The World Cup begins Friday when host country South Africa meets Mexico in the opening match. Which are the teams to watch? Will Ghana become the first African country to make it to the semi-finals? Will President Obama attend? We talk about soccer--football to the rest of the world — with a father and son team of soccer fans, Steven and Harrison Stark. Their book is "World Cup 2010: The Indispensable Guide to Soccer and Geopolitics," excerpted below.
It’s finally here and for once, the truism applies. The whole world really is watching. The World Cup in 2010 in South Africa will be much more than a simple athletic competition. This international soccer tournament will be, quite simply, one of the biggest events anywhere ever — a month long spectacle that virtually the whole world passionately follows. Soccer is the closest thing we have to a global language and currency. In his terrific book, “Football Against the Enemy,” Simon Kuper described how the president of Bolivia dropped all state business in 1994 and flew to watch his team live in the Cup. When asked whether he might be better attending to “domestic priorities,” he replied, “In Bolivia, the World Cup is the top domestic priority.” And so it is for a good portion of the globe. That makes the World Cup something of a unifying force – perhaps the planet’s major one.
“The World Cup is the tournament by which most countries measure themselves," Alan Bairner, a world sports expert at Loughborough University in the UK told Der Spiegel. "It is the most visible way nations are represented on the global stage."
That’s, in part, what makes more than a few Americans ambivalent, if not sometimes even hostile, about the World Cup. A fair number of Yanks have always been a bit isolationist, surrounded on both sides by huge oceans and all; they’re in the world and not of it. International sports and competitions they don’t dominate have a tendency to make them nervous. Moreover, as the writer Ben Markovits once noted, “Because Americans play games of their own invention, the great sporting occasions have less to do with their triumphs over the world than with the landmarks in the nation's history.”
Yet maybe with a U.S. president who looks more outward than some of his recent predecessors — so much so that he’s actually supposed to attend this event — that may be changing. Last year’s surprising run to the finals in the Confederations Cup seemed to awaken a lot of Americans to the fact that their national team can actually compete on an international level. More tickets to this year’s competition have been sold in the U.S. than in any other nation, save South Africa. You can’t get more mainstream than Wal-Mart, and even it will be carrying World Cup merchandise.
And it’s not like no one in the States was paying attention before. On weekends, the 2006 Cup often outdrew every other sports event televised against it – including golf’s U.S. Open and a key NASCAR event. The final attracted 16.9 million viewers in this country alone – triple the audience for 2002 and equal to the World Series and NCAA basketball final.
With soccer so intertwined with issues of national identity, the World Cup is also a window into the souls of the countries that participate. National squads are reflections of their heritage — which is what can make this tournament so fascinating, even to a casual fan. It’s been said that Americans learn about world affairs and geography through wars; the rest of the world learns through soccer. Maybe it’s time to follow their lead. Michel Plantini, the great French soccer star and current head of UEFA (the Union of Europe Football Associations) once said, "A football team represents a way of being, a culture." Watch the Italians with their emphasis on artistry (sometimes to the exclusion of scoring goals) and one begins to understand some of the attributes that gave birth to the Renaissance, said English writer Peter Davies. Follow the English as they forge ahead offensively ignoring defense and one glimpses what helped give rise to the industrial revolution and the wasted cities it left behind. Or the “Charge of the Light Brigade” suggests Simon Kuper, usually with similar results for the English team.
Or take the worldwide reaction to Thierry Henry’s celebrated playoff match November handball that the referees didn’t see, thus putting France into the Cup instead of Ireland. It caused an international uproar. Why? As John Lichfield of the UK Independent explained:
[T]he Henry incident caused such a global furor partly because the team that benefited was France. Seen from abroad, rightly or wrongly, the French are viewed as a nation that likes to ignore rules (from nuclear tests to priority for pedestrians) and, at the same time, maintain a rather high-flown opinion of themselves. . . .
There are many other, wonderful things to say about the French, just as there other, wonderful things to say about Henry. But on the evidence of the last few days, whatever my neighbor might say, Henry's national identity could only be French.
To be fair, the French agreed for the most part. "The handball of Henry has brought a decisive contribution to the theme 'being French is being ashamed of one's national team'," wrote the French paper “Le Parisien” the next day.
Because of its cultural and social importance in much of the world, soccer is also closely linked to politics. When Brazil fails to win a World Cup, the government launches an investigation. It’s impossible to comprehend Italian politics without understanding Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s role as owner of the nation’s leading team (Milan) and his appropriation of a soccer cheer “Forza Italia” as the name of his political party.
