Der Ball ist rund

Legendary German football coach, Sepp Herberger, famously expressed his philosophies on the beautiful game with the pithiness of a Zen philosopher – “the ball is round”, “Nach dem Spiel ist vor dem Spiel” (“after the game is before the game”) etc.

And maybe it’s football’s essential simplicity that goes a long way to explaining its global popularity. In fact, FIFA publishes (men’s) rankings for 209 affiliated nations (from reigning world and European champs Spain to the Turks and Caicos Islands) – which is more than the UN’s 193 members.

This cross-border appeal means international competitions between regional neighbours, such as the European Championships currently being played in Poland and Ukraine, or the four-yearly festival that is the World Cup, provide a unifying focal point for legions of fans that bridges cultural divides and transcends politics.

Some commentators, such as Franklin Foer, have even argued that soccer (he’s American) is the connective tissue of globalisation; the common thread that ‘explains the world’ and links disparate phenomena like anti-Semitism, poverty and radical Islam. He notes the rise of globalised mega-brands such as Manchester United and Real Madrid, whose marketing tentacles reach deep into third world economies (on both the manufacturing and consumer sides) and the uncanny fluidity of movement which sees sub-Saharan African players representing post-communist Eastern European club teams. Foer may be shooting from outside the box with his claims that football accounts for an ever-shrinking planet but he makes a strong case for it being: “…a perfect window into the crosscurrents of today’s world”.

If serious sport, in George Orwell’s words, is “war minus the shooting”, what does that say about the role of sport in international relations? Plenty. Take these examples:

  • The Olympic movement was revived with the intention of promoting international peace;
  • (closer to home) diplomatic incidents have nearly resulted from controversy in cricket;
  • ‘Cold War’ bragging rights were hotly contested on both court and ice by the US and the USSR during the 1970s and 1980s; and
  • apartheid South Africa became a pariah of the international sporting community and a lightning rod for racially-charged politics during its period of isolation.

Football, given its global market share, has a particularly politicised history: “Soccer can affect lives on a national and international scale, inspiring revolutions and causing wars as well as having the capability to create peace and lift entire nations”. Honduras and El Salvador fought a four-day ‘Football War’ in 1969 after tensions from a World Cup qualifying match boiled over. In contrast, the presence of Brazilian footballer Pelé stopped a Nigerian civil war when he played an exhibition match in the country.  Dictators from Franco and Mussolini to the Argentinian junta and Gaddafi have exploited the tribalism inherent in the game by juggling the ‘political football’.

The vagaries of the fixture list have also thrown up explosive IR pairings like when East and West Germany squared off in the 1974 World Cup; a post-Falklands match-up saw Argentina defeat England in 1986; the ‘Great Satan’, the US, and Iran played each other in France 1998 and the two Koreas acrimoniously battled through World Cup qualifiers in 2008.

And the current Euros feature Russia against two former communist satellite states: the Czech Republic and Poland, and Germany versus the Netherlands – ‘der Klassiker’ once carried WW2 overtones.

Football’s potential to lift a nation’s spirits was memorably realised when a united France (with its ethnically diverse tricolour of ‘black-white-brown’) won the World Cup in 1998, led by their midfield virtuoso, Zinedine Zidane (a son of Algerian Berbers). Extending Foer’s globalisation thesis, the favourites for this year’s European competition, Germany, are spearheaded by the Koran-reciting Mesut Özil – a descendent of Turkish gastarbeiter who migrated to Germany to help in the post-war economic rebuild of the defeated nation. Meanwhile fiscally beleaguered Greece, Spain and Italy and crisis-stricken co-host Ukraine (former PM Yulia Tymoshenko is controversially incarcerated) all hope that international sporting success can divert attention from domestic strife.

What do others think? Is modern sport a secular global religion, a case of 21st century ‘bread and circuses’, a substitute for war, a waste of time or all of the above?


5 comments on “Der Ball ist rund

  1. ryankf says:

    Certainly not a waste of time, a substitute for war though…?…i don’t think it goes quite that far. This is an interesting one for me Rob as soccer is not the ubiquitous socio-political event in the US it may be elsewhere (probably nearly everywhere else with the interesting and notable exception of NZ/AUS).
    Sport in the US has always served a different purpose than i see soccer (I’ll use the term soccer to avoid confusion) serving around the world. Where soccer becomes a great equalizer providing a fair and common battleground around most of the world, American sports, at least the big ones (baseball, American football, basketball) aren’t typically competed on the international level, with a few exceptions like the Olympics. Basketball and football don’t pretend to be anything other than an American invention calling their championships “national”, i.e. the National Basketball Association Finals, and the Super Bowl – contested between the National Football Conference and the American Football Conference. Major League Baseball has an international pretense calling their championships the World Series even though it is generally referred to as the great American pastime.

    I won’t speak for my European friends in the midst of their championship season, but American sports are truly seen as a pastime, a leisure activity, a distraction. Not that Americans don’t take sport seriously – we wear our team colors, we support our team for a lifetime, it’s a family affair, and people take it to extremes just like anywhere else in the world:
    Though American football has started playing pre-season or early season games overseas like basketball it’s more of a marketing tool than a true demand for the sport to be seen. The idea of American sports serving in a diplomatic capacity abroad is, to clumsily turn a phrase, quite foreign.

