“Don’t Play With The Dictator:” Politics and 2014 World Hockey Championships in Belarus

“Don’t Play With The Dictator:” Politics and 2014 World Hockey Championships in Belarus

Mark Norman

Sporting mega-events such as the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games, despite claims by their organizers and boosters about the political neutrality of sport, are deeply enmeshed in political structures. In recent months, a number of these high profile events have drawn the ire of political activists, citizens, and some media precisely because of their political implications. Consider the following examples:

Each of these examples highlights some of the ways that sport is enmeshed in, and can contribute to, unequal power relations between individuals and groups in various societies around the world. Thankfully, sport mega-events are increasingly coming under public scrutiny and are having their politics examined in the press. However, there are many other examples of sport contributing to social injustice that are happening on a smaller scale. One such event, which has gained relatively little media attention (especially in North America), is the upcoming 2014 Men’s World Hockey Championships in Belarus.


The 2014 International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Men’s World Ice Hockey Championships (commonly known as the World Hockey Championships) was awarded to Belarus in 2009. In many ways, the choice makes a great deal of sense: Belarus, a former republic of the Soviet Union, has never hosted a major international hockey tournament since gaining its independence in 1991; the country has enjoyed modest success in international men’s hockey and the sport enjoys a passionate following amongst Belarusians; and the country’s President, Alexander Lukashenko, is a massive hockey fan who has spearheaded arena construction across the country. However, there is a dark side to Belarus’ hosting of the World Championships – and, quietly, talk of moving the tournament to another country.

The controversy over Belarus’ hosting of the championships stems from the repressive rule of Lukashenko’s – who, under shady circumstances, has remained President of Belarus since 1994. Lukashenko’s regime has been marked by questionable elections, violent repression of opposition politicians, and other worrying authoritarian trends. Many media outlets, such as The Guardian, refer to Luksashenko’s Belarus as “Europe’s last dictatorship.” Human Rights Watch summarizes the situation in Belarus as such:

The Belarusian government continues to severely curtail freedoms of association, assembly, and expression, and the right to fair trial. September 2012 parliamentary elections preserved the status quo, with a victory for parties allied with President Lukashenko. The opposition won no seats. New restrictive legislative amendments have paved the way for even more intense government scrutiny of civil society organizations and activists. Government harassment of human rights defenders, independent media, and defense lawyers continues, including through arbitrary bans on foreign travel. Belarus detains a number of political prisoners. Allegations of torture and mistreatment in custody persist.

Lukashenko is, seemingly, genuinely a huge fan of hockey. However, he has also clearly tried to use the sport to bolster his image in Belarus and abroad. There are numerous examples of Lukashenko blurring the line between his hockey fandom and his attempts to cultivate a positive PR image. For example, in 2004, then-Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin celebrated his day with the Stanley Cup in Minsk – an event at which Lukashenko was conspicuous. As described, in fairly breathless tones, by the Hockey Hall of Fame:

When the plane touched down at the Minsk Airport, a throng of better than fifty media members awaited the Stanley Cup’s first ever moments in Belarus. . . . Khabibulin held a press conference at the airport, welcoming the Stanley Cup, then took the trophy to Junost, an arena in Minsk. Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko donned hockey equipment and took to the ice along with members of the national team abetted by Nikolai Khabibulin in goal to face off against Junost Minsk. Teammates continually fed the president passes on the tape of his stick until at long last, he beat the netminder for Junost Minsk.

Lukashenko has made many other public appearances or statements relating to hockey. He takes an active interest in the dealings of Belarus’ only Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) team, Dinamo Minsk, opining in a 2013 interview about whether the team should remain in the KHL or join another league. In 2001, the President participated in a friendly – and well publicized – hockey match in Moscow, which pitted Belarusian and Russian athletes and politicians against each other. And in 2011, after a tragic plane crash claimed the lives of the KHL team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, Lukashenko inserted himself prominently into Dinamo Minsk’s tribute to the fallen team, skating on the ice in a Belarus hockey jersey accompanied by his young son:


Lukashenko is well aware of the possibility for politicians to turn sport to their own ends, having once stated that “sport is diplomacy and politics. Actually no, it’s great politics, especially ice hockey.” Given Lukashenko’s passion for and political relationship with hockey, the awarding of the 2014 World Championships to Belarus must have been a great coup for the President – and it has spurred him to approve the construction of dozens of expensive and impressive hockey arenas across the country. However, now that his regime is facing criticism about its human rights record and calls for the championship to be moved, Lukashenko is doing an about-face and falling back on the oft-cited claim that sport is divorced from politics:

Last year [Lukashenko] dismissed the threat of a Western boycott as “pure politicking”.

“This is a purely politicised process, and it has nothing to do with sports,” Lukashenko insisted. “And if [a boycott] happens, this will be a blow to the world hockey federation’s image. Belarus deserves this championship.”

Yet, the 2014 World Championships are intimately connected with Lukashenko’s political regime. Viorel Ursu and Joanna Hosa of the Open Society European Policy Institute write that:

Ice hockey is highly political in Belarus. Its president, a renowned hockey player and self-confessed dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, is using hockey to play for legitimacy. . . .

For a country popularly known as home to “the last dictator of Europe,” there was surprisingly little outrage in 2009 when Belarus was awarded the right to organize the championship. Some saw it as a chance to open up Belarus and its economy. René Fasel, the President of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), was determined to focus on sport. He praised Belarus as a “hockey nation” and said he is always happy to go to Minsk. . . .

Despite [efforts to move the tournament], Fasel confirmed the decision to hold the games in Minsk. He fell back on the dogma that “sport cannot and should not be a political tool”, ignoring the reality that his sport is already highly politicised, and a tool for one of the most infamous regimes in Europe.

Lukashenka is using the championship to boost his image, both externally and internally. In May 2012 he assured his parliamentarians that Belarus is ready to host the games and welcome foreign fans. He added that foreigners believe lies on the Internet, but once they come and see Belarus for themselves, they will discover that it is a beautiful, modern country and that there are no “bears and no evil sabre-rattling dictator rambling in the streets of Minsk.”

There are encouraging signs of opposition to Belarus’ hosting of the World Championships. Paavo Arhinmyaki, Finland’s Minister of Sports and Culture, last year called upon the IIHF to consider moving the tournament if Lukashenko continued his political repression. A number of German politicians made similar calls. Peter Stastny, a former NHL star and current Member of the European Parliament for Slovakia, has also spoken out on the issue, saying:

Ice hockey championships is like the Olympics, it’s a matter of prestige and I don’t personally want ice hockey to be associated with the dictator in Belarus.

Meanwhile, a campaign named “Don’t Play With the Dictator” is working to have the World Championships moved unless Belarus addresses its human rights abuses. The campaign, which is supported by a number of international human rights NGOs, states on its website:

To hold the 2014 IIHF World Championship in Belarus would support and legitimatise a regime which violates the human rights of the people of Belarus in an alarming way.

We urge the IIHF and the representatives of the national IIHF member organisations to support the victims of human rights violations by removing the 2014 IIHF World Championship from Belarus.

The 2014 IIHF World Championship should only take place in Belarus after the Government of Belarus has:

– released all political prisoners unconditionally

–  introduced a moratorium or abolished the death penalty

– stopped the use of violence, ill-treatment and torture against peaceful protestors and prisoners

– abolished criminal code article 193.1

– ensured the registration of independent NGOs and democratic political parties in a fair, impartial and transparent manner

– stopped the persecution, harassment and intimidation of dissidents

– fully rehabilitated all those prosecuted for political reasons

It is encouraging to see a movement emerge to contest the Lukashenko regime and its attempts to bolster its legitimacy through hosting the World Hockey Championships. However, it remains to be seen whether the campaign will have any success – certainly, a relocation of a tournament scheduled to take place in six months seems unlikely, and a boycott by any participating countries even more remote. That being said, last month Lukashenko himself admitted the possibility of a boycott or relocation.

Even if it is unsuccessful in moving the World Championships, the campaign still has an opportunity to raise awareness of Belarus’ human rights abuses and leverage the tournament to pressure politicians into pushing for the Lukashenko regime to reform its practices. Raising widespread public consciousness of Belarus’ human rights record, while certainly not enough to change it, is certainly an important step in pushing for change.

That being said, when the cameras roll, the crowd cheers, the national anthems play, and the puck drops to open the tournament, will the lives of Belarusian citizens and activists be improved or look more hopeful? That question will be central to determining whether or not the campaign against the Lukashenko government and its hosting of the World Championships has been able to make a difference.

Mark Norman is a PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto, where he researches sociocultural issues in sport and physical cultures.  This article first appeared at Hockey in Society on October 14, 2013.

