June 17, 2006


-ESSAY: How to Watch the World Cup: Politics and War by Other Means (Tony Karon, 6/09/06, Common Dreams)

National idioms of play may, however, be on the wane, as Europe's professional club leagues -- housing almost all of the world's leading players -- create nearly year-round the sort of spectacle for a global-satellite TV audience once restricted to the World Cup. In many developing countries today (including Brazil), ever fewer people attend domestic league games, reserving their soccer time religiously for TV broadcasts of the top European leagues where they're more likely to see the best players from their own countries.

Today, a match in London between Arsenal and Manchester United involves players from Latin America, much of West Africa, the Arab world, northern, southern, and eastern Europe, and Asia. The global TV audience it attracts is good news for the marketers of players' jerseys and other soccer paraphernalia, even if it's a tad bizarre for a British army squaddie patrolling Basra in southern Iraq to encounter a Mehdi Army militiaman sporting the shirt of Arsenal, the soldier's "local" London team – a jersey that he and his mates might wear on a night out back home to signify a kind of tribal identity. But there's nothing "local" about Arsenal anymore: When it played Real Madrid earlier this year in the Champion's League, there were only two Englishmen on the field, both playing for the Spanish side.

With this rapid globalization of the "local" game comes a homogenization of styles: England, today, has one or two players who like to run at the defense with the ball at their feet and can bend a shot from 40 yards; Brazil now plays with one or two "holding" midfielders, that traditional European demolition man whose job is simply to break up opposition attacks and win the ball for his more creative teammates.

By some estimates, there are now more than 4,000 Brazilians playing professional soccer abroad, which is why Brazil's starting lineup in Germany will consist entirely of European-based players. (Indeed, Brazil could probably field two teams for the tournament, each of which would feature many of Europe's leading club players.) Germany's squad, by contrast, is almost entirely home grown, although even in the German league, many of the leading lights are Brazilian imports.

This fusing of different styles has been accelerated by the migration of coaches as well as players. Last season, the coaches of the top five clubs in England's Premier League were Portuguese, Scottish, Spanish, French, and Dutch. Three Dutch coaches are bringing non-Dutch teams to the World Cup; most African teams are coached by Frenchmen and Germans, the English team by a Swede, and Portugal by a Brazilian.

Despite the urge of fans to invoke national mythologies from a distant past, many European national teams now reflect the continent's increasingly cosmopolitan makeup. Thanks to postwar economic migrations into Europe from former colonies, many of the best players available to a European national team are second- and even third-generation immigrants. France fields a team in which all but one, sometimes two, players are of African or Arab origin. The racist politician Jean Marie Le Pen actually complained in 1998 that the World Cup winners were "not a real French team." Some English fans are more accepting of their cosmopolitan fate, as reflected in one of their chants that extols Britain's new national cuisine: "And we all love vindaloo..."

The world soccer authority FIFA allows players to play for the country of their citizenship or the one of their origins. This creates oddities: Dakar-born Patrick Vieira marshals France's midfield, while Paris-born Khalilou Fadiga stars for Senegal. In addition, the ability of emerging players to make professional migrations seeking fame and fortune sometimes tempts soccer federations to recruit for the national team by fast-tracking the citizenship of promising players. In recent weeks, a Dutch effort to expedite the citizenship process for Ivoirian striker Salomon Kalou fell afoul of that country's new chill on immigration.

If it had succeeded, Kalou would have been in the bizarre position of playing against an Ivory Coast team that happens to include his brother, Bonaventure. Meanwhile, the luckiest Brazilian going to Germany is surely Francileudo Dos Santos, a France-based striker who wouldn't even come in tenth among contenders for his position on the Brazilian team; but fast-tracked into instant citizenship by Tunisia, he is now that country's leading goal-scorer. (Hopefully he will have learned to avoid offending the fans of his adopted country, as he did two years ago by draping himself in the Brazilian flag to celebrate victory.)

Although many of the stars of almost every domestic league from Russia westward are from the African Diaspora (which includes Brazil), an astonishing level of racism persists among fans and even coaches at the highest levels of the game. Ukraine coach Oleg Blokhin, for example, bemoaned the globalization of his domestic league thus: "The more Ukrainians there are playing in the national league, the more examples there are for the young generation. Let them learn from [our players] and not some zumba-bumba whom they took off a tree, gave two bananas and now he plays in the Ukrainian league.''

