What Soccer Means to the World

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JEFF J MITCHELL / REUTERS

TK Scotland's James Mc Fadden (R) competes for the ball with Denmark's Niclas Jensen during their international friendly match at the Parken stadium April 28, 2004

For much of the world soccer has long served as a form of ritual combat onto which neighborhoods, tribes and even nations could project their most passionate enmities. When Real Sociedad, the pride of the Basque country, comes up against Real Madrid, the soccer symbol of the Spanish crown, it's more than simply an athletic spectacle involving 22 men and a ball. And when a Republic of Ireland striker puts one past the England goalkeeper in an international fixture, the roar heard across the Irish Diaspora expresses a passion that long predates the game of soccer itself. But just as the forces of globalization are challenging long-established notions of identity by eroding traditional boundaries of nation and tribe, so is the globalization of professional soccer challenging some of the traditional bases of identification with the game. While fans treat the game as a tableux enactment of ancient tribal battles, the "actors" are often of foreign origin whose wanderings might have them, within a year, being hailed as champions of the Basque or Catalan cause, or the class rivalries of Milan, or some other oblique issue. They're simply professionals marketing their skills to the highest bidder in the increasingly globalized world of international soccer.



How Soccer Explains the World

It is into this complex, often darkly funny nexus of soccer's traditional role as metaphor for national and ethnic warfare and the forces of globalization that are changing the face of the game that New Republic writer Franklin Foer steps in his new book, "How Soccer Explains the World". It's a compelling and ambitious project that seeks to chart the impact of the crashing waves of globalization on the traditional tribal barriers that have long defined the culture of soccer.

As an American, Foer must be commended for venturing onto terrain inherently foreign to his home readership. In the U.S. soccer is mostly a middle class suburban game played by boys and girls, and the idea that loyalty to a team can be an expression of identity so profound that it's worth fighting — even sometimes killing — for would seem utterly preposterous on the grassy fields of suburban Long Island where Foer first played the game as a child. America's professional soccer clubs — or "franchises," as they're uniquely known in the U.S. — were created from scratch in the 1990s, and carry none of the encoded history of their European and Latin Americans counterparts. And support for the U.S. national soccer team is hardly an outlet for jingoistic nationalism. In my own experience, American audiences are more often than not oblivious to the meanings being attached to the game by fans of the opposition when Team USA has played Iran, Serbia or Mexico in recent internationals. Foer falls down when it comes to finding any greater meaning and offers a weak analysis of the impact of globalization on the game and its fans.

Where Foer succeeds brilliantly is in his reporting. He takes his readers onto the Glasgow terraces for an engaging first-hand account of the sectarian rivalry, a theme he echoes in his discussions with an organized group of hooligan supporters of Red Star Belgrade whose fan base were the shock troops of Slobodan Milosevic's "ethnic cleansing" campaign, and were later organized into militias.

Even more enlightening his account of the experiences of young African players on the margins of European football. He tracks the story of Edward Anyamkyegh, a young Nigerian star playing at Karpaty Lviv, a Ukrainian team with a fiercely nationalist tradition. In the Soviet era, the Ukraine was recognized as the cradle of the Union's soccer talent, regularly supplying a majority of the national team's players. But despite its tradition of representing Ukrainian pride (particularly against Russian teams during the Soviet era), the accepted wisdom in independent Ukraine is that soccer success requires buying the best talent available — and given the fact that far wealthier clubs in Western Europe are going to take the cream of the world's soccer talent, clubs in the Ukraine and Russia — and France and Belgium — who can't afford top-tier Brazilians, Frenchmen, Scandinavians or even the established stars of African football have looked increasingly to Africa's second tier as the prime source of imported talent to raise their game. KSK Beveren, the Antwerp team who reached last season's Belgian cup final, has been known to field a team composed entirely of players from Cote D'Ivoire.

It can't be much fun emigrating from the sunshine of Africa to the icy wastes of the former Soviet Union’s rundown industrial cities brimming with angry, racist skinheads. But there's more than money to compensate: the Russian and Ukrainian teams play in the pan-European tournaments, offering their imports a platform on which to impress the scouts of clubs in Italy, Spain and Britain, who'll offer a better wage and more benign living conditions. Today's estimates are that around 1,000 African players earn their keep in Europe, a low figure compared with the Brazilian pro Diaspora which is believed to number in the region of 5,000 players. And none of the African players who regularly start for an English Premiership team was recruited directly from Africa — all were bought from other European teams.



How the World Explains Soccer

Although a growing elite of international stars have played outside their national borders for much of the postwar period, the globalizing of soccer's labor market really began in earnest during the 1990s. Today's English champions, the London club Arsenal, are managed by a Frenchman, and only two English players feature in their typical starting lineup. When the same club won the championship 15 years ago, a solitary Swede was the only foreigner aboard.

The cosmopolitan impulse in European soccer hails originally from the quest for talent: Differing idioms in how the game is played, organized and coached across the continents over the past century has created a reality where today's winning formula requires blending of a variety of these traditions. But at a business level, also, the clubs are beginning to reflect the impact of globalization. A quarter century ago, the best-capitalized clubs, who could buy the contracts of the best players from lesser clubs and offer them more lucrative deals, were those who could fill the biggest stadiums week in and week out — hence the anomaly that Spain and Italy, two of Europe's weaker economies in the postwar years were nonetheless home to football clubs that could buy the best players from rivals in Germany, France and Britain. Today, however, global capital markets may be starting to play more of a role: Manchester United is traded on the London Stock Exchange, and one of its largest shareholders is American. The west-London club Chelsea look set to debunk the maxim that success can't be bought, following its acquisition by émigré Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, who has added close to $200 million to the team's war-chest for buying as many of the world's best players as they can find. And the fans of Liverpool F.C., whose status as a local icon may be even greater than that of the Beatles, are facing the uncomfortable reality that the club may soon be partly owned by a consortium organized by the prime minister of Thailand.

The arrival of these investors reflects the reality that football clubs have moved beyond such traditional revenue streams as turnstile-takings, TV rights and corporate sponsorship. Today, clubs such as Manchester United and Arsenal are global brands, whose shirts are as likely to occur on the streets of Beijing and Bangkok as they are to be seen in the refugee camps of Gaza and the alleyways of East Baghdad. With millions of fans around the world tuning in via satellite to every game, the possibilities for merchandising are suddenly endless. Where once, Manchester United may have hoped to sell around 30,000 replicas of its uniform a year to its fans in the city and elsewhere in Britain; today it can expect to move millions of shirts and other paraphernalia to a global fan base, with the Asian market representing a huge new growth market. That fact, more than any other, explained the decision of Spanish giants Real Madrid to sign Manchester United's English icon, David Beckham. Beckham is a good player, of course, but hardly a great one — his real appeal is as an icon, a handsome, soft-spoken married man (his wife Victoria is better known as Posh Spice) with a global pop-idol appeal, nowhere more so than in Asia. To put it unkindly, while Beckham's contribution to Real Madrid's performances on the field will always be eclipsed by the likes of Zidane, Figo, Raul, Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos, he has no peer when it comes to selling the club's shirts to teenagers in Asia.

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