I have a pretty good idea where Osama bin Laden will be on June 14 — and June 19, and again on June 23. Not his exact location, but it’s a safe bet he’ll be in front of a TV tuned in to Saudi Arabia’s World Cup soccer matches with, respectively, Tunisia, Ukraine, and Spain. Legend has it that soccer is one of bin Laden’s guilty pleasures. He’s unlikely to miss the spectacle of the men from the land of the Prophet taking on the infidels of al-Andalus. He probably has a soft spot for Tunisia too, that country being the only one on record thus far to see one of its professional soccer players attempt to join al Qaeda’s martyrs.
Nor will bin Laden be alone among America’s enemies in spending June engrossed in the quadrennial spectacle of the World Cup, staged this time in Germany. Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmedinajad has even threatened to show up if Iran progresses beyond the first round. Seeking to burnish his populist credentials at home, Ahmedinajad recently allowed himself to be photographed in sweats kicking a ball around with the Iranian team during a training session. You can bet Kim Jong-il will watch, too, even though it is South Korea that represents his nation’s hopes this year.
President Bush may give the event a miss — one can only wonder what he would make of a game in which the U.S. has a negligible chance of being world champion; for Americans with qualms about their country’s imperial role, by contrast, supporting the plucky and rather well-liked outsiders of Team USA is an opportunity for guilt-free patriotic fervor. But you can be sure that Bush allies like Tony Blair, Angela Merkel, Jacques Chirac, Junichiro Koizumi, and Silvio Berlusconi (who actually owns AC Milan, one of Italy’s top teams) will watch their countries’ every game.
No global event commands anything close to the attention paid the World Cup on all five continents. As many as 3 billion people are expected to watch some of it on TV, while 250 million more will cluster around radios to follow every play. Having caught the 1974 and 1978 tournaments by radio from a South Africa without TV coverage, I can sympathize with the TV-less Angolans, Togoans, Ghanaians, and Ivoirians of today. (I took in the live drama via the BBC on short-wave, then waited two weeks for the visuals, courtesy of the White House Hotel, a Cape Town brothel that was diversifying its revenue stream by showing imported pirate videos of the games.)
The billions who tune into the World Cup are watching a game that, at the highest level, largely negates all advantages of social class or even physical stature — the combination of speed, skill, imagination and organization required to prevail is a great leveler. But at the World Cup, soccer is far more than a game.
“What do they of cricket know who only cricket know,” wrote the legendary Trinidadian historian and socialist CLR James, insisting that the spectacle of men in white flannels on a grassy oval engaged in a five-day contest of bat and ball, with strictly observed breaks for lunch and afternoon tea, could only be properly understood in the context of the political and cultural conflicts of the British Empire. If James had lived long enough to see the national team of his beloved Trinidad qualify for the elite 32 teams that will contest the 2006 World Cup, he’d surely have made the same point about soccer (even if, like most of humanity, he’d have called it “football”).
James recognized sport as a ritualized combat, matching only war in its ability to channel national passions. Those passions are tied, for better or worse, to an almost mythic connection fans make between their team and their national narrative — when facing Germany, English fans routinely chant lines like: “Two World Wars and one World Cup” (linking their defeats of Germany on the battlefield and the soccer field).
As James saw it, playing cricket matches against England offered its former colonial subjects, at least ritually, a chance to demolish the claims of cultural superiority through which the British had for so long rationalized imperial rule. So, too, soccer: The roar heard across the Irish Diaspora when the Republic of Ireland team scores against England expresses a passion that long predates the game of soccer — the more jingoistic among the English fans respond with bloodcurdling anti-IRA songs. Millions of Africans walked a little taller that summer’s day four years ago when Senegal beat its former colonial master, France, then the reigning world champion.
James also noted the tendency of colonized peoples to develop their own idiom of play, evolving styles based on their skills and patterns of social organization that tended to confound the colonizer even while playing within his rules.
The last World Cup final pitted Brazil against Germany, teams that represent global North-South polar opposites in the way the game is played. As Muhammad Ali was celebrated not just for his unique skills in the ring but for his iconic resistance to the racial order, so the universal popularity of Brazil is based not only on its exquisitely poetic style — the “Joga Bonito” (beautiful game) — but also on its role as a proxy representative of the Global South.
The German game epitomizes the industrialized West: physical power, relentless drive, unshakable organization and a machine-like efficiency in punishing opponents’ mistakes. It’s a kind of Blitzkrieg — the modern German game, as Simon Kuper has noted, had its roots in Nazi sports culture and the militaristic virtues it lionized — that overwhelms opponents with physical power on the ground and in the air, often winning “ugly” by a single goal. The best-known German players of the past half century have been goalkeepers, field commanders in defense and midfield, as well as clinical if artless goal-poaching forwards. There has never been a PelÃ© on the German team; in Brazil, by contrast, each year brings a new crop of awesomely talented teenagers from the favelas whose audacious skill and flair inevitably anoints them as “the next PelÃ©.”
