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Simon Kuper: “With the world getting so ugly, with climate change, Trump and Brexit, I sometimes see football as higher than politics”

It's hard to identify Simon Kuper: born in Uganda, he's British citizen who grew up in Holland and nowadays lives in Paris, where he's trying to become a French citizen, disappointed with Brexit's outcome. He started as a journalist in the "Financial Times" in 1994, writing about "serious matters", as he puts it, before realizing he couldn't really give up sports writing - he's the author of “Football Against the Enemy” and “Soccernomics”. He was in Lisbon explaining the link between football and politics and talked about that - and much more - with Tribuna Expresso

Mariana Cabral e Nuno Botelho

Nuno Botelho

Partilhar

Last time we met, in Paris, you told me France would win Euro 2016.
[laughs] Firstly, my predictions are...

Horrible?
[laughs] Always bad. But it's stupid to predict even one football match, because it's easier to predict a whole season than one match. You know that at the end of the season Benfica will be first or second, but whether Benfica will win on Saturday is much harder to predict. Same with the Euro, so that's my excuse. I think Portugal deserved to win a trophy, because you have a great football history, I mean, as no other football nation that size. Worldwide maybe only Uruguay. So, you deserved to win a trophy, but you didn't deserve to win that trophy.

There were other Portuguese teams...
I remember the Portuguese team of 2004, when I has here for the Euro, and you didn't win that one. That was a much better team, with Deco and Maniche, two of the best midfielders I've seen, and Figo, Ronaldo, Ricardo... I remember so much of that team. And, as a Holland fan, well, Holland usually lose to Portugal: why are we so afraid of Portugal? It's much worse playing Portugal than playing Germany or England.

Were you in Portugal for the Nations League?
Yes, but I only saw Portugal-Switzerland and England-Holland. Was it so surprising? Portugal are a strong team, playing at home. I think Euro 2016 was more surprising. I came here thinking there would be a lot of media interest, thinking I would write a lot of articles for ESPN and the "Financial Times", but I quickly discovered nobody cared outside Portugal and Holland. The English cared until they were knocked out and probably the Swiss as well. So by the time of the Portugal-Holland final, nobody else in Europe cared. So I went back before the final, because it as an event nobody outside Portugal or Holland noticed.

What do you expect from Euro 2020, with it being played in so many countries?
Well, Portugal, sadly, was the inspiration for that, because [Michel] Platini saw Euro 2004 here and how Portugal had spend a lot of money on stadiums that would never really be full again, and it was such a waste of money, because you have a small country with only three or four big clubs. So that was one of the reasons why Platini decided that there should be a Euro spread across the continent. I think it's great in a way that cities like Bucharest, Sofia, Copenhagen, Dublin, which have never hosted anything, now have a big tournament. I really like that and I'm glad the waste of money we saw in Portugal for the Euro or in Greece for the Olympics won't be happening.

It's ironic, because the Euro is opening up to a lot of new cities and then you have Brexit closing the UK.
Yes. And London is hosting the final and the semi final, strangely.

Are you sad?
I'm very sad [shows his passport]. This is my only passport and I'm not European anymore. I haven't reconciled myself to it, I'm sad, I'm angry.

You live in Paris for quite some time now.
I'm trying to become a French citizen now, because I've lived in France for 18 years, and I think I will eventually get it, but it's a long path. I feel European. 53% of Britons, according to the average of polls, are 'remainers', so Brexit is happening in a country that doesn't believe it. We will be back one day, but maybe not in my lifetime. I feel European and I'm angry, upset and bitter.

Did you see 'Auld Lang Syne' sung at the European Parliament?
Yes. I was very moved. I must say I cried a little bit watching it. It's desperately sad. And you see Britain already had a bid decision about Huawei, do we let them do the domestic infrastructure... In a world with China and the US, which are not are friends, we're saying goodbye to our friends.

Nuno Botelho

I know you're a George Orwell fan. Like in "1984", are we now in a time where truth and reality don't really matter anymore, like in the book?
Well, Orwell had this belief that simple, clear language was the best way to convey truth and to be transparent. So when you speak clearly, if you're lying, people can see that you're lying. Or if you're saying something terrible people can see you're saying something terrible. If you say: "It's necessary to kill tens of millions of soviet citizens in order to industrialize". If you say that, you lose support, so you have to talk about "liquidating" and those sort of euphemisms. So, clear language and the truth will win.

But now you have...
Examples like [Donald] Trump, who speaks very simply, "make America great again", "build the wall"...

