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A little book about football, democracy and how to build a society extract

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Issue number: 2023:1


from A little book about football, democracy and how to build a society

by Niklas Rådström

introduced and translated by Tom Buckle

In En liten bok om fotboll, demokrati och hur man bygger ett samhälle (A little book about football, democracy and how to build a society), Niklas Rådström examines what football might have to teach us about cooperation, justice and peaceful coexistence despite conditions of intense competition. From charting the rise of football during the period when liberal values like the right to vote, trade unionism and equality were gaining popularity through to the modern era where commercial and global forces are buffeting the sport, Rådström shows how football can act as a mirror to our society. 

Although acknowledging his own lack of prowess on the football field, Rådström also dissects the features of football that make it such a cultural force, including its spontaneity, the tension between individual and collective efforts, and the essential role played by the crowd. Along with forays into the rules of the game, the importance of fair play, the key role of managers, and the offside rule, he also highlights the many parallels between how football and politics are actually practiced.

This excerpt focuses on the first two chapters of the book, Warm-up and A Site of Experimentation, where the author explains what led him to write this book and how football’s endless possibilities have made it the global phenomenon it is today. 

Black-and-white photo of grey-haired man in glasses resting his head in his hand.
Niklas Rådström.


from A little book about football, democracy and how to build a society


C.S. Lewis once wrote that those who say that football is just about scoring goals haven’t understood anything about the game. Saying that football is about scoring goals is like saying that football is football, he opined.

Of course football involves scoring goals, otherwise no one would win any matches. But stating that this is what football consists of is just as reductive as defining human life by saying that we’re born to die. It’s certainly true. That we’re going to die is about the only thing we know about our lives with any certainty. But at the same time it’s a statement that says hardly anything at all about who we are or what a human life entails.

So, what is football?

In connection with the Football World Cup in 2014, the American extreme right-wing ideologue Ann Coulter wrote a widely read column. In it, she asserts that more and more Americans are becoming interested in football as a result of the immigration laws that were introduced through Ted Kennedy’s initiative in 1965, as it’s unthinkable that a single third-generation American would get into the sport. Fundamentally, she considers football a completely unamerican activity. She gives a number of reasons for this. 

She claims that individual contributions aren’t a decisive factor in football, viewing it as a game without room for heroes, villains or personal responsibility. Football is quite simply too collectivist to satisfy her libertarian fundamentalism. Besides, football is readily accessible to both sexes, which she says would only appeal to liberal soccer moms. She also sees the fact that football matches often end in a draw as a sign that the game suppresses a healthy winner-takes-all culture.

She also marks down football for not involving a substantial risk of personal humiliation or severe injury, in contrast to some other sports, meaning that it lacks that which sport should represent: sublimated warfare. Moreover, in football, you’re not allowed to use your hands, those physical attributes with their opposable thumbs that distinguish us from soul-less animals.

But above all she rejects football as unamerican on the basis that it represents something foreign, specifically, European. She compares it to the metric system, which was developed during the days of the French Revolution when people weren’t too busy committing genocide with the help of a guillotine.

She considers it significant that it is liberal newspapers that write most about football, and that the sport is promoted by the same people who have opinions about human rights and support liberal or left-wing politicians. Football, she asserts, undermines everything American as viewed from her extreme right-wing position, and every increase in interest in the sport should be seen as a sign of America’s moral impoverishment.

I’m willing to concede almost all of these points, and can simply state that, to a large extent, it is for these very reasons that I have come to love football as a sport and an expression of culture.

My heightened interest in football emerged at a fairly advanced age. I had of course played a bit growing up, but it was rarely anything more than in hastily arranged teams consisting of those kids who happened to be on the pitch in Vitabergsparken in Stockholm. As there were often too few of us to have a full match, we played hybrid forms such as ‘drivboll’, that is, forms of play that aligned with the concept of football – scoring goals against the opposition – but with rules that limited possession of the ball and freedom of movement on the pitch so that the two teams would be evenly matched.

Apart from that, my interest in football was the same as most others’: I followed the big tournaments on TV, maybe went to the occasional game in the top Swedish division and absent-mindedly skimmed through the league table in the sports pages of the paper. As the only child of a working mother, there were few role models in my own life that could lead me into the world of sport, while gym classes in school fluctuated from pleasure at the physical experience to shame at my own physical limitations and the gym teachers’ oppressive bullying.