Yet Berlusconi was only following in the footsteps of the leaders of other nations. After all, Fernando Collor de Mello, who became the youngest elected president of Brazil in 1989, first came to public attention as the president of a soccer club. When sedate Holland failed to win the Cup as expected in 1974, it became one of the defining moments in the nation’s modern history. “The defeat of 1974 is the biggest trauma that happened to Holland in the 20th century apart from the floods of 1953 and World War II," wrote David Winner in his study of Dutch soccer, “Brilliant Orange.” He quoted a Dutch psychoanalyst, “"There is still a deep, unresolved trauma about 1974. It's a very living pain, like an unpunished crime.”
Meanwhile, in places such as Croatia, Ukraine, or Serbia, the core of the country’s nationalist parties – for better and often worse — are directly tied to the nation’s principal soccer teams and their supporters.
Because of this link between soccer and affairs of state, geopolitics can actually affect the outcome of games. In 1954, in a game Germans still talk about, West Germany upset Hungary in the final — an event that many historians describe as the key event in the spiritual rebirth of a new Germany after the war. "After 1945, the German identity was broken and there were two things that rebuilt it," Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the former French radical and now member of the European Parliament, once told the New York Times. "One was economic growth and the other was the 1954 football championship. It was the first time the Germans were recognized in the world for a nonaggressive achievement."
And so it goes all over the planet. Does England often have Argentina’s number because the English are a better team, or because the English humiliated the Argentineans almost three decades ago in the Falklands War? Does the U.S.’s recent quasi-dominance of Mexico have anything to do with the fact that millions of Mexicans want to leave their home country and emigrate north? Did Iran’s upset of the U.S. at the 1998 World Cup have anything to do with the fact that beating the western “Great Satan” would make Iran’s players heroes for life? Certainly Senegal had no problem getting psyched for their game at the 2002 World Cup against France, its old colonial subjugator, just as what probably propelled Slovakia into this year’s World Cup for the first time was that they were matched in their qualifying group with arch-rival and one-time partner, the Czech Republic. If any of the favorites stumble, it may be because they’re facing a team against whom defeat is unthinkable.
This, then, may be the Cup where Americans really begin to appreciate soccer’s global significance. Anyone watching this year also cannot overestimate the importance of holding the Cup in Africa for the first time. "If we have the World Cup," said one African official of his nation years ago, "we will not be the same again."
For starters, success on the field could bring esteem to a nation and continent that has had trouble achieving it elsewhere. When Cameroon upset Argentina at the 1990 World Cup, team star Roger Milla later said that his favorite memory was of his nation’s president subsequently meeting other nation’s leaders “as a victor . . . who greets with a smile the defeated heads of state."
As elsewhere, African soccer is closely linked to national politics. The Zambian national team used to be so closely linked to the president (who often picked the team) that it was commonly known as the “Kenneth Kaunda XI.” In Algeria, it’s been written how the whole pro league is organized around nationalized industrial groupings and team names have been ordered changed by the government to contain regional revolts (J.S. Kabylie was altered to JE Tizi-Ouzou).
In fact, this year’s series of games between Algeria and Egypt triggered the biggest political crisis caused by soccer since the “soccer war” between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969 led to hostilities between the two countries that left over 4,000 dead. The two northern Africa nations have been bitter rivals for decades – fueled by Algerian sentiment that Egypt should have done more to aid it in its colonial battle with France during the 1950’s. In an infamous match in 1989, Egypt defeated Algeria to make the Cup. At a post-match reception, Egypt’s team doctor had his eye gouged out by a broken bottle, said by some to have been brandished by an Algerian player.
When the two met in a playoff again last fall to determine who would go to South Africa, Algeria won the game 1-0. Rioting commenced in Cairo, stoked by the government, which charged that their Algerian counterparts had attacked their fans, though neutral observers thought otherwise. Ambassadors were recalled and consulted. “That’s it, this is enough. Egypt should be respected. We are Egyptian and we hold our head high, and whoever insults us should be smacked on his head,” said Alaa Mubarak the president’s son.
This link between politics and soccer is also strong in Cote D’Ivoire — Ivory Coast. When the team went out of the African Nations Cup in 2000 shortly after a military coup, the new dictator demonstrated his “leadership” by imprisoning the entire squad on an air base for two days, stripping the players of their passports, and confiscating their cell phones. To many fans (and political opponents), it wasn’t enough.
Politics has its own special angle in host South Africa. As outlined in a recent book by Chuck Koor, “More Than Just A Game,” President Jacob Zuma was once a top class defender in the Makana FA, set up as an eight-team league on Robben Island – the South African “Alcatraz,” used to house political prisoners before the fall of apartheid. One prisoner, Tony Suze, has said the league was instrumental in training the future leaders of the country. “We knew that we would not be on the island forever and that one day we would be the government,” he said. “The Makana FA gave us a chance to practice how we would run the country – how you organize things, treat people with respect, ensure justice, and reconcile differences.”