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Carlos Delgado and the Less-Comfortable Legacy

Carlos Delgado and the Less-Comfortable Legacy

Tyler Shipley

Earlier this season, the Toronto Blue Jays honoured former star player Carlos Delgado by adding his name to the “Level of Excellence” along the rafters of the Skydome, in a fitting tribute to a player who put up consistent all-star numbers over many seasons with the sometimes truly dismal Blue Jays of the 90s and 2000s.  But among the many individual accolades that Delgado was remembered for, notably absent was any significant discussion of the fact that Delgado was an outspoken advocate for peace.


To be more precise, Delgado opposed wars of imperialism and injustice.  The Puerto Rican athlete was an activist against the U.S. occupation of his homeland, taking particular exception to the fact that the U.S. navy tested conducted bombing practice off the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, which left the area physically and socially devastated, and which led to the killing of a civilian in 1999 by an errant bomb.  After the killing, Delgado connected with Ismael Guadalupe of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, and got involved in the demonstrations against the Navy in Puerto Rico and the United States.  Under pressure from Delgado and others, the Navy ceased the bombings, but the mess they left remained: “you’re dealing with health, with poverty, with the roots of an entire community, both economically and environmentally,” Delgado said.  “This is way bigger than just a political or military issue. Because the military left last year and they haven’t cleaned the place up yet.”

The very fact that Puerto Rico is a U.S. colony is one that is rarely discussed; indeed, the self-proclaimed beacon of world freedom is a direct colonial power in an era where imperialism is typically more carefully concealed as “humanitarian intervention.”  Delgado, like the many Puerto Ricans with whom he demonstrated during the Navy-Vieques Protests in the early 2000s, did not consider the occupation benign.

But Delgado’s activism and awareness was even broader than that.  Understanding that imperialism was a system, he saw it at work in George Bush’s post-9/11 wars, especially in the occupation of Iraq, which he called “the stupidest war ever.”  Delgado quite rightly recognized that, in the early 2000s, professional sports was a key arena for building patriotic consent to the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere; suddenly, every ballpark in Major League Baseball was directing its fans and players to sing “God Bless America,” and pay tribute to the dead of 9/11 and the soldiers killed in American wars.  Delgado refused to participate, staying in the dugout or the dressing room during the singing.

“It’s a terrible thing that happened on 9/11.  It is a terrible thing that happened in Afghanistan and Iraq.  I just feel so sad for the families that lost relatives and loved ones in the war.  But I think it’s the stupidest war ever… You’ve been looking for weapons of mass destruction.  Where are they at?  You’ve been looking for over a year.  Can’t find them.  I don’t support that.  I don’t support what they do.  I think it’s just stupid… I’m not pro-war.  I’m anti-war.  I’m for peace.”

He was booed heartily by fans across the league and especially in New York.  But as he put it, the simple fact that you are a celebrity athlete does not mean that you cease to be “part of society.”  Carlos Delgado, despite intense pressure from the media, the fans, and no doubt some members of the Blue Jays organization, consistently stayed in the dugout during the singing of “God Bless America,” because he understood that it was part of the project to convince people that it was necessary and legitimate for the U.S. to invade, conquer and control Iraq and Afghanistan, just as it had done in Puerto Rico.

Delgado’s Legacy

Hats off to Carlos Delgado, to be sure.  But what is to be said of his legacy in Toronto?  Many Canadians agree with Delgado’s assessment of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and would likely applaud his courage in standing up for his beliefs.  This is certainly reflected in the fact that much of the reporting of Delgado’s ceremony this July talked about his refusal to stand for “God Bless America” and typically gave him credit for sticking to his convictions.

But it was often only a brief mention, a sidenote in a story that was really about home runs, hip surgeries and the money he gave to charity.   It is hard not to think that this mild discomfort with Delgado’s anti-imperialist legacy stems from the fact that Canada is now delving deeper and deeper into its own imperial wars and is participating in precisely the same patriotic militarism that Delgado stood so firmly against.  Indeed, there is a rather twisted irony in the fact that the same writers who commend Delgado for his stand against “God Bless America” have yet to say a word against the Blue Jays’ new “Sunday Salute,” in which a member of the Canadian military is brought onto the field and honoured for their contribution to one or another of Canada’s wars.

Would Carlos Delgado have celebrated Canada’s ongoing occupation of Afghanistan?  Would he have paid tribute to Canadian pilots who dropped bombs on Libyans?  Would he have stood on ceremony for the General who bragged that the role of the Canadian forces was “to kill people?”  Would he have honoured Canadian troops who overthrew the democratic President of Haiti and trained the police to liquidate his supporters?  Would he be proud of the Canadians who have facilitated and whitewashed the torture and assassination of social movement activists in Honduras?

The answer, I think, is that Carlos Delgado would not have happily paid tribute to a Canadian military that now behaves in a manner indistinguishable from that of the U.S. military he has opposed consistently throughout his adult life.

Bigger than Baseball

Delgado’s hero, fellow countryman Roberto Clemente, similarly refused to abandon his politics in favour of his celebrity.  He insisted that his name remain Roberto – not Americanized to “Bobby” – and he continued playing ball in Puerto Rico while he was a Major Leaguer.  He called out racism in the sports media: “you’re trying to create a bad image of me… you do it because I’m black and Puerto Rican, but I’m proud to be Puerto Rican.”  He was a leader in the baseball players union.  He died in 1972 while trying to directly deliver aid to victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua after discovering that the U.S.-supporter Somoza dictatorship was hijacking aid shipments.

Carlos Delgado was inspired not just by Clemente’s ability to play ball.  “People thought he was a good player,” said Delgado in 2009, “but the stuff he did off the field goes beyond the 3,000 hits, the Hall of Fame.”  As Clemente said, “anytime you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don’t do it, you are wasting your time on this earth.”  That insistence that politics and activism were bigger than baseball is what has set apart athletes like Clemente and Delgado and for that they certainly deserve to be honoured.

But the fact that the Blue Jays used this season to honour both Carlos Delgado and the Canadian military demonstrates the extent to which the organization actually rejects Delgado’s true legacy.  Indeed, they even went as far as to celebrate Delgado’s legacy on Sunday, a few innings separated from the “Sunday Salute” itself.  They absurdity is patent; not one of Carlos Delgado’s 473 home runs was nearly as significant as his decision to use his role as a Major League star to take a principled stand against imperialism.  And yet in the very act of honouring Delgado, the Blue Jays are undermining his legacy, but attempting to dilute it back into being simply about baseball and charity.

Tyler Shipley teaches at York University and is the editor of Left Hook.  He is a Blue Jays fan, but he will be outside the Skydome on Sunday, September 15 to protest the “Sunday Salute.”  All are invited to join him.

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Anti-Fascist Fitness?

Anti-Fascist Fitness?

Alan Sears

When I see a poster for a fitness “boot camp” it makes me cringe. Since when did the military provide our models of well-being? To be clear, the military does not exist for health promotion, but as a machine for killing, maiming, and terrorizing. Military boot camp is designed to break down recruits and re-forge them as obedient units in that machine. Wow, sign me up!

The prevalence of boot camps tells us something important about attitudes towards our bodies – and therefore our selves, in the words of the feminist classic Our Bodies Our Selves. The fitness industry and the obesity panic are two sides of the same coin, both signs of a serious contempt for the body – at least in its natural state. We like our bodies made over: toned, tanned, shaved, styled, inked, pierced, dyed, and scented. Just listen to the contempt people express for the unprocessed raw body, especially one deemed “out of shape.”

The militarization of fitness has a long history. Very early in the 20th century, for example, the British government was worried that its fighting capacity in the Boer war was compromised by the low level of health and fitness among working-class men. They formed the Inter-Departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration, which issued a report calling, among other things, for more physical training in schools.

Physical education, then, was not rooted in a general desire for healthy minds and healthy bodies, but an imperative to increase national military capacity. Specialists in schools and gyms developed training methods that were focused not on providing people with the resources and knowledge to live well in their bodies, but rather preparing them to meet the performance requirements of employers and the military.

Fascist nudes at Mussolini’s Foro Italico sports complex in Rome. Photograph: Anthony Majanlahti.

Fascist nudes at Mussolini’s Foro Italico sports complex in Rome. Photograph: Anthony Majanlahti.

This militarized model of fitness has gone much deeper into society during the neoliberal era that began in the 1970s. Governments slashed benefits and services while employers trashed secure jobs with decent pay. A much higher portion of the population now negotiates life-long insecurity, a tightrope walk without a social safety net. Not surprisingly, people are plowing resources into training for that tightrope walk. Health has been individualized in this context, a personal accomplishment through training rather than something we strive for collectively by fighting poverty, making work safer, cleaning up the environment, and developing proper support resources.

