June 6, 2010


Soccer Conquers the World (Toby Miller, 5/30/10, The Chronicle Review)

One in every two people in the world is expected to watch the cup on television. Nike, McDonald's, and Coca-Cola—American brands all—see it as a much bigger deal than the Beijing Olympics, two years ago. Major sponsors are paying as much as $40-million for the privilege of associating with the event. Coke's biggest promotion ever includes a deal with YouTube whereby viewers from around the world will post their goal celebrations. Anheuser-Busch and Visa, too, are heavily involved: The Visa Match Planner is a cellphone application that provides scores, retail information, and opportunities to chat about the tournament.

It was not always so, among American advertisers, sports fans—or, until the 1990s, scholars. But soccer—make that football—has become big business in a globalized world. In the last World Cup, in 2006, Anheuser-Busch was famously ambushed, to use marketers' argot, by smarter foreign opposition. It had exclusive beer-promotion rights to the event, but a Dutch brewer circumvented that by giving thousands of branded lederhosen to Dutch fans in team colors. The intellectual-property regime has developed since then; World Cup lawyers now have obtained an injunction preventing Kulula, a South African airline, from advertising itself as "Unofficial National Carrier of the You-Know-What."

MTV, which does not have the right to carry the games, will run spots around the world during the cup with the tag line: "We understand why you aren't watching MTV." ESPN Deportes, Disney's U.S. Spanish-language channel, doesn't have the rights, either, but it's dispatching 25 reporters to South Africa and is running a promotion called "90 minutos no son suficientes" (90 minutes aren't enough), troping the duration of matches to indicate the importance of background and synoptic material as well as play-by-play coverage. [...]

After the Communist-bloc revolutions overturned the state-socialist sports systems, the system of cultural labor destroyed the club and national teams that had been built up over decades. Within two years, Torpedo Moscow, for example, had sold 23 players to Western clubs; top talent was desperate to leave in search of higher pay and better quality of life. Home sides were left with cash balances to pay inflated wages to second-raters.

That gives us a clue to part of the reason for soccer's globalism: It is a major site of international mobility, via what could be called a New International Division of Cultural Labor, a concept that I have been using with collaborative research teams for 20 years to analyze both sports and the media. Players move because of several factors beyond talent and money. There is a clear link between imperial history and job destination in the case of Latin Americans going to Spain, Portugal, and Italy, or Africans playing in France, while cultural ties draw Scandinavians to Britain. A small labor aristocracy experiences genuine class mobility in financial terms, underpinned by a large reserve army of players. A Professional Football Players' Observatory tracks players' success and value and comes complete with an interactive online instrument to illustrate migration (eurofootplayers.org).

In the wealthy West, an even more significant soccer revolution was brewing after 1989, as the Belgian midfielder Jean-Marc Bosman appealed to the European Court of Justice against his suspension by the Union Royale Belge des Sociétés de Football Association for seeking an overseas transfer. The right to freedom of movement for European Union workers led the court to rule in Bosman's favor in 1995. That decision, opposing restriction on movement and upholding freedom of labor within the European Union, has prevented the imposition of quotas on foreign players. Immigration authorities' power to decide whether players from outside the EU have sufficiently rare and demonstrable skills to merit a work permit has become the only formal barrier to labor-market entry. Even those rules can be circumvented through the accelerated awarding of dual citizenship and the use of European nurseries to assimilate young players before their formal entry into the football labor market.

The essence of the decision was that soccer is a business like any other. The Belgian association had argued that perfect competition is impossible and undesirable in sport, since the very viability of soccer rests on a continuing number of equivalently strong clubs. The Court of Justice disagreed. That does not mean it rejected the notion that soccer has noneconomic, cultural aspects tied to regional and national identity—the latter was noted in the decision. It does mean that the court was suspicious of the association's claim without supporting evidence that culture is not a cloak for economic gain via anticompetitive conduct.

