Globalization and the Beautiful Game
"Football, that classic generator of cliches, has lately spawned another: that the beautiful game is one of the world's most globalised industries."
So says The London Independent, sounding a theme common among global commentators who see the World Cup tournament as a benign harbinger of globalization.
Don't say, "It's just a game," declared Germany's Spiegel Online as the World Cup football (or soccer) tournament got underway earlier this month.
"Every World Cup is a celebration of a happier globalization than the one we all know. The nations of the world come together for a contest between peers, with no single party calling the shots. Football can be our role model for a just world order."
"The world is constantly being shaken down in new and different ways, and the World Cup shows it," says The Age in Melbourne, Australia. "Ibrahimovic plays for Sweden, Dhorasoo for France, Santos for Japan, Boulahrouaz for the Netherlands, Klose and Podolski and Borowski for the rampant Germans, and Freds for just about everyone."
A quarter of the German team has foreign roots, says Deutsche Welle, redefining "what it means to be German."
Even U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has joined the game, saying the United Nations has "football envy" because soccer "is one of the few phenomena as universal as the UN. You could say it's more universal."
"The World Cup illustrates the benefits of cross-pollination between peoples and countries," Annan writes. "More and more national teams now welcome coaches from other countries, who bring new ways of thinking and playing. The same goes for the players who represent clubs away from home. They inject fresh qualities into their new team and are able to contribute more to their home side when they return. In the process, they often become heroes in their adopted countries - helping to open hearts and minds."
But Pepe Escobar writes in the Asia Times that the soccer ball itself illuminates other realities of football globalization. Most balls are stitched by young boys Sialkot in northeastern Pakistan in workshops owned by subcontractors for Nike and Adidas.
"The average salaries in Sialkot are about $1,000 a year, about twice the Pakistani average. Thus the poor Pakistani kid's work enables the rich Chelsea fan in London to buy an 'affordable' ball (for about $130) and enables Nike or Adidas to deploy massive global campaigns featuring Ronaldinho, Thierry Henry, Michael Ballack and a millionaire cast of footballers-as-pop-superstars."
Rationalizing the Game
If globalization can reshape the world's economies, it can certainly do the same for football. The Independent piece cited above says that globalization arguably threatens as well as enhances "the beautiful game."
Stefan Szymanski, a professor at Imperial College in London, and a midfielder himself, told the newspaper: "There is a big contrast between the dynamism of the football labour market, where clubs have a big incentive to search globally for players, and the product market, which still remains largely balkanised by country."
The Independent notes that "All 23 squad members of Cote d'Ivoire, the impoverished west African state competing in its first World Cup, play for foreign club teams, mostly in the wealthy national leagues of Europe. Even Brazil, the world's greatest footballing nation, has only three of its squad who play for domestic clubs."
This global market for skilled players "may reduce inequality between national teams, making the World Cup a more even competition," the London daily says.
But wealth disparity creates tension, even in sports. The big European football clubs are proposing to expand elite play and cut back on international competition, a step that would further football globalization.
Some in the soccer world are worried: This week the European football association called the idea "a direct assault on national teams." As the Independent put it, "Cote d'Ivoire fans delighted at their national team's progress may be less happy if their domestic leagues are stripped of talent to achieve it."
In short, economic rationality ignores borders to draw the best players to the richest leagues and teams, conflicting with the irrational (but human) impulse to cheer for the home team.
In the unfinished globalization of football, says the Independent, lies a big unanswered question: Will football continue to be "an expression of local and national identity" or become "just another soulless consumer product?"
-- Jefferson Morley
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