Yet the proliferation of militarized training is in some ways surprising at a time when work and warfare have been transformed by information technologies, making physical strength and prowess less important. Neoliberalism is also the age of commercialization, where every aspect of life has been invaded by market forces. We are everywhere bombarded with images seeking to sell us something. We are constantly exposed to images of inhumanly perfect bodies on advertisements and in entertainment.

The models of fitness we aspire to through training actually have very little to do with our health. The extreme worlds of fashion modelling, bodybuilding, and elite athletics have established unsustainable standards for body image organized around hierarchies of gender, race, sexuality, and class. These bodies are built through cycles of bulking and cutting, supplementation, food and water deprivation, and extreme training regimes that are simply incompatible with a balanced life of good physical and mental health. Add in the photoshopping that accompanies professional photoshoots and you have unattainable standards projected everywhere. Our own bodies necessarily feel rather flawed in comparison.

We cannot succeed in the race to meet the standards of those idealized bodies. Indeed, the fitness and diet industries are designed to profit from failure. Health clubs make a tidy income from people who sign up after New Years’ resolutions but don’t show up to work out. Diet plans are built to fail, as weight loss is unsustainable unless it is accompanied by deeply established ways of eating and moving.

Surely there are better sources for our ideas of well-being than the military, the factory, and the illusion industries of culture and fashion. Feminism provides tools for critically understanding the way women’s body images have been formed to please the male eye rather than meet the needs of women themselves. Ecological perspectives offer a model of sustainable ways of life that align with our environment. Anti-racism helps us understand the hierarchies that are built into standardized images of the ideal body. Queer liberation reminds us that our bodies are also sites of pleasure. Workers’ health and safety makes clear the everyday toll that the current organization of work takes on our minds and bodies, and how to fight back.

The design of communities makes a big difference in health. Sustainable communities built around normal everyday movement, such as climbing stairs or walking to work, school, or play are associated with higher standards of fitness. The car-centred design of suburban communities makes everyday walking nearly impossible. At the same time, it is essential that communities be designed around varying levels of mobility and the rights of people with disabilities to full participation in all areas of life.

If some people want to subject themselves to boot camps and find it works for them, that’s fine. But let’s open up consideration of other paths to well-being and other images of health. To me, the better world we are fighting for includes a genuine opening to our bodies in all their diversity, and in all stages of the life cycle. Every radical knows that movement is good, so let’s take movement back from the militarized for-profit fitness industry.

Alan Sears is a writer and activist who teaches sociology at Ryerson. He is an editorial associate of New Socialist webzine and the co-author (with James Cairms) of The Democratic Imagination: Envisioning Popular Power in the Twenty-First Century.  This article first appeared in Briarpatch Magazine.

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La Pulga, El Barca and “Prefigurative Cooperation”

La Pulga, El Barca and “Prefigurative Cooperation”

Manuel Larrabure

“La pulga atómica” (the bionic flea), “el extraterrestre” (the extraterrestrial) or simply, “el mejor del mundo” (the world’s best). These are just a few of the nicknames football fans use for Lionel Messi. By now, his genius is unquestioned, evidenced by his growing award collection. In 2012, Messi was awarded his fourth Ballon D’ore, the highest award in world football, an unprecedented achievement in football history. These are now sitting next to his two European Golden Shoes, awarded to Europe’s top goal scorer, and a myriad other individual awards. In addition, Messi continues to break record after record, one of his latest being most goals scored in a calendar year (91), previously held by Gerd Muller (85) for 40 years. He is also Barcelona’s all-time leading goal scorer, and holds the world record for most consecutive goals in club competition. Not bad for a 26 year old!

La Pulga

It gets better with his highlight reel. Here is where your jaw really drops. Take for example his free kick goal against Uruguay in the world cup qualifiers in 2012. In a nod to Ronaldinho, his former Barcelona teammate, Messi kicks the ball under the defensive wall, which jumps in anticipation of a top corner shot. Fooled! Uruguay’s goalkeeper barely saw the ball going into his own net. Then, there’s Messi on a breakaway. In this situation, rather than shooting the ball or attempting to dribble past the goalie, he will often lob the ball into the net, leaving even the best keepers absolutely helpless as they watch the ball drift over their heads. At this point, defensemen can do little more than run back desperately towards the ball, sometimes running into goalposts or accidentally kicking the ball into their own net.

Then, who can forget his goal for Barcelona against Getafe in 2007? In an almost exact replica of Diego Maradona’s 1986 goal for Argentina in the World Cup quarterfinals against England, Messi ran half the field with the ball glued to his feet, evading five players before sliding the ball into the net past a sixth. The best goal in football history, according to many. Maradona himself has declared Messi his successor, but Galeano gets us closer to the truth. Maradona, he tells us, played with the ball attached to his foot, but Messi plays with the ball “inside his foot”, something that is “scientifically inexplicable” (Taringa). Indeed, by now, the debate is no longer whether he is the best football player today, but whether he is the best in the sport’s history. Perhaps the only thing keeping him from surpassing Pele’s legacy is that he lacks a world cup trophy. But what does explain Messi’s genius? His performance with Argentina during the 2010 World Cup gives us some clues.

During the World Cup in South Africa, many accused Messi of massively underperforming. Some even blamed him alone for the team’s disappointing performance. Some of these criticisms were warranted. Not only did Messi fail to score during Argentina’s five games at the World Cup, he also wasn’t much of a threat. Compared to his near magical performance with Barcelona in 2009, it was evident that in South Africa Messi just wasn’t Messi. In Argentina, the press and many fans reacted viscously, often mobilizing nationalist sentiments to explain this turn of events. Going far beyond the standard criticisms, he was often accused of not being Argentinian enough. After all, it was argued, Messi moved to Spain when he was 13, so he therefore lacks sufficient patriotism, supposedly the key ingredient for success. Heard in stadiums and seen on graffiti walls, “Messi no es Argentino” (Messi is not Argentinian), became the popular cat call of disappointed Argentinian fans. (Sturtridge et al). Indeed, in a 2012 poll in Argentina, he was ranked merely third-best sportsman. If disillusioned Argentinians only knew that Messi’s genius has nothing to do with his nationality or patriotism.

Others have tried to explain Messi’s success by pointing to some of his physical attributes and particular skills, a common explanation for success in any sport. For example, it is often noted that Messi is short, giving him a lower center of gravity, which explains his short bursts of speed and dribbling skills. Then, there’s his well roundedness: he can dribble, pass, shoot and run. He also has vision, intelligence, agility etc. All of this is true. However, this list of attributes and skills at best merely explains why Messi is a great player, not why he is the greatest. After all, all great players have unique skills and attributes that make them stand out. Furthermore, there are many players with similar characteristics that are hardly worth talking about (short players abound in soccer, for example). Hence, to really explain Messi’s success, we must look beyond biological traits or individual skills. Messi’s real secret is found in what I call “prefigurative cooperation”.

From “Fragmented Cooperation” to “Prefigurative Cooperation”

A central theme in liberal and conservative political theory is the question of whether people are inherently cooperative or conflictual. Depending on which side you’re on, society is on an inevitable path towards either democracy and cooperation (liberal), or conflict and anarchy (conservative). In contrast to these naturalizing and linear perspectives, a Marxian approach argues that cooperation, competition and conflict are not inherent qualities in people, but rather determined by how society concretely produces and re-produces itself. Using this approach to look specifically at capitalist society, Marx argued that cooperation and competition interact in a dynamic and complex manner, giving the system specific tendencies and counter tendencies. From this perspective, the future is therefore neither predetermined, nor a blank canvas on which anything is possible.

On the one hand, Marx tells us, capital produces a systematic division of labor whereby workers become increasingly “one-sided”. Rather than producing the commodity as a whole through a variety of highly skilled labor, workers become ever more specialized, producing increasingly fewer aspects of one single commodity. In addition, a sharp division is created between intellectual and manual labor, with managers, scientists, and other experts on one side, and manual workers on the other. Hence, rather than being a space where workers can freely share their skills and abilities, the workplace becomes a space of competition, fragmentation and alienation.

On the other hand, capital systematically brings workers together who in their partiality and specialization must nevertheless rely on one another to produce the product as a whole. Without this kind of cooperation, successfully producing any single commodity would be impossible. Marx (1976) captures both these aspects of production in capitalism when he tells us that “the commodity, from being the individual product of an independent craftsmen, becomes the social product of a union of craftsmen, each of whom performs one, and only one, of the constituent partial operations” (p. 457). Hence, in capitalism, cooperation needs to be understood dialectically, merely as “fragmented cooperation”.

