An Apologia for Athletic Aristocracy
Europe’s club soccer season is ending amidst a score of public debates over social and economic equality. Whatever political course the Europeans take, I hope that they don’t let their egalitarianism range too far into The Beautiful Game. (Image credit here.)
At long last the last whistle blows, the last bit of confetti falls, the last platitude spills from droning television lips, and with one final, clattering flourish, the season ends. Shelve the rivalry narratives, cue the highlight montages, and roll out that shiny Euro 2012 marketing campaign. Also—and this is critical—find and hug your WAG (or HAB, as the case may be). Maybe buy him/her some flowers. S/he has been patient.
But still…behind (Beneath? Beyond?) all this winding down, some very real fights are just beginning. The end of the on-pitch battles also serves as the opening bell for summer transfers, when each club reassesses their armory and trundles off to market. This is the annual dawning of reflection upon the project—are we rebuilding? Retooling? Refining? Repaying debts? Redressing grievances? Redeeming failures? Etc? Then, almost without warning, that speedy Chilean winger and the aging, second-choice keeper are suddenly transmogrified into an intriguing attacking midfielder from Slovenia. The club’s bank account weighs in a few pounds lighter. Ink sloshes about the local sports pages. Supporters start recalibrating old loyalties and current realities against hopeful new possibilities.
All of the resulting fluidity often prompts complaints about the transfer market’s lack of fairness. These come from fans of big and small clubs alike, for we are all democrats now. We need parity and table mobility and we need financial fair play. It’s a familiar, egalitarian complaint—why should Chelsea or Manchester United or Real Madrid or AC Milan or Sporting [Your Club’s Rich Rival] be permitted to purchase a nearly impregnable hold on success? Why should their floor be everyone else’s ceiling? We are suspicious of entrenched privilege. If the on-pitch rules impose a measure of equality upon all participants, it seems odd that we allow the off-pitch rules to privilege the wealthy. What, after all, should bank accounts have to do with determining the result of an athletic contest? We want to measure athletic prowess, not business acumen. That’s why we lionize the players—rather than the administrators who orchestrated their arrival.
But what if these aren’t the only relevant questions? What if the pursuit of parity threatens to sunder the goods of nobility?
There’s no use denying the merits of this democratic grumbling, for egalitarianism has ample virtues. We appreciate equality because it stands in as an easy approximation of justice. If we all start with equal resources—or at least equal opportunities—then presumably outcomes will be reasonably just. For instance, when we call global markets “free,” we’re really calling them “markets where the rules are predictable and applied reasonably equally to everyone.” Equal treatment permits us to believe that market outcomes are basically fair and just (it’s also why unequal treatment of various Wall Street participants elicits the same kinds of democratic complaints).
But this intuitive egalitarianism is hardly conclusive. Club soccer has an uneasy relationship with democratic virtues. Here in the 21st-century, clubs still stand in for armies and churches. Derbies take the place of dynastic feuds or civil wars (or both). What’s more, clubs constitute a largely feudal Great Chain of Being that links managers, stars, and legends to the lowliest season-ticket holders. Who are these fans, these chanting supporters with painted faces? More than a few observers have noticed something deeply medieval—pagan, early Christian, or otherwise—about them. Fans participate in deeply meaningful traditions replete with angels, saints, demons, heroes, and villains.
The biggest clubs are shackled to these traditions. Each one’s enchanted past sets the (often unreachable) expectations for the season. In this way, they are as cursed as they are blessed to permanently inhabit the rarefied upper places in the table, for this means that they are always within sight of top honors. They never seem to be more than one or two changes from the pinnacle. Ultimate victory lies just past that star signing, new manager, rising youth team prodigy, and/or refurbished stadium. Like desert oases, imagined trophies shimmer on the horizon: too close, compelling, and tempting to ignore—but still worryingly out of reach.
This anxiety is the key: it drives the biggest clubs to continue primping and pruning their squads in pursuit of the ideal. Foppish and narcissistic as it can get, there’s no denying that such refinement opens otherwise inconceivable aesthetic and athletic realms for exploration. Aristocracies put excellence first. They worship it. They quest for honor and nobility and, ultimately, the perfection of their craft.
The pursuit of excellence also fuels a certain pluralism. As part of this process, big clubs develop eccentric styles that eventually become unique standards for excellence. These idiosyncratic identities help elite clubs develop rivalries with other, alien clubs. The greatest rivalries are built around the obvious, inherent differences between the opponents. Whatever else ethnic or religious tensions do, there’s no question that they raise a derby’s stakes. Indeed, the worst sectarianism is a product of the seemingly eternal importance of each derby match.
If aristocratic rivals must be recognizably distinct, they must also be fundamentally the same. They must worthy of each other—for there is little glory to be found in routinely demolishing the weak. Only the unambiguously great foe will suffice, for aristocratic clubs seek to match talents (and wits and virtues, etc) against their true peers.
The irresistible pursuit of transcendence fits hand in glove with eccentric pluralism. This periodically baffles the most egalitarian amongst us. Indeed, we sometimes hear that Leo Messi excels only because he plays in front of the greatest midfield ever assembled. Whether this diminishes his individual quality is certainly debatable, but the obvious aristocratic question is rarely asked: isn’t this still cause for celebration? If his most transcendent moments rely upon Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta, and the rest of FC Barcelona’s stable of stars, that does nothing to reduce the astonishing quality of the play that results. Shouldn’t we appreciate the world’s best passer feeding the world’s most accomplished scoring threat?
There’s no escaping it. This degree of perfection requires an unequal distribution of talent and resources. This concatenated brilliance is probably unjust when measured against nearly any standard of fairness—but it’s also as close as anyone has yet come to fulfilling that specific style of play. FC Barcelona are but one example. For instance, recent Chelsea squads have flirted with perfection of a wholly different style of play. They are no less aristocratic simply because they have refined different aspects of their squad. Their strengths may be different, but they are no less refined for that. Every coat of arms is different—the aristocratic task for each is to live up to their particular identity. Undemocratic though they are, no one will mistake them for ordinary.
For whatever else they do to The Game As A Whole (or As A Spectacle), aristocratic clubs elevate the stakes and—more often than not—the peaks of athletic achievement. If Barcelona regularly administers whippings to clubs in La Liga’s middle and lower echelons, their clásico jousts with Madrid have periodically taken both teams yet closer to the pinnacle of sport.[i]
Does all of this amount to a full-throated defense of athletic aristocracy? Certainly not. Recognition of inequality’s goods need not blind us to parity’s worth. We should simply be aware that pursuit of one set might well preclude pursuit of the other. And if we cannot have both equality and ineffable excellence, is it really obvious that we should choose the former?
Conor Williams is a freelance writer. Past work published by The Run of Play, Dissent, The Washington Post, The Center for American Progress, and elsewhere. See more at http://www.conorpwilliams.com, on Facebook, or on Twitter: @conorpwilliams.
[i] Yes, several recent clásicos have been better demonstrations of the aristocratic tendency to resort to petulance instead of chivalric nobility. I’m afraid that there’s just no way to discuss that in this case without my own biases obscuring the analysis. Soon I’d be making snide references to “managers”-as-court-jesters and it would be all downhill from there. Suffice it to say that there’s nothing in my analysis that requires every aristocratic derby touch the ethereal. Humans are fallible and greatness is fleeting. A few disappointing clashes hardly preclude the next tilt from being outstanding. True excellence is rare, even in favorable conditions.