My real engagement with the sport essentially started when my youngest son began playing in a boys’ team at the age of seven or eight. It was a learning experience even for me to see how these young people’s understanding of the game and their own role in it grew in line with the progression of the team’s approach from a ball-chasing cluster to an idea about cooperation and structure where everyone on the pitch has a task and forms part of a whole. Since then, the fascination hasn’t released its grip on me.

This background explains why this book about football contains only a handful of references to specific matches, names only a few players and only fleetingly retells a couple of anecdotes from football’s history. It is intended as a thought-provoking book about how to build a society with football as a cohesive metaphor and starting point. For some, it’s going to seem as hopelessly nerdy as a bespectacled 11-year-old schoolboy once felt in gym class, when he was always among those picked last and often just got to watch the game from the bench.

These pages can certainly be seen as just a bookish ponderer’s ridiculous attempt to offer opinions about something of which he has little physical experience. If that is the case, I can accept this. I have a feeling that, up in the stands at a game, I’m far from alone in this position.

A large part of the thought processes that went into this book germinated on the terraces at Söderstadion in Stockholm. Despite these thoughts only arising while a member of the crowd, part of the fascination of football is that the sport isn’t carried along by its practitioners alone, but just as much by its billions of fans around the globe.

Football has a dynamic relationship with its fans. The fact that they choose to return to fundamentally the same spectacle time after time depends of course on many different things, but one of them is the inexhaustible variety of possibilities that football offers. Its objective can be considered simple – that one of the teams’ assortment of skills trumps that of the other as measured by the number of goals scored in a match – but in reality it’s all much more complex than that. This is why even a goalless draw can be full of meaning and content for both players and the crowd.      

In many ways, football has parallels with art. Just like art, it pursues an end result but, regardless of what that is, the route there is never in vain. The act of creativity involves adopting a worldview that tells us that the sensate and sublime give substance and meaning to the world. This reminds us not least that creativity isn’t something that ends, but rather is always ongoing, and that we have a responsibility to it.

Football undeniably has aesthetic and sublime qualities, in terms of both individual players’ efforts and the collective’s teamwork and interpretation of an idea of play. But football also offers an understanding of the world that says that the building of a society and solidarity are possible even in situations of strong opposition. Like all games, it is an educational project that time after time re-forms and reinvents itself.

In conversation with President Barack Obama, the American author Marilynne Robinson expressed the following: ‘Democracy is something that we ourselves have created and something that is never complete. We have to continually reinvent it’.

I consider that the building of society based on a zest for life and an abundance of energy, on which democracy depends, can also be found as a model in football. It’s possible that this even contributes to the sport’s popularity in extremely authoritarian societies, as it provides an outlet for the natural impulse for equality that, despite substantial evidence to the contrary, I’d still like to think is part of being human.

With that said, I wouldn’t want to downplay the terrible outbursts of brutal and destructive populism expressed in the stands of football stadiums. This is a form of populism that is also an inherent risk in democracies, a societal form that we’ve seen be subjected to intense pressure given events in politics around the world in recent decades.

In this book, I try to describe football as a site of experimentation that, through ritualised performances, time after time attempts to test how a functioning society can be built. I also see football as a metaphor for building a society, which isn’t really the same thing. I ask the reader to indulge me when the distinction between these two perspectives becomes blurred. This book is about the nature of football, or rather about how it is an expression of culture.

I mentioned above that a lot of the intellectual content of this book was first generated in the stands of Söderstadion. I’m fully aware that a football stadium with that name no longer exists, with it instead being named after the company that sponsors the ground. I nonetheless persist in calling the place by the name of the old stadium on a neighbouring plot, a name that was linked to its geographical location and not in which company’s accounts it is included.

Just like society in general, professional football has become increasingly commercialised in recent decades. At the same time, we’ve seen how democratic powers in a range of places around the world have lost ground and legitimacy for many, while the political sphere has been hollowed out by populism and plutocracy. My possibly naïve hope is that football, like democracy, will be able to survive these destructive forces.