Although fragmented, this particular form of cooperation nevertheless unleashes the power of productivity, as previously separate forms of labor are brought together and individual operations are simplified. Furthermore, as large numbers of workers are brought together the advantages of “simple cooperation” are also systematically unleashed. These advantages consist of the qualitative leap in productivity that exists when combining a certain amount of workers to perform a particular task that would be impossible to accomplish otherwise, that is, even if a larger quantity of individual labours was employed. In other words, certain tasks, such as harvesting, for example, are possible only when a certain amount of labor is combined at once.

In addition, as productivity increases, the labor time necessary for the production of useful items decreases, making capitalism a highly efficient system. This captivated liberal political economists, most notably, Adam Smith. Marveling at the efficiency of pin-making factories in England, he came to see capitalism as the only possible system capable of meeting people’s supposed ever-increasing material needs, even of those at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Hence, the fragmentation and self interest expressed in the capitalist social division of labor became glorified by liberal political economy. As Smith (1982) famously tells us, it is not to the benevolence of the butcher or brewer that we should look, but rather their self-interest.

Challenging the fragmented cooperation glorified by liberal political economy, Marx interpreted the unprecedented efficiency of capitalism as merely creating potential, rather than a fait accompli for humanity. Hence, Marx is quick to point out that the benefits of fragmented cooperation primarily accrue to a minority, the capitalist class, rather than society as a whole. For example, the capitalist pays wages to the individual worker only, not to the collective. In addition, rather than there being a growth in workers’ capacities, capital fosters the growth of an underdeveloped class of “unskilled laborers” whose degree of specialization turns the worker into “a fragment of himself”, and a mere “appendage of the machine”. Finally, the labor process becomes increasingly regulated and supervised by the capitalist, encouraging further suspicion and competition amongst workers. For the conservative minded, this can make civil society indeed seem like simply “a war of all against all”, to recall Thomas Hobbes’ (1976) famous words.

Although the potentialities of a new society normally lay dormant in capitalism, at times, they do emerge to the surface. As Marx puts it, “when the worker cooperates in a planned way with others, he strips of the fetters of his individuality, and develops the capabilities of his species” (p. 447). Hence, although clearly aware of their limits, Marx, acknowledged that cooperatives demonstrate how workers themselves can consciously take control of the labor process. Cooperatives can therefore give life and make explicit the merely implicit powers of the collective worker. In other words, they prefigure a new society, that is, they show us a glimpse of the future within the present. In doing so, cooperatives go beyond fragmented cooperation, expressing what I call “prefigurative cooperation”. In the world of football, we can see prefigurative cooperation in the style of play known as “total football”, nearly perfected by Football Club Barcelona.

Prefigurative Cooperation: Total Football and Football Club Barcelona

Although Barca is the best exponent of total football today, this approach was developed gradually over time, beginning with Argentina’s River Plate of the 1940s.  The so-called, “maquina de River” (the machine from River), often considered one of the best teams of all time, radically broke from the tactical norms of the day.

La Maquina River

La Maquina River

One of the unusual characteristics of this team was how its players positioned themselves on the field. Instead relying on fixed positions for every player in the field, such as 1-4-4-2 (one goalie, four defenseman, four midfielders, and two strikers), la maquina played with what some called a 1-10 formation, meaning that, except for the goalkeeper, everybody played everywhere (Galeano, p. 86).

Flexible positions meant that, at least to some extent, players needed to know how to play every position, rather than being stuck with the skills and abilities related to a single one. Well roundedness and intelligence, therefore, was valued at least as much as athleticism. For example, Jose Manuel Moreno was known for his goalscoring, but it was Adolfo Pedernera that stood out the most. A brilliant on the field tactician, he became known simply as “el maestro”. La Maquina was a short-lived phenomenon, however, playing only a total of 18 games.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that total football really developed as such. This time, it was the Dutch club Ajax and the Dutch national team that were breaking all the rules. Ajax became nearly unbeatable, winning three consecutive European cups beginning in 1971. At the center of the team was Johan Cruyff, freely moving around the pitch, while his teammates rotated positions to compensate. Cruyff’s innovative style was rewarded with the Ballon d’Or in 1971, 1973 and 1974, a record shared with France’s Michelle Platini until 2012, the year Messi surpassed it.

For its part, the Dutch national team became a sensation during the 1974 World Cup, going unbeaten and allowing only one goal until their defeat against Germany in the final. Once again Cruyff played a central role here. Echoing the style of River’s Pedernera, Cruyff performed the role of both conductor of the orchestra and musician (Galeano, p. 164). The Dutch side became known as “the orange machine” for what appeared to be a highly coordinated style of play. Building on the achievements of River’s la maquina, by the 1970s, the orange machine established two key ingredients of total football, namely flexible positions, and intelligent players that could make tactical decisions during a game.

As groundbreaking as Ajax was in the 1970s, only one club can be said to have taken total football to its pinnacle, namely present-day Football Club Barcelona. Barca’s style was imported into Spain via Cruyff who became one the club’s most successful managers. Cruyff won 11 trophies between 1988 and 1994, including 4 in Spain’s La Liga. He is credited with developing Barca’s famous style known as Tiki Taka, characterized by incessant and often rapid passing throughout the whole pitch, and a seemingly obsessive desire to control the rhythm of the game by keeping possession of the ball. Add to this the flexible position approach established years earlier, and you get a style of play that came to epitomize the saying, “the best defense is a good offense”.

Indeed, Tiki Taka has allowed Barcelona to dominate in ball possession both within Spain and across Europe. For example, in the 2011/2012 UEFA Champion’s League they led in ball possession with an average of 68%, that’s 12 points higher than the second place, Bayern Munich. In Spain’s La Liga the numbers are even more impressive, with recent season averages as high as 75%. This style makes it very difficult for the opposing team to score any goals. In addition, it tires the opposing team, as players often fall into the trap of chasing the the ball around. It becomes a bit of a waiting game for Barca, as it must patiently wait for an opening or an error by their rivals in order to score a goal. It’s telling that the other nickname for River’s “la maquina” was “Caballeros de la angustia” (“the gentleman of anguish”), as fans were forced to wait patiently for the ball to finally go in the net. The same could be set for Barca.

As successful as Barcelona was with Cruyff as manager, the team’s best years were still to come. Josep “Pep” Guardiola, who played for Barca as a midfielder under Cruyff, became manager in 2008, taking over from Frank Rijkaard, who also played under Cruyff in the Netherlands. Guardiola considers Cruyff to be his most important influence. “Cruyff is the one who started it all” (Goal), were Guardiola’s recent comments about the Dutch coach’s contribution to Barca. In his first season coaching Barca, the team won trophies in three key competitions: La Liga, Copa del Rey and the Champions Lague. During his 5 years with the Catalonian side, Barca won an unprecedented 15 trophies, making Guardiola the club’s most successful coach.[1] Parallel to this is Spain’s unprecedented success on the world stage. Utilizing Barca’s style of play and many of its players, Spain has won two consecutive Euro cups, and the World Cup in 2012.

Barcelona's new away shirt features the colours of the Catalonian flag.

Barcelona’s new away shirt features the colours of the Catalonian flag.

Tiki Taka’s success is often attributed to a complicated and mechanistic tactical system that is decreed by the coaching staff from above. As we have seen, this characterization has plagued total football since its inception, hence the constant comparisons to machines (la maquina de River, the orange machine). However, as Galeano notes there’s nothing machine-like about this style of football. Indeed, Carlos Peucelle, coach of River’s “la maquina” in the 1940s, thinks of total football as an attempt to develop well-balanced human beings that play on the field, rather than robots that produce machinelike results, as is the case in most modern football (2011).

In recent interviews with FIFA, Guardiola confirms this crucial aspect of total football, explaining that as a coach one needs to adapt the tactics to the qualities of the players and that, ultimately, “the tactics are the players” (Peru 21). Rather than being a complicated system, Guardiola continues,

The principle behind Barcelona’s style was very simple: play with the ball, do everything with it. Every footballer around the world decided to play football because one day in some corner of their small village or big city, wherever it was, they kicked a ball around and enjoyed it. Barça’s system, even if people say it’s very complicated, is as simple as that: we’ll get the ball and just let them try and take it off us; let’s pass it between us as much as possible and see if we can score a goal. That’s what my predecessors handed down to me and the message I tried to get across while I was there too. (FIFA)

In other words, far from being a mechanical system devised on the blackboard by the coaching staff, total football, compared to other approaches, is to a significant extent the expression of the players themselves.

What then explains the constant comparisons to machines that total football teams get? The answer is that people have become used to a style of play based on the individual strengths of one or two superstars. Hence, what appears to be a mechanistic approach, is actually one based on self conscious cooperation. Take the following statistic: halfway through the 2012 season Barcelona completed a total of 13,475 passes. That’s over 5,000 passes more than Real Madrid who are second in La Liga and completed only 8,031 passes. Constant passing is so ingrained in the team that one often gets the impression that scoring is secondary, almost as if cooperation itself, rather than winning, is the goal!

