Football: every 4 years the world becomes flatter

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Jun 24 2006, 05:30am hrs
It takes the astounding and increasing popularity of each FIFA World Cup, as measured by TV viewership, newspaper space, office chatter, worker productivity and of course the inevitable naming of bar cocktails after exotically sounding Brazilian players, to remind the world how much football has become the most universal and complete metaphor for globalisation.

The appeal and prominence of the event overwhelms anything put up at the Olympics, United Nations, Davos or even Hollywood. This time around, even the staid world of investment banks has paid its belated tribute to the most popular activity on the planet by publishing a number of mostly serious but sometimes tongue-in-cheek reports on which country will advance to what level, why and what it will mean for the national economy.

This, of course, has prompted some people to remark that economists in New York, London and Zurich perhaps have too much time on their hands. Across much of the world, sports were essentially a supplement to military training or the near-exclusive domain of the upper classes right until the First World War. This privileged position underwent a dramatic transformation during the past century, and except for golf, skiing, yachting and a few other categories which still remain largely inaccessible to most people, often due to limitations of geography or training rather than money, most competitive sports are now far more egalitarian than ever before. This is true about cricket in India, tennis in the US or football in Latin America, and the hold of traditional club elites or top-drawer universities is no longer pronounced. There is in fact a rather amazing flat world effect that can sometimes even be confounding: the leading golfer in the world, Tiger Woods, is an African-American (and the one waiting patiently on his heels to take over the crown, Vijay Singh, is a Fijian-Indian); one of the most sought after professional basketball players in the world is a Chinese; and Switzerland, a landlocked country, has actually won the coveted Americas Cup in yachting. Professional sport journalists are still scratching their heads about that last one.

The role of sports in shaping social or cultural attitudes has also changed immeasurably. Sport contests can and do on occasion revive, even inflame, bitter historical grudges, and there is no better testimony to that than cricket matches between India and Pakistan. Honduras and Salvador actually fought a brief but bitter border war in 1969 that was triggered by their clash during a qualification game for the football World Cup. But despite these instances, most historians and sociologists view sports in general, and football in particular, as a safe and symbolic substitute for militant nationalism.

These encounters allow the safe channeling of intense loyalty or rivalry, emotions that are normally confined within the stadium. Pascal Boniface, director of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS) in Paris and the author of a recent book Football and Globalisation, put it pithily: football, according to him, really provides for the controlled expression of animosity. In fact, football has become such a strong cultural force that it is often useful as a barometer of, if not a subtle catalyst for, the progress of a region towards normalcy.

The 2002 World Cup actually helped thaw relations between the two Koreas, and the successful qualification for this years World Cup by Ivory Coast facilitated an armistice between warring factions in a country otherwise torn by civil strife.

The geopolitical spin-offs from football have now been so successfully mainstreamed into the thinking of the global strategic community that Al Gore, when he was the US vice-president, actually proposed the idea o hosting a match between the Israelis and Palestinians as a means of getting the peace process moving again.

Two years ago, the UN Secretary-General appointed an advisor on Sport for Development and Peace who reports directly to him and whose main task appears to be the promotion of street football in the troubled hotspots of the world.

New rules allow almost complete labour mobility across national boundaries, so much so that many famous European clubs, like Londons Arsenal, are composed almost entirely of foreigners.

But the most enduring impact of football is neither geopolitical nor economic but cultural. The successful spread of the game in the 20 th century, to virtually everywhere except North America, and the subsequent creation by Latin American nations of their own unique style and ownership of the game reflects how culture is a two-way street and open to reinvention by outsiders in rather unpredictable ways.

It is indeed reassuring that for once the spotlight on a country does not mirror its economic or military prowess. And of course, to many the most charming thought of all is the fact that the most unique instance of globalisation does not carry an American imprimatur.

The author is editor , India Focus