker; a relative of so-and-so. There is a hole in local society the size of 30,000 lives and it feels impossible to fill, impossible to ignore. And yet, there is the sense that we are already moving on here: restaurants are crowded and social distancing has been thrown in the garbage alongside the masks everyone seems to have decided aren’t worth the hassle. Unemployment is high, meaning people are struggling, and returning to a pre-virus economic “normalcy” is high on a lot of people’s lists of Important Things To Do since you can’t feed yourself or a family on isolation, but there are also necessary conversations to be had about a wide variety of subjects that have been brought to fore by this global crisis. From economic inequality and political brinkmanship to mental health and food desserts, nearly everything in society is under more intense scrutiny than I can remember.

Interwoven into the very fabric of that society, of course, is the racism which underpins so much of the world. This is not something that is uniquely American, even if the spark to the latest round of outrage, protest, and much-over-do reckoning took place here. We, white society, cannot and will not escape this simply by punting. We have tried this for over 400 years, reinforcing barriers and letting people who look like me simply ignore others. There is no easy answer because of the intractable nature of racism, privilege, and the willingness of the comfortable to sacrifice the invisible, but to fail to try is to reject the lessons of the past. How many times do we have to be shown reality before we accept that it is, in fact, real? Police brutality is not disconnected from economics any more than the supply chain is disconnected from the food served on your dinner table.

I grew up in a world where my skin was more than a ticket into “respectable” society, it was by its very nature the entirety of self-declared respectable society: post-colonial sub-Saharan Africa is a hell of place to learn life lessons. It was both insulating and eye-opening, but unlearning the lessons from an education system devoid of analytical training is merely the beginning. Understanding that life does not revolve around making me comfortable is certainly harder in a society that plainly values my comfort over the comfort of someone that looks like Kevin, actual value to society be damned.

Here at BFB, I have always tried to maintain an active voice when it comes to the terrible things that happen in the name of the sport we all love, especially when they come from Barça itself. It is difficult to point to someone or something you love and say “this is bullshit,” but it is precisely that hesitation that lets it take root or keeps it watered. Indeed, it is one thing to discuss Dani Alves tearing a banana in half and chomping on it or call for swift, decisive action when Samuel Eto’o walks off the field after yet another racist chant and it is another thing to hold your own club accountable for keeping a fascist on the books as a global ambassador. In an interview in 2010 during his election campaign for the Barça presidency, Sandro Rosell made a thinly-veiled attempt to divide African players from white Catalans, referencing the latter as “our boys” and advocating for their promotion within the academy at the expense of Others. If there was any doubt, he wiped that from possibility when he waved away questions regarding Messi’s right to be in the club if only “our boys” should be included in the squad.

Rosell won in a landslide.

Imagine being Ilaix Moriba when he joined La Masia that year.

Imagine, too, what it must have been like to be Moriba a year later when UEFA opened an investigation into comments made by Sergio Busquets during one of the infinite clasicos of that year. Here was one of “our boys” being accused of literally calling an opponent a monkey and here too was the club accepting the fairly implausible explanation that he said he was being cheeky. UEFA deemed there to be a lack of evidence and dismissed the case without exonerating Busquets.

The reaction from many Barça fans at the time was, “Of course they’d concoct that! Mourinho will do anything for an edge,” but are any of our players actually the hero you’d like them to be? Luis Suarez plays for us now, after all. The goal is not to dredge up the past to make Busquets face some sort of punishment, but instead to note that this is everywhere, whether we like it or not. All Busquets has to do, by the way, to earn exoneration, is never do anything racist again for the rest of his life. If that sounds like punishment…

This is not ancient history, this is not something that happens to other people: NASCAR banned the Confederate battle flag from its races this week. A driver from their truck series quit over it, although he was also a trash racer who had no sponsors, so it’s more of a signal to fellow racists than a real stance. When LeBron James spoke out about racism, a Fox News contributor told him to “shut up and dribble.” When Drew Brees invoked the asinine “respect the flag” nonsense about Colin Kaepernik — last week! — and all but admitted that he didn’t believe black people served in World War 2, that same Fox News contributor asked why he couldn’t have an opinion, given that Brees is a human being.

The only thing stopping football fans from racially abusing players is that they’re not allowed in the stands, but it’s hardly some minuscule and loathsome portion of the fanbase that is reinforcing stereotypes. Have you ever noticed that black players are “athletic” and white players are “cerebral”? This is especially true in American football, but according to an acquaintance who was there, during the late 90s at a US national team youth team camp, the most technically gifted player was black. It wasn’t close, the acquaintance said, but it turned out that the player was also fast, so the coaches had him bomb down the wing instead of dictating play. That became his role. That became what he was known for. Eventually he lost his technical edge and was just another speed merchant.

Our corporation, I mean club, is more and more of a shell, every day. I’m sure today’s stand-up meeting was fun, the Kanban board updated in a timely fashion and the monthly metrics reviewed for any discrepancies with projections. Marketing has ticked from “we have roots to which we pay homage” to “give us money and we’ll retweet a tekkers with your name on it.” How do you have a history of resistance against fascism and stay silent in the face of what is happening? You can’t claim to be both more than a club and just a club. It makes me angry. It’s never just football, it’s politics. Life is politics. If you don’t think so, look out the window and see the world through the eyes of someone who doesn’t have the ability to turn off politics in favor of mindless fun. Tell that to someone who has to deal with the Boixos Nois or the Casuals FCB. Tell that to someone who gets mocked or dismissed as a tourist after they’ve traveled thousands of miles to watch their favorite team play.

Honestly, Kevin said it best about Barça:

…the club that we all love has not had enough to say. There was a Tweet, which was nice to see, but not easy to find. You can Google, and search the official sites in English and Catalan, and nothing. For a club that is so quick to align itself with social justice causes when it suits, the lack of anything that can be easily found is disappointing.

And so we arrive at the weekend, at the return of Barça. It feels strange to be excited about a match and I don’t know how excited I actually am, given the stress of managing a family during a pandemic and the reality of what is happening in the streets of my country, but I do want to talk about Barça. I do want to be excited. I do want the reprieve from daily life, even as I feel immensely selfish in this desire.

So.

After all these months, football.

After all these deaths, football.

After all these centuries, football.

And I don’t know where to go from here.

But we’ll give it a go.

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Isaiah is a co-founder and lead writer for Barcelona Football Blog. He currently lives in the greater New York City area with his wife and daughter.