Barca’s passion for cooperation on the field is less surprising once we remember that, as its slogan goes, it is “més que un club” (more than a club). Since the 1930s, Barcelona has been a member-owned cooperative, promoting the values of solidarity and democracy, both on and off the field. Consequently, Barca developed a culture uniquely receptive to total football. Foer (2009) accurately captures how Barca’s member-fans feel about their team:

If a coach adopts utilitarian tactics that skimp on artistry, he gets sacked, no matter the trophies he has accumulated. Supporters of Barca want nothing more badly than victory, except for romance. (p. 227)

The “romantic” desire to cooperate, ingrained in the fans and the club, also explains why Barca always plays the same way, regardless of the opponent or how any particular game is going (something they are often criticized for). This is quite different from most teams, which tend to adapt their tactics to their opponent and on how a particular game develops. Barca’s approach is rather to “impose” its own style and identity on whoever its opponent might be. Cooperation, then, is not merely Barca’s tactic or strategy, but its raison d’etre. Through self-conscious cooperation, Barca indeed begins to “strip of the fetters” of individuality and reaches its full development as a team. It should therefore come as no surprise that total football, with its cooperativist ethos, has flourished here considerably longer than in the Dutch and Argentinian cases.

Another crucial aspect of Barca’s cooperative approach is evident in the way the team breaks down the rigid division between mental and manual labour so characteristic of capitalism. In football, as in most sports, this division is most evident in the relationship between player (manual labour) and coach (intellectual labour), with the first simply carrying out the tactics developed by the latter. However, beginning at the youth level, the coaching staff favors intelligence over strength or speed. As one youth level coach put it in a training video: “the most important thing in training is the process of thinking”. This approach carries through on to the professional team also. Indeed, it is well known that Guardiola admires “intelligent” players. For example, this is what he had to say about Real Madrid’s Xabi Alonso in 2007:

“All midfielders can run, pass and tackle – but Xabi has much more. He plays the game with his head. When you combine that intelligence and vision with the talent in his feet, the ball flows much better. With him sometimes the ball smiles.” (Kop)[2]

Guardiola need not envy Barca’s arch rival, Real Madrid, however. He has Andrés Iniesta. Known as “el cerebro” (the brain), Iniesta channels the best of both Cryuff and Pedernera. With an astonishing ability to twist and turn, he can keep possession of the ball even when surrounded, drawing opposing players in, and waiting for just the right moment to make the final pass to Messi. If that’s not an option, he’ll twirl back and regroup, slowing the game down just enough to find a new, seemingly imperceptible opening on the other side of the pitch. It is Iniesta, more than anyone else in the team, that defines Barca and exemplifies the spirit of total football. Not surprisingly, when asked about his role as the one who makes the team “tick”, his response was:

I think a great team comes about when each person plays to his full potential.  Barça are better with Leo in the team and Leo plays better with Barça. Football isn’t an individual sport, it’s a team game in which individuals stand out much more when everyone’s pulling together. I play better when Leo’s there and he’s a better player alongside us and that’s what matters: the fact we all feel we’ve a part to play in doing things right. (FIFA, “Iniesta”)

Not only is Iniesta’s response characteristic of Barca’s unselfish team spirit, it also reveals that this is a team that goes beyond formal collectivism, that is, collectivism for its own sake, which is just as problematic as an individualistic approach. It is worth highlighting some of his words: “… a great team comes about when each person plays to his full potential…individuals stand out much more when everyone’s pulling together”. Echoing Marx’s vision of a post-capitalist society in which “the development of each would be the precondition for the development of all”, Iniesta’s comments show us the real secret behind Messi’s individual genius: Barca’s commitment to cooperation. Indeed, the ball “inside” Messi’s left foot that Galeano speaks of is cooperation unleashed.

Importantly, the dialectic works the other way as well. As Iniesta noted, not only does Messi depend on Barca to be at his best, Barca also depends on Messi. As many commentators have noticed, without Messi, Barca often lacks creativity up front, as was perhaps most evident during their disastrous performance against Bayern Munich in the 2012 Champions League. Hence, in Barca, we see a dialectic in which collective well being is dependent on the individual, and vice versa. Importantly, this is a challenge to dominant capitalist relations in which the development and well being of the individual (the capitalist) is dependent on the deformation and underdevelopment of the collective (the workers).

In addition, in this new dialectic, individual greatness acquires a different texture. For example, we can recall the following comments by Cristiano Ronaldo, not unrepresentative of the attitude of many great stars. When asked why some fans taunt him during games, he said: “I think that because I am rich, handsome and a great player people are envious of me” (Independent). Now consider these words from Messi,

I prefer to win titles with the team ahead of individual awards or scoring more goals than anyone else. I’m more worried about being a good person than being the best football player in the world. When all this is over, what are you left with?  When I retire, I hope I am remembered for being a decent guy. (Sportsmail)

These words are hardly recognizable as having come from a professional athlete, much less from one of history’s best.

Lionel Messi, world's greatest footballer, wants to be remembered as a nice guy.

Lionel Messi, world’s greatest footballer, wants to be remembered as a nice guy.

Contradictions and Limits

Defying liberal and conservative assumptions about human nature and history, Football Club Barcelona shows us a glimpse of the post capitalist future right here in the present.  In nearly perfecting total football, the club breaks down the capitalist social division of labor, encourages the development of multifaceted players, and self consciously takes advantage of the powers of cooperation. In doing so, Barca expresses what I have called here “prefigurative cooperation”, a more fully developed form of cooperation expressed merely implicitly within the fragmented and alienated capitalist one. And this, I argued, is the real secret behind Messi’s individual genius. Through Barcelona’s Tiki Taka, we therefore see how in capitalism fragmentation and cooperation, present and future, individual and collective interact in a dynamic manner, making history neither predetermined nor a blank canvas.

Glimpses, by nature, are fleeting and unstable, however. A cooperative future remains bound by the daily pressures of capital that, over time, tend to pull it back into the fragmented and alienated present. Furthermore, even at their best, cooperative experiments are far from utopias and can be used to legitimate the status quo. For example, in the 1930s, Football Club Barcelona ranked third in Franco’s most wanted list (after communists and anarchists). Nevertheless, the club was spared from a frontal attack, as Franco believed it to provide enough of a distraction for the popular classes (Foer, 2009).

A similar dynamic could be in effect today as Barcelona fans continue to pack Camp Nou, even as Spain continues to suffer some of the worst effects of the global economic crisis. In addition, Barca’s new away shirt now features the colors of the Catalonian flag. This risks playing into the region’s most recent push for independence led by the neoliberal Artur Mas, an initiative that contains little of the Catalonian people’s historically progressive and legitimate struggle for self-determination.

This complex and contradictory role that prefigurative cooperation plays in society reminds us that a simple evolutionary road beyond capitalism is not possible. Hence, if we are to develop a post-capitalist future, there is simply no way around it, workers and communities will need to self organize and struggle, and in the process develop their own mass political organs capable of challenging the political and economic status quo. However, if such movements or parties cannot integrate the practices and values of prefigurative cooperation, such as participatory democracy, collective self-development and conscious collaboration, the future will remain frustratingly out of reach.

2013 congress of Partido para la Ciudad Futura (Party for the City of the Future) in Rosario, Argentina. Source: Partido para la Ciudad Futura.

2013 congress of Partido para la Ciudad Futura (Party for the City of the Future) in Rosario, Argentina. Source: Partido para la Ciudad Futura.

Fortunately, we can see progress in Latin America where its growing cooperative movement is developing new political initiatives. In Argentina, for example, we can point to the city of Rosario’s Partido Para la Ciudad Futura (Party for the City of the Future), which began as a social movement that prioritized cooperative production. We can also point to Neuquén’s Frente de Izquierda y de los Trabajadores (Workers Left Front), born out of  FASINPAT, Argentina’s most emblematic recuperated factory. Supporting and learning from these and other similar initiatives is a crucial task for the left today.

Manuel Larrabure is a PhD candidate in the Political Science department at York University in Toronto, Canada. His research is on Latin America’s “new cooperative movement” and “21st-century socialism”. He is currently in Latin America conducting fieldwork.

[1] In 2012, Guardiola took a sabbatical from coaching, and is now the coach for Bayern Munich. Barcelona’s current head coach is Gerardo Martino.

[2] Not surprisingly, given his style, Xabi Alonso became central in developing Spanish Tiki Taka in the Euro and World Cups.


FIFA. “Guardiola: I’ve missed the game”. January 17, 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.fifa.com/worldfootball/news/newsid=1986925.html

FIFA. “Iniesta: The secret is stability”. February 4, 2013. http://www.fifa.com/worldfootball/news/newsid=2000783.html?intcmp=newsreader_news_caption

Foer, Franklin (2009). How Soccer Explains the World. New York: Harper Collins e-book.