Brazil’s style is more akin to advanced guerrilla warfare in which the insurgents have the momentum and the confidence. They combine impossible skill with breathtaking audacity and guile, an ability to shoot from great distances and apply boot to ball in a manner that improbably “bends” its trajectory. The telepathy with which they are able to anticipate each other’s movements allows them to dazzle both the opposition and the crowd with the fluidity of their passing movements and their propensity for doing the unexpected. The adversary literally never knows where the next attack will come from, or what it will be. And the smiles of the Brazilians, even in crucial games, tell you that they’re enjoying themselves. On the field, you’ll rarely see a German player smile.
When Ronaldinho, currently rated the greatest player in the world, spotted the English goalkeeper David Seaman two yards off the goal line in their 2002 World Cup clash, he unleashed a 40-yard free kick that looped over Seaman’s outstretched gloves, wickedly dipping and curling into the top corner of England’s goal. So thunderstruck were the English TV commentators that they insisted the strike was a fluke, a pass that went fortuitously awry. It’s for such moments that the soccer fans of the Global South live.
Globalizing the Local Game
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.
Kicking People, not Balls
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 shit.” 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.
Branding the Game
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.
Local icons have become global brands. Mancunians might put away their Manchester United jerseys and don England’s colors during the World Cup, but most of their team’s stars will actually be playing against England in the shirts of Holland, Portugal, Argentina, Serbia, and France. For Manchester United’s management, however, having their stars represent any nation’s team is a problem. Wayne Rooney, United’s star striker, for example, is being raced back to fitness from a broken foot because England’s hopes depend on him. Should he aggravate the injury playing in the World Cup, Manchester United — which paid close to $40 million to sign Rooney — could suffer potentially huge financial losses once the league season resumes in September.
That’s why Manchester United and 17 other top clubs in Europe are agitating to be given a share of the revenues generated by the World Cup. They argue that it is their “assets” who are generating the revenue, at great risk to the clubs that hold their contracts. As the employers of most of the world’s best players, soccer’s collective corporate management has considerable leverage in challenging the sovereignty of national federations in the organization of the game.
No such problem exists for the other major corporate interest in the game, the makers of equipment and apparel. Their sponsorship of the World Cup and its teams stands to make them billions of dollars in revenues. Nike has an advantage, sponsoring Team Brazil as it does, as well as Holland, Portugal, Mexico, South Korea, and the USA among others. Adidas holds its own with Germany, France, Spain, Argentina, Japan and Trinidad (whose shirts will no doubt become a nightclub standard, and have already been adopted as the fetish of choice by Scottish fans whose own team failed to qualify). Puma sponsors mostly outsiders like Cote d’Ivoire and Iran, although Italy remains a credible contender.
Adidas could, however, be said to have the killer advantage. It supplies the tournament ball, whose appeal crosses all affiliations. Having already sold 10 million World Cup balls, and expecting another 5 million to bounce out of the stores by year’s end, they could rack up close to a billion dollars in sales simply by catering to the desire of the rest of us to kick the “same” ball the stars do.
From contemporary geopolitical and cultural conflicts (or their historic echoes) to the impact of globalization, the World Cup offers a real-time snapshot of the state of our world. This summer, when Portugal plays Angola or England meets Trinidad, colonial history won’t be forgotten among the fans of the formerly colonized. Whenever England has played Argentina in the past 24 years, the fans of both countries have been asked to relive the Falklands/Malvinas War — and I’d be surprised if World War II memories escape a mention when Australia plays Japan. Yet, the game will also be infused with contemporary political drama, should fate decree that the USA meets Iran.
Sometimes more than just a game, the World Cup nonetheless remains a contest whose outcome is never certain. Winners are still determined by an alchemy of balletics and poetics, skill and cooperation, athleticism and sheer luck. Orchestrating the movement of a ball and eleven players across the field with such rapidity would be hard enough, even without eleven other players trying to disrupt them. The power relations that prevail in the real world count for little in those 90 minutes of play — and, no matter how fierce the “combat,” at game’s end, in a time-honored World Cup ritual, players from both sides exchange shirts in a mark of respect and friendship. A snapshot, then, not only of a world in conflict, but also of the possibilities of resolution by means other than war.
Tony Karon is a senior editor at TIME.com where he analyzes the Middle East and other international conflicts. South African-born and raised, yet a lifelong fan of Liverpool, he offers comment and analysis — as well as a World Cup blog — on his own web site Rootless Cosmopolitan. He also edits Global Beat, an annotated weekly digest of international conflict coverage.
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, and of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing.]