For most of those interested in it, the World Cup exists on two levels. First, there is the intense partisan connection that all supporters feel for their own national team -- some of the deepest and occasionally darkest feelings known to man. Then there is the wider interest in the game -- a more generous and objective love of the skills and stories generated by the competition, such as Germany’s remarkable ability to destroy teams on the break, Diego Forlan’s incredible shooting accuracy, Maradona’s touchy- feely management style, and, of course, Paul the Octopus.
Typically the earlier stages of World Cups are experienced mainly on the first level, while in the latter stages -- after most of the teams have been knocked out -- supporters tend to broaden their appreciation and enjoy the game in a more general sense.
In my case, as the supporter of a country (Scotland) that failed even to qualify for the World Cup finals, my interest has been on the second level, except for a passing interest in seeing my country’s traditional rival (England) knocked out -- an aspiration that has thankfully come to pass.
This division of appreciation onto two levels falls in quite well with the main dichotomy identified in Gaming the World, a study of the globalization of sport by Andrei S. Markovits and Lars Rensmann. This dichotomy makes a sharp distinction between the cosmopolitan and tribal/nationalistic aspects of the game, two poles, which the two U.S.-based academics treat with a surprising lack of emotional detachment. In what often appear stark dualistic terms, Markovits and Rensmann treat cosmopolitanism as the unquestioned good; tribalism/nationalism as its evil opposite.
Looked at in these terms, the early stages of the World Cup, characterized by the extreme devotion and bias of fans, is the “dark side” of the game, although it is these very emotions that actually power the entire sporting eco-system.
Markovits and Rensmann’s focus however is not really on the World Cup and the way it is run by FIFA, one of the biggest, richest, and -- according to Andrew Jennings’s book Foul -- one of the most corrupt NPOs on the planet. Rather Gaming the World focuses on the day-to-day incarnation of sport at the club level.
While earlier chapters look at the way sports have spread and the way that successful foreign players have broken down (a) racial barriers and (b) sporting barriers (the success of the German NBA star Dirk Nowitzi helped the sport gain popularity in Germany), Chapter 5 “A Counter-Cosmopolitan Backlash?” details the apparent connections between European soccer clubs and a wide variety of groups and movements that Markovits and Rensmann wish to portray as “neo-Nazi.”
While there is inevitably some synergy between various far-right groups and European soccer, Markovits and Rensmann seem to overstate this, not realizing that much of the apparently racist rhetoric of soccer is merely the attempt to be as abusive as possible to opponents of the home team. While there are plenty of cases of bananas being thrown on to the pitch to taunt Black players from visiting teams, the same fans will celebrate and respect their own black players.
Even more abusive, non-racist taunting takes place in soccer on a regular basis, with Markovits and Rensmann supplying the examples:
And just think how supporters of teams opposing Manchester United regularly raise their arms to impersonate an airplane’s crashing thus invoking joyously the tragedy of February 6, 1958 that decimated that talented team known as the ‘Busby Babes’; or how fans opposing Liverpool raise their hands in front of their faces thereby imitating a cage-like contraption that killed nearly one hundred, mostly Liverpool supporters, in the tragedy of Hillsborough in 1989. And the frequent extolling of the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11 by many a team’s fans opposing the United States men’s national team also constitutes a commonly deployed measure of creating insecurity, anger, distraction – all designed to weaken the opponent and strengthen one’s own team.
Also, Markovits and Rensmann seem to have very little notion of how the most successful anti-cosmopolitan parties in Europe operate. In the UK, for example the BNP, has started to enjoy success mainly because it avoids the hooligan image of its predecessors. The Austrian Freedom Party, France’s Front National and Holland’s PVV are popular because they too avoid the macho posturing associated with skinhead fan groups.
The reason that so much of Chapter 5 is spent detailing soccer’s minor connections with far-right neo-fascist and “ultra” groupings seems to be essentially to demonize any opposition to cosmopolitanism in the game, something that is essentially unfair as the opposition against the globalization of soccer has a much broader base that a few skinheads with swastika tattoos.