Galiano, Eduardo (2000). El Fútbol: A Sol y Sombra. México D.F.: Siglo XXI Editores.

Goal. “Cruyff the man behind Barcelona’s success, says Guardiola”. May 1, 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.goal.com/en/news/12/spain/2013/05/01/3945400/cruyff-the-man-behind-barcelonas-success-says-guardiola

Hobbes, Thomas (1976). Leviathan. Charleston, South Carolina: Forgotten Books.

The Independent. “Cristiano Ronaldo: ‘I am rich, handsome and a great player'”. September 15, 2011. http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/european/cristiano-ronaldo-i-am-rich-handsome-and-a-great-player-2355123.html

The Kob. “A chat with Barca boss Pep Guardiola”. Retrieved from: http://thekop.liverpoolfc.com/_A-chat-with-Barca-boss-Pep-Guardiola/blog/3381736/173471.html

Lebowitz, Michael (2009). The Path to Human Development: Capitalism or Socialism? Retrieved from: http://www.socialistproject.ca/documents/ThePath_letter.pdf

Marx, Karl (1976). Capital Volume 1. London: Penguin Books.

Peru 21. “La táctica son los jugadores”. December 13, 2011. Retrieved from: http://peru21.pe/2011/12/13/deportes/tactica-son-jugadores-2002988

Peucelle, Carlos (2011). Fútbol Todotiempo e Historia de “La Máquina”. Buenos Aires: Dictio.

Smith, Adam (1982). An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations Book I. London: Penguin Classics.

Sportsmail Reporter. “Top bloke first, world’s best footballer second! Messi wants friends over accolades”. October 1, 2012. Retrieved from: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-2211125/Lionel-Messi-Being-good-bloke-better-individual-titles.html

Sturtridge et al. “Locals unimpressed in Lionel Messi’s home town in Argentina”. July 7, 2011. Retrieved from:  http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/international/locals-unimpressed-in-lionel-messis-home-town-in-argentina-2308534.html

Taringa. ”Messi es el único futbolista que me hace soñar y amar”. Retrieved from: http://www.taringa.net/posts/deportes/15198180/Messi-es-el-unico-futbolista-que-me-hace-sonar-y-amar.html

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Sports Without War and the Sunday Salute

Sports Without War and the Sunday Salute

Tyler Shipley

Today in Toronto, members of the new organization Sports Without War will be leafletting at the Skydome in response to the Toronto Blue Jays’ “Sunday Salute.”  The ‘Salute’ honours a member of the Canadian military during an early inning break at a Sunday afternoon game, and is a small manifestation of the militarization of professional sport that Left Hook, and Sports Without War, are so concerned about.

Sports Without War members will be on the bridge across from gates 1 and 2 this afternoon starting around 11:30.  The pamphlet we are distributing is attached below.


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Review of Ken Dryden, “The Game”

Review of Ken Dryden, The Game *

Adrian Zita-Bennett

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Ken Dryden’s seminal account of life as a professional hockey player during the 1978-1979 NHL season and sheds light on the sport’s important place in Canadian society, culture, and identity – all very prescient topics for discussion given Canada’s approaching sesquicentennial in 2017. In articulate, reflective, and at times refreshingly honest prose, Dryden chronicles the Canadiens’ ultimately triumphant quest for a fourth-straight Stanley Cup in his final season, which cemented the squad as the last professional sports ‘dynasty’ from Canada. Though it has many, Dryden’s book is not just a compilation of anecdotes but fundamentally a tale of structure and connectivity, with hockey serving as the chain and link within his own life as a player, a teammate, a fan, a son, a husband, and a father. In this regard, the simple yet poignant title fits perfectly. For Dryden, although hockey is just a game, he considers the rink a place of refuge for its sentimental value, his enduring ‘love for the game,’ yet also, paradoxically, the relief of retirement. Though not without flaws, The Game is still a tour de force thirty years on largely because it remains very accessible and relevant. Committed hockey fans will be fascinated by Dryden’s description of the Canadiens-Maple Leafs rivalry and the dynamics of his team’s camaraderie and various personalities. Casual observers, meanwhile, will find his views on hockey violence and the commercialization of sport relevant as such issues still in many respects define the NHL today.

In terms of organization, Dryden’s book is more thematic than chronological. Though each chapter is consecutively entitled after a ‘day,’ the book is not based on a single week during the 1978-1979 campaign but rather an entire season through the framework of his ‘typical’ week. In the first three chapters, entitled ‘Monday,’ ‘Tuesday,’ and ‘Wednesday,’ respectively, Dryden discusses the influence of hockey on players’ private and professional lives. In ‘Monday,’ he explains the book’s format by emphasizing hockey’s hegemonic role: there were only three ‘seasons’ in a given year (offseason, regular season, and postseason) and only two ‘days’ in a given week (practice days and game days). For Dryden, this structure reflected another salient point regarding hockey and life as a professional athlete in Canada during this time. Escalating lingual and cultural tensions between much of English- and French-Canada found little traction in the Canadiens’ dressing room, as such concerns were deemed petty and unimportant to their function as a team. Canada is no longer primarily defined by the French-English divide, but it is worth considering whether Dryden’s experience of the Canadiens dressing room could be extended to encompass other racial and cultural divides in Canadian society or if, on the other hand, the English-French tension was easier to overcome than, for instance, the ongoing prejudice faced by NHL players who identify as Indigenous.

In the next two chapters, Dryden highlights the false dichotomy of professional and private life as both interacted and blended with one another. In ‘Wednesday,’ a ‘practice day,’ hockey briefly recedes into the background as he discusses the difficulties of adapting to a bilingual city and remaining close to family before regretfully leaving to participate in a team practice. In ‘Thursday,’ a ‘game day,’ a showdown with the hated Maple Leafs in Toronto also meant for Dryden a visit with his parents, sparking the recollection of childhood memories of quintessentially ‘Canadian’ backyard rinks and innocent dreams of stardom. After a convincing victory for the Canadiens, his postgame conversation with his father is short and brief, echoing the fleeting nature of his nostalgic reminiscences of the past, and perhaps gesture towards this superficial aspect of the Canadiana mythology.

The rest of the book, by contrast, focuses more on the team itself and less on Dryden’s personal life. In ‘Thursday’ and ‘Friday,’ the success of the Canadiens is a result of not merely superlative skill and ability but also, crucially as Dryden affirms, playful and cordial relations amongst teammates. In particular, a come-from-behind victory over the powerhouse Bruins in Boston—a rematch of the previous two Stanley Cup finals—was fondly recalled, especially for the ‘forbidden’ consumption of alcoholic beverages on the team bus after the game in celebration. As well, he provides unique perspectives of fellow teammates and future team legends such as Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt, Bob Gainey, and Yvan Cournoyer. In ‘Saturday’ and ‘Sunday,’ Dryden broadens the audience for his book from the diehard fan to the casual sports observer. He discusses the business of hockey, the changing conceptions of players from simple heroes to celebrities, and violence in the sport, placing blame on the league and players accordingly. Lastly, in what can be considered two relatively brief but concluding chapters entitled, quite deliberately, ‘Monday’ and ‘Tuesday,’ Dryden returns to discussing the familiar tropes of passion, competitiveness, closure, and regret; though on this occasion, he emphasizes the manifestation of such themes on road trips against difficult teams such as the Islanders in New York and the Flyers in Philadelphia. He does not enjoy such trips as he once did, in large part because the game, he suggests, has changed for the worse.

Ken Dryden's "The Game" remains a central, if somewhat critical, piece of the mythology of Canadian hockey

Ken Dryden’s “The Game” remains a central, if somewhat critical, piece of the mythology of Canadian hockey.

Readers can learn a lot from this book, and such knowledge is not confined to basic hockey facts. For Dryden, participation in hockey was originally fuelled by a ‘love of the game’ and soon developed into a profitable passion. Increasingly, however, it felt like a profitable ‘burden,’ and since it had come to influence everything for Dryden, it followed that it soon meant nothing.  Dryden’s sober, honest, yet still optimistic perspective of his experience as a professional hockey player adds a dimension of realism typically unfound in other popular histories of the sport. Casual and committed observers alike will find that Dryden’s book is quite substantive. He does not glorify team accomplishments or his own personal celebrity; in fact, on many occasions, he relates anecdotes of dressing room discussions following a Canadiens victory that show his teammates were too bothered by the imperfections of their performance to enjoy the game’s outcome.