Moreover, just as the 2008 Beijing Olympics was a way for China to become better known throughout the world, this World Cup will undoubtedly do the same for an entire continent. Journalists Robert Kaplan and others have recently chronicled how Africa is slowly progressing “from anarchy to normalcy,” as the number of democracies increases and globalization brings improvements to many of its poorer nations, beginning, in Kaplan’s words, “a new cycle of history.” Nicky Oppenheimer, chairman of DeBeers, has written how the number of African nations holding democratic elections in the last 25 years has risen from three to over 40. Before the latest severe downturn, economic growth throughout the continent was averaging 5% a year.
If these social changes can somehow be reflected on the field, African teams may finally cast off the label that “they can play but they can never win.” Three long decades ago, the great Brazilian superstar, Pele, predicted that an African team would win the World Cup by the end of the 20th century. It didn’t happen, of course, and the continent’s teams have almost always underperformed – plagued by the poverty, strife, racism, political corruption, and lack of education that affects many of their societies. (The continent’s teams have done much better in youth tournaments – winning five of 12 under-17 tourneys before 2009 — but that’s because they so frequently send “overage” players that one Nigerian blogger has coined the phrase “overage syndrome,” meaning African players have two ages – their real one and their soccer one.)
The problems these teams face are manifold. “The fact that the World Cup has finally come to Africa can quite rightly be seen as a belated recognition of the wonderful talents of African footballers – Eto’o, Drogba and very many more,” wrote R.W. Johnson in the London Review of Books recently. ‘But it also means that FIFA has stepped into a region where the game has all but collapsed under the weight of corruption.” As the Economist once related in an article about African soccer: Revenues from ticket sales are often embezzled, leaving players' wages unpaid. Nigerian players at the African Nations Cup, for example, were locked out of their hotel rooms because their bills had not been met. During the 1990 World Cup in Italy, some $600,000 vanished from the Cameroonian team's coffers. And before the 1994 World Cup in the United States, the Nigerian government submitted requests for visas for several hundred "football officials", among whom were included a number of suspected drug smugglers. When the Americans refused to issue all the visas, the Nigerian media said they were conspiring to deprive their national team of support.
"I played in an International Under-19 tournament ten years ago that included teams from Nigeria and Ghana," Paul Goodfellow of the United Kingdom once wrote on a website. "Both teams reached the quarterfinals but only lost when it rained. This was due to the players only having flat trainers and not boots. They tried to swap what little they had for a pair of my boots."
Even in the last World Cup, Ivory Coast was crippled by a civil war that prevented too many “northerners” from playing on the team, and Angola represented a country whose national league didn’t have many teams from the east because an anti-government force controlled that part of the country.
Meanwhile, it’s still World Cup lore how in 1974, Mwepu Llunga of Zaire (the first team on the continent from outside northern Africa to go to the tournament) didn’t know the rules for a free kick and left the wall to kick the ball before the opponent did. Or how one Zaire player kicked a referee but a teammate was sent off because the ref couldn’t tell them apart. (Zaire also lost its three games, 3-0, 2-0, and 9-0 –the biggest debacle in the tourney’s history.) Then there’s the story of how mighty Senegal didn’t get its chance to compete for the 1990 Cup because its official federation forgot to enter by the deadline. Though an African team has never made it to the World Cup semi-finals, this year one could well do so – since teams playing on their home continent tend to do better and many Europeans and South Americans may have difficulty acclimating to the culture.
Outside of Africa, the tournament is also sure to feature its usual intriguing geographical match-ups – what someone once described as a game of “Risk” gone haywire. Algeria vs. the US? Japan vs. Cameroon? North Korea against everybody? If England gets through its group as expected, it will likely face traditional rival Australia or another former colony Ghana. Any bets on who will be sky high for the encounter? And, of course, like every Cup, the sport’s giants will be there – Brazil, Italy, Argentina, Spain, Germany, and Holland. The United States and Mexico will be in South Africa as well, eager to reverse their recent disappointing results and improve their standing.
Beyond all that, this tournament comes at a time when the world’s game is at a crossroads. Interest in the sport has never been higher but the balance of power in team competitions has shifted to Europe, specifically England and Spain, as new oligarchial owners there have poured hundreds of millions into their teams, draining players from their home leagues all over the world. The question many soccer fans have about this tournament is how this could affect their national teams. Will Brazil, the sport’s traditional power but one that now has virtually all its key players competing in Europe, suffer as a consequence? And could the trend finally boost England?
Let’s start to find out.
Reprinted from "World Cup 2010: The Indispensable Guide To Soccer and Geopolitics" © 2010 Steven D. Stark
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