Monday, November 14, 2011

How soccer explains Berlusconi

Yesterday Silvio Berlusconi resigned as Prime Minister of Italy. He'd managed to survive years of sensational tabloid headlines and more serious charges of corruption, but he wasn't able to survive the debt crisis engulfing Italy. Already speculation is rampant that Berlusconi will return to his first love -- the presidency of the AC Milan football club -- a position he was forced to give up after being elected to a third stint as PM in 2008. "Berlusconi, give up on Italy and come and help Milan rise to the top before they take you away in handcuffs," one fan pleads on an internet messageboard. Under Berlusconi's reign AC Milan had an astonishing run of success in the 80s and 90s which fueled his rise in politics.

But first a bit of background. For decades the most successful club in Italian football was Juventus of Turin. They were the New York Yankees of Italian sports. Juventus was owned by the Agnelli family, owners of Fiat. The Agnelli's were old-style oligarchs, preferring to keep a low profile as they pulled the strings of Italian politics. People used to joke that the job of the Prime Minister was to polish the Agnelli's doorknob. Then along came Berlusconi. He didn't fit the mold of the older generation Italian elite. He came from modest means and forged an amazing upward path through hard work and a winning personality. For example Berlusconi paid his own way through law school with money he earned singing on cruise ships. Stories like this made him a populist hero. Instead of shunning the limelight he sought it out, and cultivated the image of a self-made businessman who had what it took to bring Italy out of it's ethical and economic malaise. By the 1980s he was owner of a media empire, and ready for bigger things.

Franklin Foer picks up the story in How Soccer Explains the World:

While Berlusconi had been a major media mogul before becoming a sports mogul, it was the purchase of the soccer club in 1986 that launched him to national prominence. When he entered politics in 1994, running for prime minister, the game undergirded his electoral strategy. In a matter of months, Berlusconi's advertising firm Publitalia (one of his breathtaking array of holdings) went about the business of building him a political party. For the party's base, it started with the several million fans of AC Milan. It converted supporters' clubs into local headquarters for his party. Publitalia dubbed the Forza Italia rank and file the "Azuri," the same nickname given to the players on the national team for their blue uniforms.

Berlusconi invoked soccer so relentlessly because his club was in the middle of a spectacular run that included consecutive Champions League titles. He wanted to plant the idea in voters' minds that he was a winner, at a time when the economy sputtered and all politicians in Italy seemed like corrupt losers. "We will make Italy like Milan," he tirelessly repeated. There was also a populist brilliance to his use of soccer as a metaphor for society. It gave him a vocabulary that resonated with the lower middle class, the group that he wanted to cultivate as a political base.

At AC Milan Berlusconi brought in coaches and players to implement a flashy attacking style of football in contrast to the staid defensive-minded approach epitomized by Juventus. The team became a reflection of its boss. Sadly, the promise to bring that same dynamism and success to the Italian masses seems to have failed. Berlusconi leaves Italy in terrible shape and may well end up being taken away in handcuffs before all is said and done. Yet all will be forgiven if he can bring another moment of soccer glory.

The pervasive role of soccer in Italy is fascinating (there's much more about it in Foer's book), and serves as a case study of the idolatrous hold sports can have on a society. Another case study is the sad and sordid scandal unfolding at Penn State University. As a passionate fan of college football (and soccer) I have to wonder: what is it that makes us prone to placing too much importance on a game? And so prone to ascribing god-like qualities to those who win? The answer lies in the fact that we are wired to worship something bigger than ourselves. Games -- especially one as beautiful as soccer -- have the potential for delivering transcendent moments. Therein lies the appeal, and the danger. When soccer or football (or fill-in-the-blank) becomes a god, desires and priorities inevitably become disordered.

Quote from Franklin Foer, How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization, pp. 185-6

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