The British author Martin Amis once stated that intellectual football fans are despised as much by intellectuals as by football fans, which should really decimate the potential readership of this book. However, no one would be happier than me if these lines were to provide someone with the spark for a more burning engagement with democracy or with football.

A site of experimentation

The simplicity of football obviously contributes to its global popularity. Anyone can bring out a ball, place a couple of sticks as a goal and start to play. And if there’s no ball it’s possible to scrunch up some pieces of old paper in a plastic bag, place two towels down and thus make the beach a football pitch. For goalposts, a glade in the forest contains uncountable options to choose from, or two fenceposts in a garden can be used if the fence slats have been removed.

‘Fetch the ball, I’ll be goalie first’.

It is said that the founder of anthroposophy, Rudolf Steiner, despised football as it focuses on those parts of the body furthest from the head, the source of thought. In response, one can first say that Steiner didn’t know anything about football, as it is probably the most mentally demanding sport ever created. Moreover, Steiner’s position is primarily an expression of his snobbery, not infrequently formulated in plainly racist terms, and – irrespective of how high the transfer fees for individual players in the top leagues reach – isn’t compatible with how much football is dependent on the collective effort of the team.

The fact that, in football, we refrain from using those parts of the body that are unique to humans, the hands, and use those parts of the body that we share with most other mammals, the feet, means that in this sport we shrug off our role as nature’s responsible, dominant species to instead become playful bodies. It is with the hands that we create our idols, weapons, tools and possessions, with which we then carry the latter through our world overflowing with things. In football, we cast all this aside and allow the body, the dribbling feet, the running legs and the panting chest to speak for us before we put our foreheads through the ball to make a pass that drives play onward.

In football we define ourselves as playful creatures, but at the same time for many there is nothing more serious. In obituaries, it is increasingly common for a football club’s badge to symbolise the content of a life. What is the reason for this deep engagement? Some of the uninitiated imagine that it’s about a misdirected fanaticism due to the lack of a healthier or at least more reasonable purpose in life. I think they’re wrong. I think it’s about football involving us not only as playful beings, but just as much as intuitive, engaged individuals who want to create functioning societies.

Human life consists of a continuous fluctuation between indulgence in pleasures and a desire for order. Football appeals to both of these aspects of what it means to be human. Football is at the same time carnival and exercise, indulgence and restraint, intuition and thought. To me this is obvious as soon as one tries to think about what’s actually going on in the game in the middle of a frenzied passage of play or a haphazard shambles of failed passes. What we see on the football pitch is how we as wonderful, playful, dreaming creatures repeatedly try to give meaning and space to all the unavoidable conflicts and contradictions that exist both within and between us.

Plato’s dialogue Protagoras tells of the two gifts that Zeus gave humanity so that it’d be able to create ordered societies. The first is aidos: the shame felt by the traitor or the deserter fleeing the battlefield. The other is dike: the sense of justice and respect for others. A civilised, just and democratic social order is built on the fusion of these two gifts, aidos and dike, into a functional unit.

With this in mind, I assert that we can describe football as an experiment in building a society that is repeated time and time again. The fundamental question that football poses is as follows:

How can two groups with diametrically opposed interests within a limited area and with a limited time pursue their own aims and, irrespective of the outcome, consider the final result to be reasonably fair when the allotted time is over?

This resembles the fundamental question that every democratic and justice-seeking civilisation should ask itself and provide a reasonable answer to. Football can be seen as a repeated representation of a range of moral and philosophical problems relevant to how a society should be arranged and how human relations should be upheld in a civilised way, while at the same time providing space for play, innovation and the development of individual and collective talents.

Every football match is an attempt lasting two times 45 minutes to create a preliminary structure of solidarity in which 22 players try to realise and fulfil both their individual and their collective ambitions. Many of the society-building features that I bring up here are of course also present in other team sports, as they are all based on play. For example, basketball with its collectivist character, openness to both sexes, great variety and aesthetic qualities shares a lot with football, even if it is derived from a more unambiguously urban setting.

However, three things distinguish football from nearly all other team sports and make it particularly suited to being seen as a place for experimentation into how to build a miniature world replete with opposing aims and strong wills. These are the size of the teams, the fact that most of the players are on the pitch for the whole match, and that the clock isn’t stopped when the ball is out of play.