More typical of anti-globalization tendencies are grassroots movements like Manchester United Green and Gold. The group is supported by the fanzine Red Issue and the Manchester United Supporters Trust, and campaigns against the current debt-fuelled, globalized ownership of the Glazer family by wearing the club’s former green-and-gold colors.
For Markovits and Rensmann, however, it seems that there are only two positions -- whole-hearted acceptance of cosmopolitanism and the consequent “ethnic cleansing” of local teams by highly-paid foreign imports and a brutal, narrow-minded tribalism associated with Nazism.
Something like the Hitler spoof videos currently enjoying great popularity on YouTube would probably confuse them. In these videos, humorous subtitles are appended to clips from the 2004 German film Downfall, creating the impression that Hitler is still alive in his bunker under Berlin, and is reacting to the news from the world cup.
In one clip Hitler reacts to Germany’s semi-final defeat to Spain using a mixture of megalomania and soccer-speak:
I really thought Germany would beat Spain. But no, they lose to Spain by only one bloody goal. I was so close to winning for a change…After Germany had beaten England and Argentina so easily I was sure Spain would be beaten too. If only Spain had been defeated then only those Dutch fools would have stood between me and victory.
Clearly an interest in the characters, rhetoric and iconography of Nazism does not always denote an ideological identification with that movement.
One of the interesting ideas that the book offers is the connection between the feminization of sport, and society in general, and soccer’s status as a bastion of male culture. This insight, although not fully developed, undercuts their point about the supposed fascistic nature of much European soccer, as it implies that the occasional co-opting of Nazi imagery by certain fan groups is merely uneducated macho posturing in the same way that heavy metal bands pretend to drink blood from human skulls, clearly with no ideological intent.
While the encroaching feminization of the sport may drive a macho reaction, Markovits and Rensmann also see this as an ultimate good and something to be promoted, apparently unaware, yet again, how this will eat away at the grassroots, male, working-class passions that drive the game. Indeed, rather than feminization of the game, it might be more appropriate to talk about the bourgeoisification of soccer.
Since the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, soccer in the UK has seen the replacement of the terraces, spaces where supporters could stand for a relatively modest admission price, by all-seated arenas with much higher ticket prices, as well as corporate hospitality boxes, making the game a much more middle-class sport. An average working class fan now finds it a bit of a stretch to follow his team on a weekly basis.
Gaming the World, as its title suggests is ambitious in that it tries to weave the relatively disparate sports culture of North America into the picture. For “cosmopolitanarians” like Markovits and Rensmann, American sports seem to represent some kind of Holy Grail:
Racist songs, slogans, and banners, let alone Nazi salutes -- that are still commonplace in Europe’s football stadiums -- are unthinkable in contemporary American sports. It is not only because the authorities would not allow such behavior and punish it promptly and severely, but much more important, because the fans would never countenance it.
But this is not so much an effect of a difference in American attitudes -- the vast majority of Americans, as revealed by their schooling, residential, and socializing choices, remain as racially aware and self-segregating as ever -- rather the difference in overt behavior is the result of the dominance of racial minorities, especially African-Americans, in American sports, as Markovits and Rensmann make clear:
When there were few black players on the sports field and in the stands, racist language and behavior flourished. The same pertains to Latinos, when only a few plied their trade in the baseball’s major leagues in the 1950s and 1960s. But with the proliferation of both among the top ranks of top-level players --to the point where African Americans comprise nearly 80 percent of all NBA players and close to 70 percent of the NFL’s; and when Latinos exceed 30 percent of major league baseball players -- racism by necessity fades into the background.
The key then for Markovits and Rensmann is to see the proportion of players who have an ethnic affinity with the majority of the fans reduced to a minority. Key American sports, like basketball, American football, and baseball to some degree, have achieved this, but more interesting is the case of soccer, which remains a European-American dominated sport in the U.S.
