Rwany Sibaja – Social Studies Educator
In July, a gathering took place for the presentation of historian Julio Frydenberg’s Una Historia Social del Fútbol. Many books have been written about Argentinean soccer, but most have been produced either by journalists or sociologists. Frydenberg’s book is the first serious treatment of Argentinean football by a historian. The academic community in Argentina, therefore, anxiously awaited its arrival and gathered to congratulate a scholar whose writings on the topic had been building up to this moment.
Because of the nature of the topic, and the seminal nature of the book within historical studies of Argentinean soccer, this book presentation convened historians and journalists alike among the panelists—each of whom commented for about 15 minutes. Panelists reflected on why Frydenberg’s book is much needed and offered little in the way of pointed observations or critiques.
Instead, they lauded the work of the author and his ability to contextualize the origins of Argentinean football between the 1880s and 1930s. Historian (and mentor) Juan Suriano praised Historia Social for its ability to help reconstruct cultural identity within the popular sector and neighborhoods of Buenos Aires. Sports journalists Ariel Scher and Juan Manuel Herbella commended Frydenberg for his balanced treatment, which captured the mentality and voice of the players as well as pay tribute to soccer through its careful analysis.
Frydenberg, for his part, gave some brief remarks and reflected on the journey in creating the book. More significantly, he addressed the critics who never showed up that night by eloquently defended the importance of social and cultural history, the validity of soccer as a serious academic topic, and the need to better study what he deemed as “collective emotions.” According to Frydenberg, soccer in Argentina is best suited to examine the relationship between reason and emotion. Sports can expose the limits and horizons of collective thoughts and explain the development of popular rituals. He concluded by cautioning historians to not dismiss the value of practitioners of other disciplines. While on the one hand, Frydenberg suggests, a historian should not accept the terms of journalists, sociologists, and anthropologists when it comes to cross-disciplinary topics such as “ritual” and “identity,” historians have much to learn by understanding where they are coming from.
Many of the presentations I have attended in the United States offer more debate and critique. Audience members and panelists usually include colleagues, not only in the field of history, but also within an author’s area of specialization. In this case, the topic of soccer brought together a cross section of academics and enthusiasts, as well as friends of Julio. I’m not sure that attending one book presentation is a sufficient measure of the similarities and differences between the Argentine and US academic communities, but I was struck by the collegiality and warmth exhibited in the room that July night. Perhaps in this regard, we all share a genuine desire to congratulate someone whose years of research came to fruition in a well-received publication.
On Saturday, September 10, I was invited to attend a monthly meeting of the Centro de Estudios de Deportes: an academic consortium housed at the Universidad de San Martin which draws scholars from various Buenos Aires universities together to talk about sports.
Two papers were presented that day. Doctoral student Christian Ferrer examined the debate around the use of technology in soccer and the division between purists and reformers. On the one hand, purists contend that human error is part of soccer’s culture and identity; therefore, technology would threaten the humanity of the sport. On the other hand, reformers point to the successful implementation of technology in other sports, which did little to threaten the identity of tennis or basketball. Larger questions, however, emerged from critiques of Ferrer’s paper. Who represents soccer? What are the philosophical ethics of the sport? (Is it fair play? justice?) What is it about soccer culture that is so opposed to innovation and technology? It seems that as a historian of soccer, I am entrenched in two camps—the history academy and soccer fandom—holding on to traditions and slow to embrace change.
The second paper, a collaborative effort by Daniel Sazbón and Julio Frydenberg, deconstructs the term “modernity” in the context of soccer history. Their principal argument is that “modernity” is an empty vessel term used by various actors, for various purposes. By itself, the term lacks weight and meaning. However, the persistent use of “modernity” among journalists, officials, and coaches cannot be ignored. In Argentinean soccer, for example, it is impossible to separate the term from geographical considerations. Early twentieth Argentinean soccer became a symbol of modernity, a progressive notion of social behavior found throughout urban Buenos Aires. Therefore, observers either dismissed or ignored rural practice of the sport. When acknowledged, Buenos Aires journalists usually depicted rural soccer as backward or a pale imitation of the urban variety.
It is rare to find a deconstructionist approach to soccer. By exposing the rather empty value of “modernity” as an academic term, Sazbón and Frydenberg help to contextualize its eventual use by soccer observers. I reflected to what Jacques Derrida described as logos, a linguistic representation or symbol of a larger idea. In the case of soccer, “modernity” simply represents the possible future. The term implies change and stands in opposition to what is established: the old, the traditional, the present. Modernity, then, is a desire to change without the certainty of what lies ahead.
Not only did I find many useful points to consider for my own research, it seems that soccer once again reflected long-running discussions in the field of history. Digital humanists mostly believe that the academy is stale and stubbornly fixed to how scholarship has been done. Conversely, critics of digital history question the value of “modernizing” the academy. While it is easy to paint such criticism as the product of older scholars weary of digital technology, concerns over maintaining rigorous peer review are indeed warranted. While it is my contention that technology could actually facilitate and expedite the peer review process without sacrificing the quality of academic work, this debate will not be solved here. Instead, discussions at the Centro de Estudios de Deportes revealed to me a tension found within both soccer and history: modernity (however one chooses to apply this term) and tradition are vital to the identity of both. These terms are in opposition to each other, yet they are also different sides of the same coin. Traditionalists and modernizers need each other in order to define who they are.
The monthly meeting at the Centro de Estudios de Deportes offers graduate students and faculty—across several disciplines—a chance to mingle, chat, argue, and discuss a topic dear to everyone. This regular open-forum model could be replicated at George Mason. It would allow students and faculty a chance to fully engage in specific topics on a continuing basis—enriching the work of all participants.