He also laments the commercialization of the industry, particularly how hockey became defined by profit rather than on-ice success, a point that is truer today than ever. Oddly, Dryden attributes as much blame to the players as the owners, claiming that they were equally responsible for escalating salaries, which in turn caused higher ticket prices and perturbed fans. Dryden’s assessment here probably needs to be taken with a grain of salt; NHL players were, for most of the century, paid very little for dangerous and short-lived – if often ‘fun’ – careers. Indeed, this ties into his sharp assessment of violence in hockey: he condemns the NHL’s laissez-faire approach which allowed for more infractions and belligerence during games, pointing out that the lack of decisive action maintains if not increases on-ice violence. Players and teams had little incentive to make games less hostile since the NHL, due to consistent profits, downplayed health concerns. In the thirty years since The Game was first published, the NHL has largely promoted hockey as a rugged, tough, and physical sporting spectacle. To attract potential stakeholders and investors in wealthy American markets, the fast-paced nature of the game and individual and team skill is not fundamental to the NHL’s marketed hockey ‘brand.’ Dryden suggests that the commercialization of the league has fostered increased on-ice violence which, in turn, has made the sport increasingly and deliberately unsafe. In light of current health-related concerns pertaining to head injuries in hockey, Dryden’s assessment still has considerable merit. Elite NHL players and especially team owners have become infinitely richer over the last three decades but such growth has not followed in terms of limiting on-ice violence and promoting a cleaner yet still highly competitive league.  Arguably, the violence has been encouraged in order to keep profits up, with little regard for the players whose careers are ended or shortened as a result, nor especially for the tens of thousands of junior and minor league players who are encouraged to batter one another brutally, year after year, while competing for the limited number of NHL spots.

For committed hockey fans and observers, Dryden’s book does not disappoint. There are several memorable anecdotes that demonstrate the sometimes playful dynamic of the team. Dryden tells of one instance when Steve Shutt, a forward, urinated into a cup and added Coke to change the liquid’s colour after a practice. When fellow forward Mario Tremblay decided to steal a sip from Shutt’s ‘Coke,’ players howled with laughter for obvious reasons. On a more serious note, Dryden’s brutal honesty towards teammates is another undeniable strength of his book. He notes that future Hall-of-Fame defenseman Larry Robinson was ‘past his prime’ by the 1978-1979 season and accuses Guy Lapointe of having a ‘phobia’ for blocking shots. Given the legendary status of these players for Montreal fans then and now, such frankness is decidedly unconventional. Regarding his relationship with backup goalie ‘Bunny’ Larocque, Dryden bluntly states that on the odd occasion that the Canadiens were losing badly in a game and ‘Bunny’ was in net, he wanted him ‘to play well, but not too well.’ This kind of honesty contrasts the standard ‘team-first’ attitude to which most fans believe players adhere.

For all potential readers, Dryden successfully places hockey in the fabric of hegemonic Canadian identity. First off, he argues that the 1972 Summit Series reflected Canadians’ fatalism regarding hockey: they were prepared to embellish victory celebrations precisely because Team Canada had been so close to defeat. In this sense, for Dryden, hockey reflects a certain innocence – he might have said ignorance – about what Canada actually is, yet a willingness amongst Canadians to defend the notion of an abstract Canada. As well, his recollections of the long days and nights spent on backyard rinks and frozen ponds and rivers is still a familiar trope for Canadian hockey players, regardless of its veracity. Hockey, according to scholar Michael Robidoux, originally became prominent in Victorian-era Canada largely because it was the sport (relative to lacrosse) that was popular for its accessibility; it transcended class divides and socio-economic status. However, in recent years, it is not a secret that hockey has become a sport for the wealthiest Canadians, especially as high costs severely limit its affordability. The parents of Patrick Kane – the reigning Conn Smythe trophy award winner of the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks – estimated that they spent $250 000 on his minor league hockey. Kane was born in Buffalo, NY, but such expenses are not uncommon for aspiring young players and their families on both sides of the border. If Dryden’s memories of playing in his formative and adolescent years conform to a dominant view of hockey’s place in Canada, new realities suggest that competitive, organized hockey is a sport less for the many and more for the few.

Dryden’s book is not without other flaws. Its organization leaves the reader confused at times regarding specific dates and times, especially since some of the games referenced do not actually occur during the 1978-1979 season. He can be rather longwinded and pontificating, which leaves hockey fans desiring for more insider accounts of his experience goaltending for one of the greatest teams ever. At times, he focuses too heavily on his perspectives as an Ivy-League-educated citizen. Despite these shortcomings, The Game is one of the more informative and readable popular sports histories available to consumers. It contains a plethora of fascinating insights and accounts of hockey life from a bygone era. Yet, many of Dryden’s reflections still resonate today, particularly regarding the business of hockey and the league’s regulation (or lack thereof) of in-game violence. As a result, The Game will remain an important book fusing hockey history with Canadian identity and culture approaching 2017 and likely long after.  Indeed, as Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper intends to release his own book about hockey – whenever that may be – one gets a sense of the self-conscious effort on behalf of the Canadian elite to link itself to the popular nationalism associated with the game.  For progressive Canadians, the question is not whether hockey is woven into the fabric of the Canadian nation but, rather, how to use that relationship to create a better Canada.

Adrian Zita-Bennett is currently a graduate student at McMaster University and his work has appeared in several peer-reviewed journals. He is a devoted Habs fan, patiently awaiting the club’s 25th Coupe Stanley.


* Ken Dryden. The Game. Toronto: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 1983.

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Militarism and Sports – Part II (A Response)

Militarism and Sports – Part II (A Response)

Tyler Shipley

A couple of years ago, I wrote a short article expressing my discontent at the unveiling of a new logo for the Winnipeg Jets that was designed in collaboration with the Canadian Air Force.  I was quickly called “a fool” in an op-ed in the Winnipeg Sun newspaper, which included me in its list of “dishonourable mentions” for 2011, claiming that criticizing the Jets logo for supporting the military was “idiotic.”

I probably owe the Winnipeg Sun some gratitude for demonstrating precisely the point I was making.  As the NHL and its associated clubs, institutions and broadcasting partners have integrated themselves deeper and deeper in the apparatus of pro-military propaganda, they have effectively shut off any space for a critical perspective within the hockey world, with regard to North American militarism and the ever-expanding presence of North American armies all over the globe.

Indeed, even my small article in an independent publication was enough to unleash the fury and discipline of a mainstream media outlet.  Breaking from the pro-military line, then, comes with consequences, even for a relatively minor infraction.  The Jets franchise, for its part, chose to become legally obligated to give the military (and the Queen) good press.  All of this is a clear indication that the space is being closed off for any discussion of whether it is appropriate to celebrate the new militarism; for instance, should we really be applauding soldiers who are returning from a violent occupation in Afghanistan?  Are we safer for having our soldiers drop bombs on children on the other side of the globe?  Can we even ask the question, without being out-shouted by a chorus of “support the troops?”

What Are We Appreciating?

On Saturday, March 16, the military fanfare was on prominent display in CBC’s nationally televised game between the Jets and the Toronto Maple Leafs, on what was designed as “Canadian Armed Forces Appreciation Night” at the Air Canada Centre.  Before the puck was dropped, audiences across the country in one of Canada’s highest-rated TV programs were subjected to the spectacle of soldiers rappelling from the rafters, a decked out Tiger Williams on a humvee delivering the game puck to a Canadian General, and the announcement that tickets to the game had been specially set aside for members of the Canadian Forces.

A captive nationwide audience tunes in to watch boys play a game on the ice and, instead, get treated to the spectacle of military gymnastics.  It looked so cool in a hockey arena but, then again, they weren't shooting at us.

A captive nationwide audience tunes in to watch a game on the ice and, instead, get treated to the spectacle of military gymnastics. It looks so cool in a hockey arena but, then again, they aren’t shooting at us.

This was just one small piece of the increasing collaboration between the institutions of professional sports and the new militarism.  While this kind of fist-pumping, aggressive nationalism may be old hat south of the border, it is still jarring in Canada, where up until recently we still considered ourselves an international peacekeeper.

This may have been more myth than reality, but it spoke – at the very least – to the idea that Canadians did not want to be Americans.  We watched Uncle Sam dropping napalm on Vietnamese villages and decided that if young Americans didn’t want to participate in that war, we would take them in, because we didn’t want anything to do with it either.  We lobbied our government to take a principled stand against U.S.-led death squads and terrorism in Nicaragua in the 1980s.  We shook our heads at the notion that America was a beacon of freedom even as it systematically bombed Iraq throughout the “peaceful” Clinton years.  We distinguished ourselves from the jingoism and blind obedience to the patriotic line, which led our southern neighbours into accepting the torture of prisoners in Afghanistan or the total destruction of the once-great city of Baghdad, on pretexts long known to be false.