Or "get Brexit done", in the UK.
Yes, which is very colloquial as well, "get it done". They're using language Orwell would have admired, in a way, to hide the truth and to simplify complexity. That's one thing that populism does. The world is very complicated but you can simplify that complexity. The European Union is a very complex matter but if you just say "take back control"... We all want control over our lives, we all feel we've lost control. The simplification of things through language is a danger. Orwell had very complicated thoughts about simple language, he's very sophisticated about it. The regime in "1984" uses "newspeak", which is a simplification of language, and "doublethink". He admired that. It's based on an idea of basic English, which was a written language of about 800 words, and Orwell thought this could be very productive because it could help keep language simple. He had a lot of complicated thoughts about the simplicity of language.

You usually write about sports and politics, with sports being viewed as a lesser subject, intellectually speaking. In this new era we now live in, is politics a lesser subject now?
It's very important, obviously, but it's becoming more populist, so it's using some of the language and dramatics of sport. You have teams and you have fans. So when you see a Trump rally with people wearing "make America great again" caps they're like fans of a sports team and they cheer their team. So the identification with politicians is more about fandom. You also saw that with [Barack] Obama and Jeremy Corbyn, politicians now attract fans that are more like sports fans. So when you say to Trump supporters: "Trump lied and was corrupt in his dealings with Ukraine". They'll react like sports fans: "This is my team and if you criticize my team, I'm only going to love my team more". So you have the drama, the victory, and an election becomes about winning and losing, like a sports match. And it's done often by people who are very grounded in sports, like Trump or [Silvio] Berlusconi, who know the language.

Like you said during the conference, Trump was very interested in wrestling, a world that is more fiction than reality.
Yes. And Trump at one point also tried to create a new american football league, and tried to buy an NFL team also. So he's very deep in sports. It's difficult to clearly state what politicians benefit from the connection between sports and politics, because voters are quite sophisticated now.

Are they?
Well, about some things. They're not so sophisticated about, let's say, the future of the health system, or deficit, boring things like that. But they're sophisticated about politicians and advertising. In the 1960s, before people got used to advertising and to political spin, when they were much more naive, there was this book - sorry, I don't want to go on and on and be boring -, called "The Selling of the President", by Joe McGinniss, about [Richard] Nixon. He watches Nixon film this campaign ad and Nixon repeats his text eight times, to film it right, and McGinniss is outraged: "This guy is just faking it, this is like selling soap, selling a product". McGinniss is so angry he can't believe it. And now we all think that's normal, we all know that's how politics works: the politician is trying to sell you a product and maybe you buy it, maybe you don't. So when you see a politician holding the World Cup with a team, now you think: "I know exactly what [Emmanuel] Macron is trying to do". So people now have a better understanding of spin and advertising, that they didn't use to have.

Do you believe football helps people address and resolve difficult subjects, such as racism?
Football is such a powerful instrument, but it can be used by anyone, so it can also be used by racists. There's a lot of black players, so that raises the issue of racism, because people are racists. Lilian Thuram, a great french footballer, says that when you see and admire a black footballer, that doesn't make you less racist, because the stereotype of blacks in Europe is that they have great physical qualities. So when you see a team with a lot of black players, it doesn't make you think better about black people, it just reinforces a stereotype that black people have a role as physical workers but not as brain workers. So football can be a domain where racism does very well, as we see, for example, with the Italian Football Federation and with Italian club presidents, who think racism is just a normal part of everything. And usually you have a spectacle where the crowd is white, so ethic minorities are underrepresented in crowds, but black players are overrepresented on the field, so you can have this scenario of white fans shouting racism at black players, we have that all the time in Europe.

Is it getting worse?
No, I think it's getting better.

It's just that we pay more attention now?
Yes, there's now a strong consensus that racism is bad, and most people at least pretend to believe that, and most people genuinely believe it. In England, a few years ago, Luis Suárez racially abused Patrice Evra and it was a big issue. Not because racism among footballers is rising, but because we now think it's a problem. If he had done that in 1980, nobody would have cared, that was normal.

Nuno Botelho

Will the English clubs now dominate European football, because of their economic power?
In the last 12 years or so, Cristiano [Ronaldo] and [Lionel] Messi, between them, have won about nine Champions Leagues, something like that, since Cristiano left Manchester United in 2008 to Cristiano winning with Real Madrid in 2018. You have these two guys who won almost all the Ballon d'Or trophies and ruled football for a long period, like nobody else. Maradona was a great player, but he didn't perform like that very much. These guys have done it for 15 years.

And now it's almost over.
And now it's almost over. So English clubs had this disadvantage, because they didn't have Cristiano after 2009 and they didn't have Messi. Barcelona and Real, also with a great generation of Spaniards, like Ramos, Iniesta, Xavi, dominated, but that domination is now looking very vulnerable. Although they still have the two biggest budgets, with a billion euros each more or less, you have five or six English clubs which are quite close in money terms, because of the English television money.

So it's impossible to see a Portuguese club among the big teams now.
Impossible. Well, my predictions are always wrong, but I think it's very unlikely Benfica will win the Champions League in the next 20 years. But look, I grew up in Holland and I support Ajax, which is like Benfica...