    The closest Americans come to understanding sport like most of the rest of the world understands soccer is during the explicitly inter-national event of the Olympics. Rob’s example of the US/USSR Cold War hockey rivalry is probably the closest Americans have come to waging war in an arena. Americans, at least in my experience, have never been as bound to the outcome of an internationally contested sporting event since. Maybe the closest we’ve come was when the Dream Team took the court in the 1992 Olympics:'s_Olympic_basketball_team
    Americans do get fired up and nationalistic surrounding the Olympics, but it’s fleeting and quickly fades taking a two year hibernation until the next one rolls around.

    The role of sport in the US in my lifetime has been a therapeutic one, a means of releasing the tension, even healing wounds. American football stepped in at a crucial moment for many American’s after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Football became a sign-post of hope. For many, once football began again we felt more normal, like things would go on. Before the return of football how to proceed was a big question: – (there’s even a “feminist” line in this one).

    Football has this sway on American hearts and minds like baseball used to. The great American pastime lost a lot of it’s luster in the mid-90s during a strike which helped usher in the age of football as the new go-to game for Americans:
    Having lived through it i can say the baseball strike was something of an identity crisis for Americans. No baseball was like no government, like no mail (post), like being cut off from something important that you had been taking for granted. Growing up within a few hour drive of Wrigley Field and the Chicago Cubs they were as much a part of my subconscious as the changing seasons. The Cubs not having a game this week was like the sun not coming up – “what’s going on?!”

    So what does all this mean? Does Americas relative lack of participation in the global sport of soccer say something about Americans? Are Americans isolationist when it comes to their sporting activities or are we just no good at soccer so we huff and puff and walk off the pitch taking our ball home with us like a pouty 10-year-old? Perhaps a more interesting question is why America has had a relative surge of interest in soccer over the past two decades – after all, we hosted a World Cup in the mid-90s and all it took was the lure of Hollywood and $250,000,000 to steal the soccering worlds most famous name, albeit in the twilight of his career. It must mean something that American’s were ready for Becks, that stadiums have been built, teams formed, and we finally have a glimmer of hope for our national team on the world stage.

    America probably won’t engage the rest of the world in soccer like the rest of the world already engages itself in my lifetime. I’m an American football fan and everyone i know back home is too. We get together on Sunday afternoons ritualistically to watch our favorite sport and the only time you’ll catch us watching soccer is when the US plays in the world cup – sound familiar Olympics? Maybe it’s up to the generation or two behind me to take in soccer like most of the rest of the world. Actually, i hope soccer is not a harbinger of global interaction, otherwise there is not much hope for me as a potential MIR graduate… 😦 Thanks Rob, now i’m depressed – i knew i should have gone to beer brewing school! Beer is at least one thing soccer and football fans can agree on.

  2. henning says:

    Thank you, Rob, for a very inspiring and timely entry! I would certainly agree that modern sport is celebrated by some as a matter of faith, the stadium replacing the church for weekend gatherings of the faith community. You could also make a case for sports events as high-tech distractions, though such events by themselves at times harbour the seeds of riot and revolt. The increasing phenomenon of hooliganism is one such example. You also referred to WW2 overtones in the context of German soccer – that ‘s one of those habits that die hard. British tabloids (The Sun, Daily Star, Daily Express, among others) are quite creative when it comes to recycling war themes in regards to the German team, and the WW2 song ‘Ten German Bombers’ is among the repertoire of a select few British soccer fans as well. But my favourite is the title accorded to the Germans by Indonesian media, who frequently refer to the national team as ‘team panser’ (tank). You’d wonder where that came from – wartime connotations and historical animosities don’t always have to factor into popular narratives, unless it’s part of the colonial legacy.

    Sport as a whole has long been considered a political tool. A recent publication by Stuttard (Power Games: The Olympics of Ancient Greece, 2011) highlights how the Olympics were a chance to showcase athletic and political power and domination (between city states and their representative elites), yet minus the shooting of deadly projectiles (other than at fixed objects or across open and deserted spaces). More importantly, I believe, is the aspect of Olympia (and other such events) as a forum for political parleys and alliance-building, as discussed by Stuttard. I wonder whether the elites/VIPs of the numerous adversaries that were battling it out on the pitch in modern times shared a glass or two in the VIP lounge. Can you picture the likes of Kissinger, Helmut Schmidt (the German chancellor at the time) and Honecker discussing referee decisions at the 1974 World Cup? More likely to picture Khatami and Clinton in 1998, maybe!?

