Widgets Magazine


The stadiums are no longer silent

This passing month, Johan Cruyff, a Dutch man who was many things to many people, died in his house in Barcelona. To soccer fans, he was the “Pythagoras in boots,” but to the Catalans, he was the man who defeated the fascist Francisco Franco.

His father passed away when he was 12, and his mother began cleaning the stadium near their house to earn a living. They could not afford to send Johan to school, so he started fixing cleats and drawing chalk lines for their local team. One day, quite conveniently, the manager of the Dutch soccer club Ajax saw the little boy dribbling his ball and immediately recruited him. It was a classic success story. As expected, the hero of our story became an international success and the first ever superstar of European soccer. He helped Ajax win many Champions League cups and was deemed a national hero. However, his legacy was not yet complete.

In 1973, Cruyff got offers from the two football giants of Spain: Real Madrid and Barcelona. Real Madrid, at the time, was Franco’s baby. He personally oversaw the management of the team, supported it with government funds and saw Real Madrid’s global success as the success of his dictatorship in Madrid.

Meanwhile, Barcelona struggled with relegation and consistently finished near the bottom in the league. It was the hub for the Catalonian independence movement from Spain. So it came as a shock to the world when Cruyff picked Barcelona over Madrid for almost half the annual salary. Although he wasn’t outspoken about it when he made his decision, he later revealed that he felt uncomfortable “playing for a dictator.” After his transfer, Barcelona defeated Real Madrid 5-0 and Cruyff named his own son Jordi after the patron saint of Catalonia, an act that was banned and punishable in Franco’s Spain. From this point on, Cruyff was known as “El Salvador,” the man who saved Barcelona from Franco. Despite these accomplishments, his activism was far from over.

The Argentinian military overthrew the elected President Peron in 1976 and established its junta, a military government, that was supposed to host the 1978 World Cup. The junta had spent a tremendous amount of resources to promote its public image and had hired Burson and Martseller, the New York-based PR company, to highlight the successes of Argentinian organization. However, all this work and energy was overshadowed by Cruyff’s decision to not attend the World Cup. Even in the midst of the finals, popular newspapers were still discussing Cruyff’s absence and that he was protesting against the military coup.

Kruyff was not alone; he stood in a long line of people who understood that sports were not just games.

The writer Thomas Wolfe described Hitler’s opening speech in the 1936 Berlin Olympics games as “almost a religious event, the crowd screaming, swaying in unison and begging for Hitler.” The Nazi government “cleaned up” the host city by gathering all the Gypsies in the Berlin-Marzahn concentration camp and banning all their Jewish athletes from competing. They saw the games as a chance to prove Aryan superiority.

Many athletes of color chose not to participate in the Games, but Jesse Owens, an African-American track runner, traveled to Berlin to compete nonetheless. He encountered blatant racism: Upon his arrival to the Olympic Village, people surrounded his train car and started snipping at him with scissors, forcing him to retreat. In spite of this hostile introduction, he competed, set world records and defeated many Aryan athletes. Hitler was supposed to present all record-setting athletes with their medals as chancellor. But not so surprisingly, he opted to skip Owens. I am certain that Owens carried Hitler’s dislike of him as a badge of honor for the rest of his life.

The recent past is filled with such defiant athletes. Muhammed Ali boldly saying, “I got no quarrel with those Viet Cong” and being sentenced to five years in prison for draft evasion. John Carlos and Tommie Smith gesturing the black power salute in the 1968 Olympics following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Billy Jean King defeating Bobby Riggs in tennis as a call for equality for women. At times, athletes didn’t need to be this outspoken. Sometimes just their presence was enough. In 1947, Jackie Robinson made history by becoming the first African American to play major league baseball. In spite of all the racism he faced, he kept playing.

Without a doubt, all of these men and women have greatly contributed to our political evolution; but why did I write about all of this?

Because something peculiar is going on in our stadiums today.

LeBron James tweets a picture of the Miami Heat players wearing hoodies with their heads bowed in support of Trayvon Martin. Fans in Russia and Ukraine are chanting for peace in soccer games. This past Labor Day hosted many protests organized inside stadiums in China for better workers rights. Soccer games throughout Germany, Greece and Turkey are being dominated by fan slogans on the Syrian crisis.

Thinking that sports are just games is an easy mistake to make. But often times, stadiums reflect the very pulse of nations. They are the natural gathering place of discontent and weary people who have nowhere else to seek change in. And guess what? The stadiums are no longer silent.


Contact Ali Sarilgan at sarilgan ‘at’ stanford.edu.

  • Kyle D’Souza

    great article