Pomegranate Center

Milenko’s Thoughts on Soccer and Democracy

by Milenko Matanovič

September 17, 2019

Those who know me know I am a huge soccer fan. I played soccer for decades, stopped only by suffering knees. I still dream about playing, my knees magically healed, and win matches as significant as the monumental win of the US women’s soccer. And those who know me well also know that I won’t miss an opportunity to draw a good parallel to community engagement.

When watching matches, I look for how the entire team functions: how people run into open spaces without the ball, how players pass the ball into tiny spaces to find their running teammates.  Sure, there are goal scorers, but very rarely is the goal the result of their individual effort. Rather it is created by a series of passes, players moving without the ball and ably switching their positions. The goals are the result of the team’s fluidity.

This style is called Total Football, it was invented in the 1970s in the Netherlands and is now an integral part of the game. Players are expected to cover for each other. When a player moves out of the position, another player steps in.  Anyone can, therefore, defend or attack. The goalkeeper is the only one with a fixed position. In this style, coaches expect more from players because the players must constantly adjust their movement to the flow of the game. They do what is necessary in the moment. It requires more awareness and running.

Total Football is the opposite of Foosball, the table game where the players are attached to metal rods, only able to move sideways. I’ve observed that those unfamiliar with the real sport, imagine football in a static fashion, players attached with an invisible rod to their singular expertise.

I’ve seen this difference in hundreds of community projects the Pomegranate Center has facilitated over the decades. In the Total Football approach, we asked people to not be rigid about their roles. Everyone is a citizen, a player, willing to explore what is needed and must be willing to step up to the task. People are expected to contribute their ideas, design solutions, and offer their talents even if they are not a specialist. In the Foosball variation, leaders would make decisions, professionals would design and build, and the citizens would passively observe from the sidelines.

We, the citizens, are the players in the big game of making our future work. We need a Total Democracy approach, where people also need to think as planners, housing professionals, traffic engineers, environmental activists, economists, healers, educators, and artists. We should learn from specialists but insist that the decisions are made with us, not for us. This means that we need to become more involved, better informed, and alert participants in the events that shape our world.

Complaining about the fluidity and unpredictability of the game is no longer appropriate.  Waiting for others to run into open spaces while we stay put will no longer work. Total Democracy requires more, but the rewards are many. We will learn the new game where we pass ideas to each other, allow ourselves to adjust our thinking, learn from each other as we go along, and resist the temptation to wait for leaders to score our goals.