They did very well in the Champions League last year.
They almost won last year. So, in football, in a knockout competition like the Champions League, which has a strong random element... If Ajax play Real Madrid 20 times, Real will win more matches, but when they only have to play twice... Champions League allows for the weaker team to get lucky or to have a good night. It's possible, but I would not bet on it.

Will there be a European Super League?
No, because the football economy is really successful. In the TV era, revenues have gone up since the early 90s, for over 25 years, so to change that is risky for these clubs. If you're an English club, you think: "Our economic model has been great, do we really want go into a new league and give up our very successful model?" I don't think so. I think the Spaniards will be more tempted because they only have two massive clubs in the league - and the Italians even more so. But I don't think it will happen.

They played the Spanish Supercup in Saudi Arabia, so is it all about money?
Yes. The thing is: we in western Europe are 5% of the global population and Spain is a tiny country in the world. Historically, the Spanish clubs got most of their money from inside Spain, but the potential market... China plus India plus Indonesia plus the US: that's 45% of the world's population and they're switching to football, that's where you can grow. They don't have good football clubs. So Barcelona is just becoming a global club.

You're writing about that?
I'm writing this book about Barcelona, so I got very interested in that. Barcelona was a club in Barcelona, then it became a club in Spain and then a club in Europe. And now it's a club in the world.

When is the book coming out?
I think a year from now.

Recently you wrote about Duncan Hamilton's "The Great Romantic", a book about Neville Cardus, a sports journalist who wrote about cricket and music...
Cricket is a much better sport than football.

I can't say I know much about cricket, but do you see yourself like Cardus, who wrote about a lot more than sports?
It's a wonderful book. Look, he's much greater than I could ever be. What I recognized with him is that football is a sport that's really interesting, important, funny, human - it's a great subject., but it's not the only subject. And people who are only interested in football or only interested in cricket are very limited. Really interesting people tend to be interested in sports but more than just sports. I think the big difference is that 50 years ago there was high culture and low culture. High culture was serious and good, and it was classic novels or opera, and low culture, pop music and football, was bad, not serious. I think great football, like great pop music, is fantastic. Or great rap music - it isn't my thing, but it can be fantastic. I don't believe in barriers in culture. I'm trying to write about Messi now in the way that you would write about Picasso, in a serious book, for example. How does Picasso do what he does? How does Messi do what he does? I think you have to take football completely serious, while recognizing it's really not that important. It's not the whole world, but it's a beautiful activity. Also, what I'm finding more and more is that, with the world getting so ugly, with climate change, Trump and Brexit, I sometimes see football as higher than politics, like you were suggesting. When I write about Messi I feel I'm writing about the highest in human achievement and when I write about Trump I see the lowest in human achievement.

When you started working as a journalist for the "Financial Times", in 1994, I guess you didn't think that way.
No, no. I joined the FT because I didn't want to just write about football. I was already writing about football then and at one point, almost for 12 years, I only wrote about football. And I realized it's a very stupid environment most of the time: the things the manager says, the things tabloids write, the commentary... a lot of it is so stupid. And, being in that world, I felt I was becoming more and more stupid, so I wanted to write about serious things, things that mattered. But now when I listen to Trump I feel that my intelligence is being attacked with his stupidity. And with many other politics like that. But when I try to understand what Messi does, I realize, more and more, how complex it is. How do you run past three defenders and put it in the top corner?

Last but not least: how do you like Portugal?
Oh yes, I love being here. It's such a privilege to come here, especially now, with reasonably nice weather for this time of the year. Walking around the old part of Lisbon, having dinner by the river... I'm really surprised with the beauty of this place. I used to read a lot about World War II and it struck me that if you had to be in Europe during WWII, being in Lisbon, with a little bit of warmth and escape from the nightmare of the rest of the world... I was lucky enough to spend a whole month here during Euro 2004 and I went to parts of Portugal I didn't know, like Coimbra and Braga. I have a lot of fond memories.

  • Simon Kuper: “Não acredito em barreiras e níveis de separação na cultura. Escrevo sobre Messi como alguém escreveria sobre Picasso”

    Entrevistas Tribuna

    É difícil definir Simon Kuper: nascido no Uganda, enquanto cidadão britânico, cresceu na Holanda e vive atualmente em Paris, onde já requisitou a cidadania francesa, desapontado com o desfecho do Brexit. Começou a carreira de jornalista no “Financial Times”, em 1994, cobrindo “assuntos sérios”, como descreve o próprio, até perceber que não conseguia largar a escrita sobre desporto - venceu prémios com os livros “Football Against the Enemy” e “Soccernomics” e, hoje, divide-se entre o desporto e a política, dois assuntos que têm muito mais a ver um com o outro do que as pessoas pensam, conforme explicou numa conferência do Clube de Lisboa e em entrevista à Tribuna Expresso