What Soccer Means to the World

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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

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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.

The World Game

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 rivalry, 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.

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.

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.

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.

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