Facing the threat of fines from the European Commission, FIFA in 1996 discontinued rules restricting the number of foreigners who could play. Within a few months, cross-European player mobility increased sharply, and a talent gap between wealthy teams and also-rans widened. Top performers were able to command unheard-of salaries, increasing wage disparities, and top clubs dispensed with their youth-development policies. Widespread anxiety was expressed that clubs would buy teams rather than develop them. The EU seemed to stick to its view that soccer is a commodity like any other: Rules of competition applied to the sport, and its players were workers like any other, with the right to work for whom they pleased. Even as elite players celebrated their freedom, though, many also felt that they lacked a sufficiently powerful union to counter the organizational power of employers and administrators.

The globalization of soccer labor markets has also generated new forms of identity—one effect of which is to question the meaning and efficacy of nationalism.

It will be interesting to see if capitalism saves the game from itself. Consider that hoodlums have basically been priced out of modern stadiums, that the free flow of immigrants and removal of nationalist quotas means a fan's favorite player isn't particularly likely to share his own ethnicity, and that the massive importation of Latin Americans, Eastern Europeans, Africans and the like by the United States is bringing America into the center of the game from its far periphery, which will revolutionize the sport. Basically, Americans are being attracted to soccer because soccer has been Americanized, a process which will only accelerate going forward.

The Ideas guide to the World Cup: It’s not really about the soccer (Adam Grundey, June 6, 2010, Boston Globe)

[I]t’s still possible to appreciate what the rest of the world sees in the World Cup. Not by suddenly becoming a soccer fan — if you don’t have a taste for 0-0 ties, you may never really enjoy the game. We’re talking about the rest of the story: Once every four years, the World Cup gives the world a venue for settling old grudges, creating new ones, making grown men cry (fans and players alike), and generally exposing the mutual disdain and bad behavior that underlie our shared human experience. Plus, the fans dance afterward. What’s not to love?

Herewith, a guide to enjoying the World Cup without caring one bit about soccer.

Pick your antihero

Some of the sport’s biggest names are also some of the most odious individuals on the planet. Take Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo — blessed with lightning speed, tricky feet, and a venomous shot, he still prefers to spend much of his time trying to draw penalties by executing graceful swallow dives whenever anyone dares to attempt to take the ball off him. In between times, he can be seen strutting around the field, pouting furiously if his teammates fail to pass him the ball for more than a minute.

World Cup favourites Spain have finally added belief to brilliance: Euro 2008 transformed Spain from chronic underachievers to football's most formidable force (Sid Lowe, 6/06/10, guardian.co.uk)
From dark horse to fiery steed, Spain were changed for ever by Euro 2008. Thanks to Fernando Torres's goal against Germany and Cesc Fàbregas's penalty against Italy, la selección finally won a major tournament – and a new identity. A new mentality. This Time, England's 1982 song, could have been written for them. Declaring themselves favourites is nothing new but this time, more than any other time, Spaniards actually believe it. "If we'd said four years ago that Spain would win the European Championships and go into the World Cup with a real chance of winning it, you'd have said we were mad," Torres admits. "But not now." [...]

This generation of players is, quite simply, better than those before. Raúl is often declared the finest Spanish footballer ever, certainly their best goalscorer. Yet David Villa is now only seven behind him. Having played 46 games fewer. If Torres is fit, Fàbregas doesn't get in the side and few complain. Mikel Arteta never gets in the squad and no one has even noticed. As Thierry Henry puts it: "They have Villa and Torres; they have Xabi Alonso and Cesc, Iniesta and Xavi, and Silva. It's incredible."

Euro 2008 underlined the depth of talent and also enhanced it, changing perceptions, strengthening the selección. Without it, attitudes coming into South Africa would surely be very different. The chances too.