Given that each team is so big and most players are on the pitch for the whole match, each match involves an attempt to create a society where everyone who participates has a clear role to fulfil or exceed that is played out before our eyes. The player who only fulfils their allocated role can just as well be substituted for a cone. The player who selfishly exceeds their role without considering their duties, responsibilities and others’ demands of them risks destroying the whole foundation of play.  

In football, like in society in general, whether one wins or loses can depend on coincidence, luck or an unjust application of the rules. But most of all the game is based on efforts to create a working form of cooperation where individual attributes and ambitions are valued and have the space to be expressed.  

Football is thus not a metaphor for war, where the primary rule is blind subordination and obedience. It is an allegory for a society that can unite opposing aims and interests to together create a dynamic unit. This is also the challenge that democracy sets itself.

To achieve this, the play must repeatedly be reset, reconsidered and built up again. As soon as a passage of play becomes predictable, it must be reformulated to find a new manifestation. This shows what is required in every creative activity: to maintain a vision while at the same time continually reviewing it.   

This is a drama that is constantly repeated, in society at large just as in matches between boys’ teams, in league matches and in the World Cup Final. It is also a drama that, like in society in general, is directed by all-embracing concepts – let’s call them ‘ideologies’ for lack of an alternative – that are intended to guide how the strategies of one’s own team should be organised. Football is also driven forward by cognitive constructs shared among managers and coaching staff that resemble those in politics.

It is said that one shouldn’t confuse politics with preaching, as preaching involves saying truth to power, while politics correctly understood involves taking power to defend the truth. Football must be based on the pragmatism that is necessary for an open society. As in politics, there is also a left-right spectrum in football.

For example, the Argentinian manager César Luis Menotti, who in 1978 led his team to win the World Cup on home ground, stated that football enables the manifestation of different perspectives on humanity that are similar to those we find across the political spectrum. 

‘Right-wing football’, he has said, ‘represents that life is a struggle that demands victims: We must make ourselves like steel and win at any cost...obedience and work, that is what those with power demand of the players. This creates cripples, useful idiots who follow the system’.

As a response to this, we can consider a statement made by Pep Guardiola, manager of Barcelona and Manchester City, among others. ‘We play left-wing football, everyone does’.

Football sometimes involves tactical choices for that particular moment, which some call ‘cynical football’, but more often involves conscious, long-term strategies aimed at creating structures that are sustainable not just for a handful of matches, but for several seasons. This requires ideas that do not just depend on the current team sheet or upcoming matches, but that also work when the team changes and the opposition turns out to be different than what was expected.

This demands reflection, determination and the will to hold on to a vision. The cognitive construct referred to as ‘fiscal quarters’ has nothing to offer football. This is also true for art, and similarly for how we look at the society that we want to build together. Art shouldn’t stand there with a damp finger in the air or attempt to catch up with those trends that are currently in vogue, just like politics shouldn’t allow itself to be governed by the figures from the latest fiscal quarter or fleetingly heated but ultimately vacuous political debate.

The unpredictability that is football’s lifeblood reminds us that, regardless of whatever arrangements we make and controls we exert over our lives, something will always happen. Democracy and an open society are fuelled by the same fire: that in the face of a changing world one should always be prepared to review one’s perspectives and strategies. 

About the book

En liten bok om fotboll, demokrati och hur man bygger ett samhälle

Mondial, 2021, 141 pages

Foreign rights: Magdalena Hedlund, Hedlund Literary Agency.

We are grateful to Hedlund Literary Agency for permission to publish this translated extract.

Niklas Rådström made his literary debut in 1975, and has become known as a prolific and versatile novelist, poet and playwright. He has published a variety of novels, poetry collections and essays, and has written some twenty plays that have been staged around the world. He was awarded the August Prize in 1994 for the novel While Time Thinks of Something Else and, among many other awards, he was in 2019 given the prestigious Övralidspriset for 'his ability to travel in all directions of literature'.

Tom Buckle is a Swedish translator and science editor. After long periods in Sweden, Japan and Spain, he now resides in Wales.