The main American sports -- American football, basketball, baseball, and ice hockey -- tend to be ones in which short bursts of energy are punctuated by breathers. This is ideal for television sponsorship, providing lots of commercial breaks. Soccer doesn’t fit neatly into this pattern. If a commercial were shown during either of the 45-minute periods, a vital goal might be missed. (This would obviously be less of a problem in U.S. sports which are typically high scoring.)
Soccer thus runs against the grain of an American sports culture that is dominated by sponsorship. Also the sport is resistant to another theme of American sport -- the promotion of ethnic, especially Black participation. The U.S. World Cup squad of 23 players is about one-third Black and only one-ninth Hispanic, a remarkably low proportion given the game’s vast popularity among Latinos. In the U.S., soccer it seems is even Whiter than baseball.
Partly this is because of the phenomenon of “Soccer Moms,” essentially White suburban middle class mums who spend a significant amount of their time transporting their school-age children to their sporting events. The fact that soccer is the preferred sport -- not basketball or American football despite their greater popularity -- reveals the American White middle-class’s sub-racist desire to self-segregate, something they also achieve through residential and private schooling choices. While racism, racial awareness, localism, tribalism, preferring one’s own -- call it what you will -- is rife on both sides of the Atlantic, Americans with their longer experience of multiculturalism have learned better how to mask it than Italy’s “Ultra” groups.
So, how does all this relate to the World Cup? Anyone closely watching the opening ceremonies before each game would have noticed the large banners rolled out and held up by the teams with such messages as “Say No to Racism.” This is paradoxical as nationally defined soccer, even more than club soccer, inevitably leads to strong group identification combined with intense emotions. These are the ingredients of racism or at least passionate and aggressive attitudes vis-à-vis in-groups and out-groups. If not, why are fans at matches routinely segregated in a societies where any kind of segregation is anathema?
Any World Cup with 32 nations competing under their national flags will invariably spark off strong feelings of national chauvinism. The point at which this changes from aggravated patriotism and wishing the opposition ill for the duration of the match to fully fledged racism is highly debatable. But it would have been much more realistic and less of a contradiction in terms if FIFA had simply organized a campaign advocating good manners and sportsmanship.
The anti-racist rhetoric indulged in by FIFA probably has more to do with the internal politics that keep the 74-year-old FIFA President Sepp Blatter in power. The Swiss-born sports administrator has been the head of the international group since 1998, when he managed to secure the support of most of the African and minor nations. Of the 208 voting members of FIFA, over a quarter are African Football Associations, representing a massive voting bloc, and each nation, no matter how insignificant in the sport, has equal voting rights with the so-called superpowers, like Germany and Brazil.
While there have been allegations that Blatter won support by outright bribery, as the head of an NPO with a massive income, he also has many other options for winning support. This includes financing anti-racism campaigns that play well with African football associations, as well as pouring badly documented funds into “soccer development” in Africa. Just like other “development” money, what happens to these funds once they are in Africa is not always clear... Blatter also knows that taking the moral high ground on issues like racism also serves to deflect investigation and criticism of FIFA’s internal workings.
This World Cup represents the culmination of Blatter’s attempt to ingratiate himself with his African power base, and this has also affected the way the event has been presented. As the first World Cup held on African soil and with six African teams competing, the “macro story” was supposed to be the rise of African soccer. Even calls to ban the atrocious noise of the vuvuzelas were ignored as this was thought to give a characteristically African flavor to proceedings. However, with only Ghana progressing to the last 16, and African teams winning only 3 out of 18 first stage matches, African soccer has clearly flopped. The desired narrative has ended in ignominy.
While teams like Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Nigeria have some of the most exciting players in the world, they often lack technical skills like pinpoint passing and shooting accuracy, as well as the tactical sense and discipline, typical of the best European and South American teams.
The failed effort to set an African stamp on this World Cup fits in with other FIFA initiatives to promote the game around the world. While soccer has grown greatly in popularity in Africa, North America, and Asia in recent decades, the fact that the last four, included three European teams and one South American team -- Holland, Spain, Germany, and Uruguay -- suggests that the real strength of its game still lies in its traditional heartlands and in the deep tribal identification between teams and supporters, however they choose to express it.