Ever since the “bread and circuses” of ancient Rome, the political use of public spectacles has been a constant throughout human history. They have often been used to distract public attention from other more serious concerns, and to compensate people for their hardships and sufferings. By the appeal to sporting fervor, many governments have endeavored to galvanize popular feelings in favor of their own particular ends.
In our own time, Olympic competitions provide suitable icons for reinforcing feelings of national identity and self-esteem in most countries. At other times, in the case of authoritarian or dictatorial regimes, mass gatherings of people in sports stadiums have often allowed for the expression of discontent or adverse opinion on the part of the citizens, who are normally bound to silence or subjected to censorship by political power. This, of course, is not the case in representative democracies, where the system of election and alternation of governments is regulated by the laws, and freedom of expression is an indispensable pillar of the normal functioning of society.
But if they are not adequately controlled, the passions aroused by sporting events may degenerate into grave situations. One famous case is that of the so-called Football War of 1969 between Honduras and El Salvador, which ended in a real armed conflict with thousands of dead.
Last night the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona saw an important soccer match between the Barcelona team and Real Madrid. The confrontation aroused the usual passions among the fans of both teams. The match, which was watched by hundreds of millions of viewers throughout the world, was to some extent exploited by the political parties that advocate Catalan secession from Spain, in their habitual endeavor to project an image of monolithic Catalan unity in support of the idea of independence. They are entirely within their rights to do this; but we do well to remember that this was only a soccer match, and that what was at stake in it was not the success or failure of the unconstitutional challenge of an independence referendum, voiced by the Catalan premier in the regional parliament.
The protagonists in this match were players of many nationalities, ethnic groups and countries, moved as much by team enthusiasm and dreams of glory, as by the fabulous incomes they earn. A major soccer match is a spectacle that holds the attention of huge masses of people. The sport rightly merits promotion and support by the public authorities.
But the manipulation of sports in favor of political interests always turns against those who attempt to exploit it. It is always incumbent on the executives of the host club, and on the municipal and regional authorities, to see to it that, within the stadium and in the media that broadcast the match, the fervor of the majority does not overwhelm the rights of the minority, or humiliate the feelings of the fans of the opposing team.
This is so that everyone can enjoy the match — in which skill (and, of course, the element of luck) determine victory or defeat.