Giving Globalization a Sporting Chance

By Henry (Chip) Carey

The European Championship in soccer has just finished its group stage, and it’s one of the most exciting tournaments in years. There are no goal-less draws for the first time, and at least two of the four groups could be called “Groups of Death” because of the high quality of all four teams in each competition. A third group was also a kind of “Group of Death,” because the Czech Republic, Poland, and Greece all could be said to hate the other group member, Russia, to death. 

There has been some ugly nationalist violence between a few hundred Polish and Russian hooligans, and some racial taunting. The Russian team will be docked points for its fans’ violence, but only in future qualifying games. A Croat fan tossed a banana at Italy’s Mario Balotelli, an African immigrant. But on the whole, these incidents in Ukraine and Poland are overshadowed by what authors like Franklin Foer, Simon Kuper, and Stefan Szymanski, among others, have observed is the triumph of global capitalism. As the world’s most popular sport continues to globalize, the pernicious effects of xenophobic nationalism are being reduced, at least in Europe. Soccer teams have become global—not national—icons, and being associated with nationalist hooliganism damages the team’s brand. Of course, in any transition, there is often nationalist backlashes, but the trend should continue integrating supranational allegiances, at least assuming the Eurozone does not crash the global economy.

The previously excluded but huge market for upscale advertising and expanding television audiences and stadiums fit, for women, children, and the middle class alike, has displaced the extreme nationalist pride that was once so common in international soccer. There is simply little profit in appealing to drunk, working class “Ultras”—especially when compared to the profitability in teaming up with the mass-appeal of global brands.

On the club level, all the big money is in European teams, as it has always been, though emerging markets in Russia, Brazil, and Turkey are attracting world class players. Club competition in Europe has become huge business in the past two decades, in large part by decreasing the always small but horrific problem of racist and violent hooliganism and by improving the quality of seating and amenities at games so that women, minorities, and the rich are welcomed in comfort. Heaps of television money followed, so that teams like Manchester United now have access to huge numbers of viewers all over the world, cheering for a city they will never visit, for players from countries they may not be able to find on a map.

Globalization has not only made international players household names in any country with a television, it has also taken the edge off the tribalism that used to cause stadiums and surrounding streets to erupt in clashes between opposing fans. Thus, the rioting by a few hundred Russian and Polish fans last week was a disturbing reminder of a subculture that still exists, particularly among the most violent “fans” of both club and country teams. These violent outbursts, however, are increasingly an anachronism.

With Russia and Poland both out of the tournament, it is unlikely that more violent, fringe-fan violence will recur in the final eight knockout matches beginning with the quarter-finals starting on Thursday. Indeed, pre-tournament fears of violence against racial minorities, drummed up on the BBC news show, Panorama, were greatly exaggerated.

Despite the global nature of European soccer, not all top-level soccer has such international appeal. The Copa América is the South American equivalent of the UEFA tournament which occasionally invites national teams from Mexico and US to compete in its quadrennial tournament. The tournament does not draw the billions of spectators that the Euros do. Yet, South America accounted for half of the eight World Cup quarter-finalists two years ago in South Africa. The normally insular Argentines and Brazilians are glued to their sets during the European Championships, but the favor is not returned by the Europeans—not the least because the EU has not opened up the television market in Europe to world football. The best place to watch is the United States, which has a more open television market. Globalization is based on biases toward power, money, and location, which remains in sports, as in politics and economics, in the North. Currently, fan violence is still a huge problem in Argentina and Brazil, the two soccer powers of South America, with seven World Cup titles to their credit. If their teams could draw more from the world market, as Brazil is beginning to do, one can anticipate larger television audiences and revenues, which would likely mitigate tribalism without compromising fan loyalty as they have in Europe.