Then there was the Spanish team's coach, Luis Aragones, caught on TV telling striker Jose Antonio Reyes that he was better than his French Arsenal teammate Thierry Henry. Except Aragones didn't say Henry's name, he said, "that black s**t." A few days later, he insisted that there was nothing racist about the remark: "Reyes is ethnically a gypsy," said Aragones. "I have got a lot of gypsy and black friends. All I did was to motivate the gypsy by telling him he was better than the black."

In many European stadiums, today, black players are targeted for racial abuse in the form of ape noises and bananas thrown from the stands. In fact, the World Cup offers a range of opportunities for the racist xenophobes in the ranks of many countries' "ultra" football fans -- those who go to games not only to support their side in a ritual of combat, but to seek actual combat against the ultras of the other side. For years, England's games were a rallying and brawling point for the racist far right. They nonetheless looked positively tame when compared with the Serbian ultras originally grouped around the fan club of Red Star Belgrade. Under their leader Arkan, they became the core of the notorious "Tiger" militia accused by the Hague War Crimes Tribunal of some of the most brutal "ethnic cleansing" violence in Bosnia from 1991 to 1993.

As Europe confronts the challenge of integrating millions of immigrants on whose labor the survival of their welfare economies depend, soccer matches increasingly become the avenue for a political ritual of a different type -- channeling rampant racism. Not without reason do German authorities fear that the country's resurgent neo-Nazis will use the World Cup as an opportunity to announce their presence to a watching world. If they do, they will have plenty of allies in the "ultras" of Serbia, Poland, Italy and even England.

Although the "national narrative" that binds fans to their teams is open to progressive or reactionary appropriation, it's not the game's driving force any more. Soccer, today, is a multibillion-dollar global industry whose power centers are transnational corporations -- the moneyed clubs of Europe whose financial well-being depends on the ability of their "brand" to sell merchandise from Baghdad to Beijing. Manchester United may be based in a city whose prosperity has declined with that of the British textile industry, but most of the young men sporting its jersey from Gaza to Guangdong would undoubtedly struggle to locate the home of "their" team on a map. And it's a safe bet that the Ecuadorian busboy and the Bangkok cab driver wearing the blue and red jersey of Barcelona are blissfully unaware of "their" team's centrality to Catalan nationalism.

Franklin Foer's book, How Soccer Explains the World, which ostensibly argues that Americans should follow soccer, instead demonstrates that it is thoroughly un-American.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 17, 2006 5:39 PM

If oj took a rorschach test everything would look like a soccer ball to him.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at June 17, 2006 6:00 PM

Every evil.

Posted by: oj at June 17, 2006 6:03 PM

The increasing cosmopolitanism on the continent of Europe Mr. Karon speaks of was actually the norm in Europe before 1848. It's the nationalistic attitudes that are the true exception (at least recently).

Posted by: Bartman at June 17, 2006 6:04 PM

The headline rocks, alternatively speaking.

Posted by: ghostcat at June 17, 2006 6:06 PM

U.S.A.,Italy 1-1--and the fools think it's not interesting or exciting because it was a low-scoring tie.

Posted by: Lou Gots at June 17, 2006 7:34 PM

Wasn't it actually 2-0?

Posted by: oj at June 17, 2006 7:38 PM

Sounds like it was interesting only because the ref became part of the game. Not something I'd brag about.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at June 17, 2006 8:28 PM

""Reyes is ethnically a gypsy," said Aragones. "I have got a lot of gypsy and black friends. All I did was to motivate the gypsy by telling him he was better than the black."

I dare this clown to make this statement on US soil. I double-dog dare him:)

Posted by: Brad S at June 17, 2006 10:36 PM

Terrific book.

Posted by: Peter B at June 18, 2006 8:50 AM

Lou G: 1-1 tie yet Italy scores both goals. What sort of sport allows that to happen?

Posted by: pchuck at June 18, 2006 11:07 AM

The Germans haven't really changed much, have they.

Germany's squad, by contrast, is almost entirely home grown

Posted by: Bruno at June 19, 2006 12:51 AM