Soccer's New Wars

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Visitors to Ibrox Park, home of Glasgow Rangers, might have been more than a little gobsmacked recently to see the home fans flying the Israeli flag. The Star of David is an unlikely standard for the fans of one of Scotland's largest soccer teams, whose often ferociously sectarian Protestant identity is legendary — for decades, the club would not sign Catholic players no matter how talented. But to understand why the Rangers faithful were seen flying the Israeli flag, one only had to look across the field to the fans of the visiting team, Glasgow Celtic — the pride of Scotland's Catholics and the Irish Catholic Diaspora — were flying Palestinian flags. Call that an instance of wry Glaswegian humor inserting itself into the decades-old binary sectarianism that binds the soccer terraces of Glasgow to the bloody streets of Northern Ireland.

Soccer has, as long as anyone can remember, 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 the fans of Rangers and Celtic will continue to treat the Glasgow derby match as a sectarian fetish for clashes ranging from the Battle of the Boyne to Belfast's Falls Road "troubles", those concerns are increasingly remote for the men who don the blue shirts of Rangers and Celtic's green-and-white hoops. What could it possibly mean to Rangers' Georgian striker Shota Arveladze when those cheering his team on against Celtic are singing "We're up to our knees in Fenian blood!" ? And what passions does an IRA anthem stir in the heart of Celtic's favorite forward, Henrik Larsson, whose mother is Swedish and whose father hails from the West African island of Cabo Verde? Once, Rangers only signed Protestant players; today, like Celtic, they've followed the trend of shopping in soccer's global labor market in order to make themselves competitive in the pan-European leagues that are the most lucrative for the continent's clubs. So, while the fans treat the game as a tableux enactment of ancient tribal battles, the "actors" are Dutchmen, Georgians, Danes, Brazilians, Portuguese, Swedes, Frenchmen, Guineans, Ivorians, Bulgarians and others whose professional 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 cause. They're simply professionals marketing their skills to the highest bidder in the increasingly globalized world of international soccer.

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, at least among fans if not on the field. And as an American, Foer must be further commended for venturing onto terrain inherently foreign to his home readership: After all, 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 that many of their European and Latin Americans counterparts do. And given its place in America's domestic "culture wars," support for the U.S. national soccer team is hardly an outlet for jingoistic nationalism. Indeed, 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 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 reporting on the experiences of young African players on the margins of European football in his chapter on the "Black Carpathians." Here, he tracks the story of Edward Anyamkyegh, a Nigerian starlet 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.

For a young black South African from the sunshine of newly liberated Soweto, such as MacBeth Sibaya or Japhet Zwane, it can't be much fun emigrating to the icy wastes of Russia'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, making the gamble taken by the likes of Sibaya, Zwane or Anyamkyegh a fair bet. (And, of course, after a couple of seasons' service, selling these players, whose contracts were acquired for a couple of hundred thousand dollars from an African team, to a top-flight European club for a few million is part of the business plan that keeps a number of clubs in Holland and France afloat.)

But while Foer offers great reporting on sectarian fans and the experience of African players in Eastern Europe, he doesn't necessarily deliver much by way of analysis of his chosen topic of the impact of globalization on the game and its fans.

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 alleways of East Baghdad. With millions of fans around the world tuning in via satellite to every game, the possibilities for merchandizing 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 paraphenalia 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, the handsome, soft-spoken, family 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.

As Real Madrid marketing chief Jose Angel Sanchez told British writer Martin Jacques, recently, "Eventually, you may get just six global brand leaders. People will support a local side and one of the world's big six. We have to position ourselves for that." Jacques goes further than Foer in posing some of the questions and tensions raised by globalization on the way the game is played, watched and organized. Where the loyalty of a fan base has traditionally been organized on the basis of local, often sectarian or political affinities, he notes, that hardly helps turn it into a global brand. In Spain, encounters between Real Madrid and Barcelona still carry the stamp of the team of General Franco (Madrid) clashing with the irrepressibly rebellious and republican Catalans (Barcelona), but that encoded history which enflames the home crowd's passions means nothing to consumers who might buy either team's shirt at a mall in San Diego or a sports store in Bangkok. The challenge of redefining the terms of identity with a soccer team — an inherently tribal phenomenon in most of the soccer playing world — remains one of the key challenges facing soccer as a business in the era of globalization.

While clubs (they'd be called franchises in the U.S.) are the principle venue in which the game is played week in and week out — and where it operates as a business for both owners and players — and often expresses longstanding sectarian rivarly, the primary form of tribal identification in the game worldwide remains with the national team rather than the local club. The nationalist passions aroused by international competition are plain to see at every World Cup and regional tournament: There are painful histories in play every time Germany clashes with Holland or the Czech Republic, for example, and the reason Mexican fans recently egged on their Under-21 team with chants of "Osama, Osama" had everything to do with the fact that their rivals on the night were the Under-21s of the United States. England-Argentina clashes will always call forth bitter memories of their 1982 war over the Falkands Islands, for example, and a bitterly contested World Cup qualifier between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969 sparked a brief military confrontation between the two countries. And so on.