This summer’s tournament has been so competitive because it has been kept small, four groups of four teams each. Unfortunately, in four years time, television money will structure the competition, and the number of teams will increase by eight to 24. The last World Cup in South Africa had eight divisions and twice as many teams as this year’s Euro Cup. With so many minnows and lopsided games, the World Cup is a far less interesting soccer experience—even if it rivals the Olympics for its broad cross-national and cultural encounters. Perhaps, the larger television audiences do have an upside: for the mass of viewers, more lopsided games will mean more goals scored—which is likely to appeal to the uninitiated fan, particularly in the US. Moreover, the teams from countries that did not qualify this year, such as Bosnia, Serbia, Israel, Cyprus, and Belarus will enhance the international flavor of the tournament. Finally, more television money for the national teams which qualify will give them funds and experience to broaden the quality of the global game in these countries, while integrating them a bit more politically into Western institutions.

Within reason, there is nothing wrong with cheering for one’s country and singing one’s national anthem. All countries, democracies as much as dictatorships, need national unity. Of course, it is better to unify through respecting the rule of law than by subsidizing sports teams to reduce opposition to fascist dictators.  Neofascist regimes like Franco’s Spain and Slazar’s Portugal as well as the 1978 Argentine military junta used soccer victories to legitimate their autocracies while suppressing opposition, particularly in regions supporting rival teams like Barcelona in Spain and Porto in Portugal. This year, most heads of state of the 16 participating teams have not attended games in Ukraine, the tournament’s co-host, to protest the imprisonment of former Ukranian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. However, the same leverage dilemmas are present in soccer politics that powerful states face when giving foreign aid to dictatorships: cutting the aid reduces the liberalizing influences of the games themselves.

The European Union and globalization appear to have mitigated many of Europe’s schisms, even if the cheering is louder when Germany plays the Netherlands, or Poland competes with Russia, as occurred last week. Soccer fans often root for their country with their mind on history or current events. But the international flavor of these teams continues to undermine the goals of the remaining nationalist hooligans. Germany, which now has a majority of non-ethnic Germans starting on its team, may now find it easier to expand its definition of what it means to be German as they cheer a German team with a Ghana-born right back, Jérome Boateng, and two Polish-born strikers, Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski (who just became the youngest player to play one hundred matches for his national team). This team is led by midfield playmaker,  Mezut Őzil of Turkish decent, and defensive midfielder, Sami Khedira of Tunisian descent, both of whom also play for Real Madrid. Madrid first established and refined the concept of a “Galactico” team, recruiting its players and coaches from around the world. Not surprisingly, most of Real's starters are not native Spaniards. This has not prevented fans from Madrid from loving their team, once beloved and sponsored by Franco to keep political dissent low in the capital. It has also become the richest sports franchise in the world.

 Real Madrid and Germany's multicultural model, so contrary to their former ethnocentric approaches to team and national citizenship is not the only path to success in world soccer and the world economy. Adam Smith and Ricardo both argued that specialization and comparative advantage through foreign trade produces wealth. The current defending European and World Cup champion, Spain, and its dominant, club counterpart, Barcelona, have a home-grown system reflecting ticky-tacky, endless short passes without losing possession.  That specialized approach succeeds because most of Barcelona's players are not only Spanish, but many of them Catalan. However, this advantage comes from taking years to master the technique by playing together in the Barcelona youth academy, La Masia, and Spain adopts with a majority of Barcelona players.

Even here, tika-taka, as the Spanish call it, was exported in the 1980s and 1990s from the Netherlands by Johann Cryuff, the great Dutch star of the 1970s, who brought the Dutch system of "total football" to Barcelona, first as coach and then as Director of Football and creating La Masia. Barcelona and Spain became better at Dutch football than the Dutch. The Spanish model of economic national specialization, without any hint of protectionism, has been dominant—at least until we find out what happens in the last 10 days of the Euro Cup.



Henry "Chip" Carey is Associate Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University in Atlanta. He is the author of:  Privatizing the Democratic Peace: Policy Dilemmas of NGO Peacebuilding and Reaping What You Sow: A Comparative Examination of Torture Reform in the United States, Israel, France and Argentina.

[Photo courtesy of Herbert Kratky]

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