Of course, we were naïve if we thought that Canada was so much better than all that.  After all, we submitted our own prisoners to torture in Afghanistan and participated in both wars against Iraq, too.  But something has shifted in the mainstream Canadian discourse about war, militarism, patriotism and Canada’s role in the world and it was summed up poignantly last Saturday.

The Times They Are A-Changin’

It was almost exactly a decade ago that Hockey Night in Canada’s Ron MacLean and Don Cherry famously got into an argument, in the prime time “Coach’s Corner” segment, about whether Canada should participate in the invasion in Iraq.  (The video is curiously absent from the internet, despite causing major controversy.  Only a sanitized reflection on the incident can be found.)

MacLean may not have been a very convincing advocate for peace, but the fact that he at least expressed disagreement is significant in light of the silence that has fallen over the Canadian mainstream.  Suffice it to say, MacLean had nothing but gushing praise for the Canadian Armed Forces, a decade later, despite the fact that they did participate in the war he opposed and have been implicated in torture and terror across the globe in the past ten years.  Indeed, MacLean should have infinitely more reason to be uncomfortable with the military fanfare today than he did in 2003.

And yet, to watch the CBC’s most popular program on Saturday night, you would think that everyone in Canada was united in support for the Canadian military wherever it went and whatever it did.  The argument – hurled at me every time I criticize the military celebrations – that we should “support the troops” even if we don’t support their particular mobilizations has become the mantra of Hockey Night in Canada, the Winnipeg Jets, and the rest of the pro sports world.  Never mind that this is an absurd exercise in abstraction; as if we are to somehow say “what matters is not who our soldiers kill, but simply the fact that they are willing to kill whomever a General asks them to kill.”

Military appreciation nights are not the exception, anymore, they are a league-wide standard and they cut across all of the professional North American sports leagues.

Military appreciation nights are not the exception, anymore, they are a league-wide standard and they cut across all of the professional North American sports leagues.

What about those of us who don’t think our soldiers should be killing anyone?  What about those who think that Canada’s armed aggression in Haiti, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya or Mali – or Canada’s support for violent regimes in Honduras, Israel or Colombia – is actually making Canadians less safe in the world, not to mention implicating us in a whole variety of crimes against peace, security and humanity?

It’s Our Game Too

In Part I of this call-and-response, Guelph students Peter Miller and Daniel Lyder offered a powerful sketch of the overwhelming collusion between professional sports and the new militarism and called for community mobilizations against it.  In this response, I would like to insist that we rise to this challenge and build the capacity to reclaim sports as a space that – at the very least – honestly reflects the diversity of opinions and perspectives towards Canada’s new militarism.

That is, while we may have a long term goal of actually reining in Canadian militarism itself or, indeed, even radically restructuring the Canadian polity such that capitalist imperialism and its attendant military aggression would no longer be part of the equation, a necessary first step will be to force open a dialogue within the primary cultural institutions of this country.  Professional sports is surely among the most important and wide-reaching cultural institutions and it is incumbent on those of us who engage in the world of sport to force an anti-war politics into the mix, giving space to the many athletes, organizations and fans who might support such a politics if not for the rapid and effective disciplining of dissent that currently pervades the sports world.

This is not, then, a call to push an unpopular opinion on people who disagree.  Rather, it is to insist that the sports world be less a propaganda campaign for one position and more representative of existing divisions on the matter of Canadian militarism.  By 2011, the Vancouver Sun reported that over 80% of Canadians wanted an end to the occupation of Afghanistan.  Indeed, different polls with different wordings have consistently come back demonstrating that a majority of Canadians do not support Canada’s most visible military adventure.

The illusion that Canadians, let alone Afghans, unanimously support the occupation is so patently false that one wonders how the CBC imagines it is fooling anyone.

The illusion that Canadians, let alone Afghans, unanimously support the occupation is so patently false that one wonders how the CBC imagines it is fooling anyone.

Needless to say (or is it?) most Afghans never supported the occupation – or did so only very briefly in 2001 – of whom some 75-85% consider the occupation “bad for the Afghan people,” according to an ICSD survey in 2011.  In fact, the list of countries with grievances against Canadian aggression is growing; the victims of Canadian guns and bombs are, however, invisible in the celebrations of our soldiers’ bravery.

Bravery and Cowardice

This last point needs emphasis.  The discipline of the pro-military line constantly reminds us that Canadian soldiers are brave, and that their courage keeps us safe in an otherwise dangerous world.  To demonstrate against the Canadian military, then, is “cowardly,” because we only have the right to demonstrate thanks to the soldiers who “fight for our freedom” abroad.

There is no question that it takes a certain kind of courage to put oneself in a position that could lead to terrible pain or possible death.  But there are plenty of people who demonstrate that kind of courage – the tens of thousands of Afghans who have fought against Canadian occupation, for instance, who put their lives on the line everyday – whom we are not expected to support.  There are Guatemalans who work in Canadian-owned-mines who have given their lives trying to express their communities’ discontent with the mines.  Indeed, there are even activists in Canada who have shown the courage to face up against violence at the hands of police, and yet, we are not expected to “support the activists,” simply because they were brave enough to expose themselves to violence from police who are rarely held accountable.

So the particular circumstances under which people put their bodies on the line does matter.  We are not abstractly applauding “bravery” when we are told to “support the troops,” we are celebrating their particular actions.  So where does that leave those of us who do not support their actions?  Is it “cowardly” to insist that we examine the evidence of what has actually happened in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Libya, in Haiti?

And what of this notion that the Canadian military is protecting our “freedom” when it invades, occupies or interferes in foreign countries?  Was Afghanistan planning to invade Canada and install a fundamentalist government?  If so, those plans still haven’t come to much.  Yes, Canadian soldiers are being killed in Afghanistan.  Because they are occupying Afghanistan.  My freedom of speech has very little to do with it.

And on the subject of my “freedom,” to the extent that it is protected, it has been fought for and won not by the Canadian military but over centuries of struggle against police and militaries.  Limited though they are, liberal democratic rights – freedoms of expression, assembly, suffrage, etc – were won and protected in the streets, in general strikes, in popular mobilizations, in defiance of the military and police that were often called in to break them.

We're lucky that the military is killing civilians in Afghanistan who would have threatened our freedom to protest against policies we don't like.  Here, police in Toronto "kettle" protestors, guilty of no crime, for demonstrating against the G20.

Should we really thank the military for killing civilians in Afghanistan on the pretext that they threaten our freedom to protest against policies we don’t like? Here, police in Toronto “kettle” protestors, guilty of no crime, for demonstrating against the G20.

Indeed, if the Canadian military is protecting our freedom to protest in Afghanistan, something is going terribly wrong, because that freedom has been shrinking rapidly.  In 2006, the Canadian government ramped up its infiltration and undermining of Indigenous organizations protesting to protect land that is legally theirs.  In Toronto in 2010, protestors were arrested by the thousands based on secret fake laws.  In Montreal in 2013, students were arrested for simply planning to protest, with the police openly declaring that Canadians do not have the right to protest.

Facing the Facts

The reality is that Canada’s increasingly aggressive military posture has nothing to do with protecting our freedom or keeping the peace.  It is rooted in the broader shifts in Canadian political economy that have made an expansion of colonial adventures necessary for the continued growth of Canadian capital.  Canada’s growing military presence in the world allows it greater capacity to police those regions where Canadian capital is increasingly invested and where the greatest threat to profits comes from the communities who are organized in opposition to Canadian business.

The Canadian military funds, trains and assists officers in the Honduran armed forces in killing and terrorizing the people who protest against Canadian companies like Goldcorp, Gildan and Life Vision Properties.  Having known people who have been killed and tortured as a result of their opposition to Canadian companies, I’m not prepared to thank the Canadian military for its efforts.  And I am not the only one.

Resist Canada's ongoing participation in the new colonial apparatus.

Resist Canada’s ongoing participation in the new colonial apparatus!

This is only the tiniest slice of the new Canadian militarism, and it is telling that it requires such intense ideological discipline to present its best face to a sceptical Canadian public.  Opposition exists, but it is being made invisible in the rigid presentation of patriotic militarism in professional sports.  As Miller and Lyder demanded last week, “progressive-minded and peace-loving people must not shy away from pushing back against the pro-military agenda on the sports field, arena, or court.”

In the spirit of that call, Left Hook responds by asking people to participate in an open discussion of the encroaching militarism in the Canadian sports world and how we can organize a response.  The first discussion will be held on Wednesday, April 24 at 7:00 pm, in Toronto, at OISE (Bloor and St. George, Room # TBA).  This will be an open forum with the long-term goal of developing a visible progressive, anti-military and anti-colonial presence in Canadian sports.  All interested in such a project are invited to participate.

Tyler Shipley teaches at York University and is the founder and editor of Left Hook.

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