But, in the era of globalization, the very face of nationhood is changing. A simple glance at a photograph of the current French national team is enough to explain why the leader of France's racist far right, Jean Marie Le Pen, long ago disowned it as "not a real French team." Every player but two in its starting lineup has roots in Africa. For the past two World Cups, France's hopes have rested on the shoulders of the exquisitely talented midfielder Zinedine Zidane, born in Algeria. Holland, too, fields a squad today that contains at least six players who originate from the Dutch colonies of the Caribbean and southeast Asia, while seven of the England squad have roots in Britain's former colonies. But while the colonial era may explain the makeup of those national teams, more contemporary patterns of migration are at work in Sweden, whose strike force consists of the half-Cabo Verdian Henrik Larsson, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose origins are Bosnian-Croat.

The rules of FIFA, the sport's international governing body, allow a player the option of either representing their adopted country, or their country of origin — although once such a choice is made at senior international level, it cannot be reversed. A longstanding joke held that to play for the Republic of Ireland, a player simply had to prove that his grandfather drank Guinness, and to be sure, many players who'd struggle ever to make the national team in their home country are happy to find ancestral roots that give them an outing on the international stage and improve their value in the transfer market.

But the accelerating migration of players across national boundaries is creating a few incongruities. Poland's star striker, for example, is Emmanuel Olisadebe, a Nigerian who'd gone to play for a Polish club side and had so impressed the country's football authorities that the government had fast-tracked him for citizenship in order to boost their prospects at the last World Cup. The irony is that although Olisadebe is still the mainstay of the Polish attack, he no longer even lives in Poland, having moved to a more lucrative gig for the Greek club Panathanaikos.

The element of choice in matters national is also epitomized in the case of the brothers Vieri — Christian leads the line for Italy, while his younger brother Max is an emerging star in the Australian national team. The Vieris were born in Italy, and earn their wages there, but they grew up in Australia, making them eligible for either. The less talented Max may simply be accepting his limitations in opting for the "Socceroos," where competition for places on the squad is infinitely less intense than in Italy.

There were cries of opportunism earlier this year when Brazilian export Francileudo dos Santos took Tunisian citizenship in order to play for his adopted country in the African Nations Cup. Although dos Santos's talents made him a key member of the Tunisian side, he wasn't good enough to come even close to playing for his own country, and emigration became an attractive option. The Tunisians slapped down any complaints by pointing out that they were simply following in the well-established traditions of Europe. Dos Santos didn't help matters, of course, when in a recent moment of celebration over his French club's victory in a cup competition, he draped himself in the Brazilian flag and was forced to apologize to Tunisian fans.

Jacques sees the increasingly diverse national teams as a powerful symbol of soccer's liberal and progressive potential, but he envisages growing competition between club and nation as the organizing principle of the game. Just as corporations today stain against national boundaries and their attendant responsibilities as they drive towards a supranational existence that transcends national borders in pursuit of markets, skills, cheaper inputs and tax relief, so are the top tier of soccer teams increasingly straining against the nation state (or more specifically, the national football federation). For fans, there's no question that representing one's country is the highest possible honor. But the reality for players is that it is their clubs, not their countries, that pay their wages. And for clubs, the players are prized assets constantly at risk of losing some or all of their value due to injury each time they turn out for the national team. The top clubs would rather their players didn't have to turn out for the national team at all. Right now, putting pressure on players to resist national team call-ups for England would be beyond the pale for English premiership clubs, whose fans would turn on them in an instant. But despite FIFA ruling designed to prevent the practice, they put immense pressure on players from lesser foreign powers to cry injury when the national team comes calling, or even to "retire" from international football at ridiculously young ages. Just last week, for example, Glasgow Rangers axed their popular captain Craig Moore and put his contract up for sale. His offense? Making himself available to lead his native Australia at this summer's Olympics in Athens.

Moore may be something of a rarity, however. The tendency among players from many African countries is to put the interests of their European clubs above those of their countries — there's a certain trick to it, of course: Make sure you're available during the World Cup or similar tournaments when buyers from the major teams are out scouting for talent, but cry injury, or even "retire" to avoid all those tedious qualifiers and friendlies in between. Countries such as South Africa, Australia and Senegal have increasingly recognized this reality, given that most of their natural picks for the national team now earn their living in Europe. They are increasingly adapting their national setups to accommodate the foreign-based players by, for example, holding coaching clinics and friendly matches in Europe, and refraining from calling up the players with major clubs for the less important games on the international schedule.

But many of the elite teams want nothing short of a revolution in the traditional order that has put nation above club in players' commitments. A G-14, representing Europe's 18 leading clubs, has begun legal proceedings in an effort to force FIFA to share with clubs the revenue generated by such huge international tournaments as the World Cup and Euro 2004, as a way of compensating them for making their prized assets available for international duty. They've also tried to create their own permanent Champion's League, fencing off the elite from the rest of the clubs — such a supranational league currently exists, of course, but teams qualify on the basis of their previous year's performance in their domestic league.

The international federation FIFA, as an agglomeration of the world's national football federations, has long had unquestioned power over everything from the rules of the game to its competitive schedules. But the clubs are only beginning to emerge as global giants, the equivalent of transnational corporations. And, as Jacques suggests, the club vs. country faultline is likely to dominate the political battle over how the game is organized for decades to come.

The American practice of franchises moving from one city to another has, until now, been unthinkable in European soccer. But the dynamics of globalization of the game are now such that it's no longer wholly inconceivable, particularly in light of the emerging cartel spirit among the G-14. The political events of the past decade suggest that despite the optimism of globalization's cheerleaders, the process has hardly dissipated sectarian and ethnic political passions in historical trouble spots. But the dynamics of globalization in the game suggest it may become increasingly hard to sustain soccer as an outlet for them.