No one here will forget Torres putting the ball beyond Jens Lehmann. That goal on 29 June 2008 ended a 44-year wait. Spain, along with England, were the ultimate underachievers. Now England stand alone, contemplating a four-decade drought. But, says Torres, the moment Spain won Euro 2008 – the moment that not only changed their history but their future too – happened a week earlier, when Fàbregas's penalty beat Gianluigi Buffon in a shoot-out. That was the turning point.

World Cup 2010: The Young Guns (BILLY WITZ, 6/05/10, NY Times)
Group A: Javier Hernández

Mexico, 22, forward

Eighteen months ago, Hernández was struggling to get on the field for Chivas de Guadalajara, questioning whether he should give up on his career. Now, after taking the Mexican league by storm, Hernández, 22, has joined the vanguard of promising young Mexicans who have many thinking the country could advance to the quarterfinals for the first time since 1986. Known as Chicharito, or Little Pea, Hernández has the type of game — athletic, strong in the air and decisive in front of the goal — that translates well on the international stage. At least that is the feeling of Manchester United Manager Alex Ferguson, who recently scooped up Hernández for next season.

Landon Donovan will be the main threat England must counter (Henry Winter, 6/06/10, Daily Telegraph)
For all Clint Dempsey's bright forays down the left and Edson Buddle's eye for goal, the Americans' real danger emanates from the quick feet and clever mind of Donovan.

The number of Everton shirts in the lively Ruimsig Stadium crowd were not solely present to pay homage to the Tims, Howard and Cahill. Donovan's 10-week midseason spell at Goodison Park had given the English first-hand experience of his calibre.

Two goals in 13 appearances told only half the story. Donovan gave Everton impetus at a critical stage of the year, his ability to settle so swiftly reflecting his footballing intelligence and team-mindedness.

He was named Everton's player of the month for January and genuine dismay swept Gwladys Street when Donovan's Major League Soccer loan period expired. Goodison had taken the hard-working American to its heart. [...]

Two goals in 13 appearances told only half the story. Donovan gave Everton impetus at a critical stage of the year, his ability to settle so swiftly reflecting his footballing intelligence and team-mindedness.

He was named Everton's player of the month for January and genuine dismay swept Gwladys Street when Donovan's Major League Soccer loan period expired. Goodison had taken the hard-working American to its heart.

World Cup a chance to enjoy soccer's subtleties (Bill Lyon, 6/06/10, Philly.com)
The World Cup has no equal in stirring passions and inflaming patriotic fervor.

So then, once every four years the Earth takes a timeout and spends a summer month held in thrall by the World Cup. That time has come 'round again, beginning Friday and running to July 11, and it is worth an emotional investment. It is an event to overshadow any Super Bowl, any World Series, even, perhaps, any Olympics.

The host for this one is South Africa. (Former President Bill Clinton is leading the U.S. bid to host the 2018 World Cup, or 2022.)

The land of Cape Town and Johannesburg, a land savaged by an AIDS epidemic and plagued by poverty, crime, and raging racial tensions, has mortgaged its future on this World Cup and what it might mean to a land so ravaged.

It has spent a reported $1.3 billion on 10 soccer stadiums, half of them new. The populace, at every turn, is urged to be on their better-than-best behavior. But there are sobering, foreboding forecasts at every turn - reports of prostitutes flying in from all over the continent and a U.S. State Department travel alert regarding heightened terrorist activity.

As for the United States, it is still not a power in the global game, and the consensus reckoning is that this team is not the best in the World Cup field of 32, nor is it the worst. The Americans open play Saturday against England.

There is some worry about the defense, but no doubt at all about the last line of that defense, the keeper, Tim Howard, who at 6-feet-3 is built along the lines of a tight end and was a star basketball player in high school in New Jersey.

His is an inspirational story, the stuff from which to weave dreams - he has Tourette syndrome, which induces involuntary jerks and rapid blinking, but despite this he has made himself into a stalwart goalie, good enough to play overseas in the Premier League.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 6, 2010 7:53 AM
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