Tuesday, June 11, 2002

Passion Play - Soccer and the new world order

In June 1982, as Israeli forces invaded Lebanon, students at the American University of Beirut sat around a dormitory television watching a World Cup soccer match. At halftime they switched to the news to see how far the Israelis had advanced. When the game resumed, however, the channel was flipped back. A spectator, annoyed that his newscast had been even momentarily interrupted, pulled out a gun and fired into the set.

He would have been better off saving his bullet. The next day a new TV set appeared and Lebanon's ambient Armageddon was again relegated to secondary status. For weeks the bombardment of the Lebanese capital scarcely perturbed a public awaiting the outcome of a war that mattered more to them, one hosted that year in Spain, and waged several times daily between 22 players running after a ball for roughly 90 minutes.

Strange behavior has long been the norm among World Cup aficionados. Yet in the past decade soccer's appeal has multiplied immeasurably. FIFA, the international body governing the sport, estimated the combined audience for the 1998 tournament in France at 34 billion. The figure will surely rise during the World Cup contest presently being held in Japan and South Korea (the tournament is held, like the Olympics, every four years). Were a sport to represent globalization at its most essential, it would be soccer.

More meaningfully, soccer personifies the benefits of globalization, as well as its worst flaws. It is a blend of multinational administrative corruption, salutary free-market capitalism, and old-fashioned chauvinism.

If international sporting bodies could be banana republics, the model would be FIFA. On the eve of the World Cup, the organization's president, Joseph Blatter, was re-elected to a four-year term, despite accusations of corruption and mismanagement from within his own executive committee. Michel Zen-Ruffinen, his general-secretary and former protégé, prepared a long paper documenting Blatter's misdeeds.

Nothing came of it. Blatter won another mandate principally because he knew where to distribute FIFA patronage. He split the organization's African bloc, thus outmaneuvering his only rival, Issa Hayatou, who heads Africa's soccer confederation. When all was over, the previously squabbling delegates held hands and sang. Blatter, with Soviet-like panache, then purged Zen-Ruffinen and forced his other detractors to backtrack.

Ironically, Blatter merely exploited new power alignments in international soccer. All national federations in FIFA have one vote, regardless of their size, so that Blatter's favors to smaller Third World countries helped ease his victory. For all his many faults, the president truly maneuvered on a world stage, which is precisely what critics had argued the sport previously failed to do when it privileged soccer powerhouses in Europe and Latin America.

But Blatter's abuse of soccer's globalization will eventually consume him. The reason is the market. For over two decades a Brazilian rogue, Joao Havelange, ran FIFA. The stakes in the sport were smaller, so Havelange was able to administer the body like a farm, without transparency. As soccer became a massive commercial venture, FIFA could no longer evade the spotlight or prevent member states from demanding a larger cut of the sport's profits. Blatter's errors are today in full view. Unless he reforms FIFA, in particular its finances that he so liberally employed to garner support, Blatter will be ousted like any failed CEO.

Far away from FIFA's byzantine politics is love of the sport and soccer's knack for spawning intangible passions. As The Economist noted recently: "Football is not just a sport or a business. At the top level it is also closely intertwined with politics and national pride." While the rhetoric of globalization has focused on transnational harmony, international soccer has continued insolently to assert -- and prosper from -- national differences.

Though the worst manifestation of this trend is fan hooliganism, soccer is mostly a healthy bastion of the nation-state. It serves a valuable role as national unifier or, less obviously, amicable divider. Within the United Kingdom, for example, there are separate English, Welsh, Scottish, and Northern Irish federations, and FIFA's desire to merge the four will surely backfire. More fundamentally, soccer, the most ecumenical of sports, is a reminder of how hollow the language of global integration can sound in -- or on -- certain fields.

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