As World Cup fever grips the globe, many progressives will be sighing at the prospect of another sporting spectacle distracting the “masses” from the pressing issues of the day — the classic “bread and circuses” argument. There is a tendency on the North American Left to disdain sport: its competitive nature, the corporatization of its grand events, its inherent masculinities and cultures of exclusion.

Some of this critique is grounded in good sociology; some of it bears an irrational disdain for that in which one does not participate or enjoy. In many sports, but especially in “the beautiful game,” politics and the game have a symbiotic relationship. Politics can influence and be influenced by what happens on the field of play. The World Cup is no exception.

My parents immigrated to Canada from Liverpool in the 1960s; growing up, soccer and socialism were the main topics of discussion in the Black household. Conversations at the dinner table moved seamlessly between football and politics, England’s chances in the World Cup and the NDP’s chances in the upcoming election.

I only committed my life to socialism after being rejected as a professional soccer player (a brief stint with the English Premier League’s Watford FC is my footballing claim to fame).

In many countries, soccer is a terrain of political and ideological struggle like the media or the education system. Teams in Europe often have decidedly partisan political followings. Lazio of Rome was the club of Mussolini and retains a large fascist following today. Italian club A.S. Livorno has long been associated with communism and banners of Che Guevara can be seen waving in the stands at the team’s home games. Clashes between Livorno’s supporters and the fans of right-wing teams can dominate match day in this picturesque Tuscany town.

When asked to play a friendly match against the Zapatistas, left-leaning club Inter Milan gladly took up the offer encouraged by its bohemian supporters who see their team as a counterbalance to AC Milan, owned by former right-wing Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

In the UK, Glasgow Celtic were an organizing ground for the cause of Irish liberation and a haven of Catholic solidarity in a hostile Protestant and Unionist Glasgow.

In Spain, FC Barcelona is the home of Catalan nationalism. In the era of fascist rule, the team was a serious aggravation to General Franco and his sympathizers who supported Barca’s fierce rivals Real Madrid. But for those on the Left who are ignorant of soccer’s rich political history and are greeting the onset of World Cup madness with a yawn, here’s a quick socialist’s guide to the big tournament. I hope it will pique your interest enough to watch a game or two.

Colonial legacies

The great Trinidadian intellectual C.L.R. James believed that the English-speaking Caribbean truly gained independence from colonial rule when the West Indies defeated England in cricket. A victory for the colonies signaled a shift in the national psyche from subordination and inferiority to confidence and pride, cultivating a fervent nationalism. Thus anytime a former colony goes up against its colonizer, far more than just a game is at stake.

Long independent, the nations of Togo, Trinidad and Angola will face their colonizers in the first round of World Cup 2006. Both soccer minnows, a victory for Togo or Trinidad will set off waves of celebration in the home country.

Yet the Angola versus Portugal match is arguably the most exciting and politically stimulating of the first round. Angola waged a brutal struggle for independence against Portuguese rule (and later against U.S. and South African influence) gaining independence in 1975. Angolans will be hoping their team rises above the favoured Portuguese in a game that will be charged with political symbolism.

Iranian fervour

In his wonderful book How Soccer Explains the World: An (unlikely) theory of globalization, Franklin Foer describes the political tremors that can result from a victory of the Iranian national soccer team. Iran’s victories can unleash popular sentiments that buck against the theocratic rule of the mullahs. The celebrations that greet Iranian soccer success make the country’s rulers uneasy: people eat, drink and be merry, dancing in the streets and saying things aloud that they otherwise would not dare to say.

Upon a team victory, Foer notes that what is normally restricted to the private sphere of the Iranian household bursts forth occupying public space as people take to the streets in celebrations that can and do morph into demonstrations against the government. The ayatollahs attempt to hijack the success of the national team for their own purposes but the team itself maintains a cautious independence from the government line. How Iranian success or defeat plays out in this era of U.S. sabre-rattling over the country’s nuclear program will be interesting.

Social movements

There are other World Cup news stories worth following that are not directly related to the games themselves but have everything to do with politics.

Having legalized prostitution, Germany’s sex industry is gearing up for a massive boost in business. Yet women’s groups are concerned with the trafficking of women for sexual slavery to meet the demand created by a massive influx of male tourists into the country. A number of NGOs have criticized world soccer’s governing body FIFA for not doing enough to raise awareness about trafficking and forced prostitution. Only recently have FIFA and German authorities begun to address these complaints. A number of NGOs plan to stage protests during the Cup’s festivities.

Oxfam has led a coalition of anti-sweat NGOs (the Fair Play Alliance) to protest the working conditions under which the uniforms and shoes of the participating teams are made. Oxfam’s report, Offside! Labour Rights and Sportswear Production in Asia, puts the spotlight on a number of large multinational corporations who have failed to clean up their supply chains and address the continuing abuse of workers’ rights. Anti-sweatshop groups will use the World Cup to stage demonstrations against the big apparel companies like Nike and Adidas.

As Oxfam points out, while players like England’s David Beckham receive millions in sponsorship deals, the people who make his shoes receive little more than pennies. Pressure is being put on the superstar players to convince their sponsors to clean up their acts. Whether players use their power and influence to help stamp out sweatshop abuses remains to be seen.

So whether you’re cheering on the boys from Brazil or avoiding the television at all costs, keep an eye on the political dynamics of this year’s World Cup. Before you vilify the overpaid athletes participating, remember that for many of them, football has been their means of social mobility, rising from the ghettoes of Sao Paulo, Tehran or Manchester to the world’s biggest sporting stage.

And for those of you who still can’t see what all the fuss is about, keep in mind the words of a famous English coach (and Lefty) by the name of Bill Shankly, “Football isn’t a matter of life and death, it’s more important than that.”