    Few European government representatives will be joining the crowd in the Ukraine, as ahead of the Cup many cancelled their attendance due to concerns about human rights in the Ukraine (epitomised by the maltreatment of jailed former prime minister Tymoshenko). The Grand Prix in Bahrain and the Beijing Olympics were also steeped in some controversy. There were even reports of police harassing youth and the homeless during the Sydney Olympics. Increasingly, such events are seen as a means to channel concerns about human rights; the status and profile a successful host expects to gain, not to mention the potential flow of revenue, could provide some leverage for political ends. At the same time, global events such as the World Cup and the Olympics could be an opportune time for political statements – the 1972 Munich Olympics are one such example – and demonstrations of power – the Berlin Olympics in 1936, for instance. You could also argue that the Beijing Olympics were a demonstration of China’s soft power. (see Zhongying, The Beijing Olympics and China’s Soft Power, 2008). Should such events be instrumentalised for political gains? The truly faithful might object, but these examples showcase how sports events are deeply entangled in what Foer calls “the crosscurrents of today’s world”. Guttmann (Sport, Politics and the Engaged Historian, 2003) provides another insightful account of these dynamics.

    For the average consumer it’s an often welcome (though at times hazardous if I consider workload and time of broadcast) distraction, and ahead of ‘Der Klassiker’ tomorrow morning Welly time I kind of hope the Oranje remember Gary Lineker, a former English striker, who in 1990 said “Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.” Now wouldn’t that be nice?

  3. roblaurs says:

    Ryan – thanks for your comments. I’ve always been interested in America’s inward-focussed attitude towards sport and what that might mean – does it reflect American isolationism or a conscious decision to cultivate an indigenous sporting culture that is distinct from its colonial past (eg. baseball over cricket, American football over rugby, soccer etc)? MLB’s ‘World Series’ seems to suggest both are possible explanations…

    Soccer has had a few false dawns in the US (eg. the short-lived NASL (1968-84) didn’t take off even with star imports like Pelé, Beckenbauer and Cruyff on deck, the somewhat stuttering MLS today etc) but the country’s growing Hispanic population and soccer’s popularity amongst women (the USWNT are twice world champs, three-time Olympic gold medallists and the current world number one) point to slightly better times for the sport stateside. These developments aside, I agree that it’s probably too late in the day for it to gain a proper foothold alongside the traditional codes so soccer may be destined to remain a second-tier curiosity in the US.

    Interestingly, Anne Applebaum makes a case for soccer being the last acceptable form of nationalism (the article was written in 2002 but is still relevant) and says that postmodern European countries are more in need of this type of outlet for flag-waving/outpouring of nationalist sentiment than Americans:

    Americans—citizens of a modern state—have plenty of opportunities to show their patriotism, on inaugurations and at school assemblies and on the Fourth of July. They don’t need to do it in soccer stadiums as well. Europeans, on the other hand—citizens of postmodern states—have fewer and fewer, and need those soccer highs badly as a result.

    Applebaum may have a point – Germany’s ‘partyotism’ and ‘safe’ but joyful embrace of national pride during the 2006 WC represented a notable ‘coming out’ for a nation that has always been mindful of excessive displays of national feeling.

    Henning – vielen dank. Lineker’s ‘truism’ was certainly on the money yesterday! I agree that sport has often been used as a political instrument (the history of the Olympics is pretty revealing) and continues to be manipulated for diplomatic ends.

    Just look at the BRICS and their recent showcasing of varying degrees of power and influence eg. Beijing in 2008, the Delhi CWG in 2010, South Africa’s WC in 2010 while Brazil is set to host the next football World Cup in 2014 and the Rio Olympic Games in 2016.

    The ‘soft power’ dimension of these events is undeniable. Even here in NZ, we didn’t let our time in the international spotlight go to waste during the RWC as Russian billionaires like vodka baron, Roustam Tariko, were schmoozed, no doubt in the hope that some rubles would be poured back into the local economy. And, in case anyone missed it, Tourism NZ plonked a giant rugby ball at the base of the Eiffel Tower…

    As for the HR angle, the politicisation can go either way depending on priorities. Does anyone really believe that FIFA were given pause when Russia (home to a very sketchy HR record as well as many of the football world’s nouveau riche oligarchs) entered and then won the bid (explicitly backed by Putin) to host the 2018 WC?

    Any confusion about FIFA’s politics probably evaporated when mega-wealthy Qatar (who have never played in a WC) were granted the subsequent hosting rights for 2022. Political football indeed.

  4. roblaurs says:

    Without wanting to belabour the point about the use of sport (particularly football) as a platform for politicking, the denouement of the European Championships looks set to be charged with political meaning. The quarterfinal draw has delivered the headline writers’ dream match-up of Germany vs Greece. Will the continent’s economic powerhouse deliver a footballing lesson (alongside forcing Athens to seriously bone up on ECON101) to the potential departees from the eurozone? Or will the ‘Grexit’ be further delayed by another Euro bailout? At any rate, Merkel will be there to see the game after (as Henning pointed out) refusing to attend any games in Ukraine in protest at the treatment of Tymoshenko.

    Should anything be read in to the fact that the (original) PIGS are still involved at the quarterfinal stage? Or the priority given by the Spanish PM, Mariano Rajoy, to the Euros? He refused to call the EU’s €100b package a ‘bailout’, euphemistically terming it a “line of credit”, as he nonchalantly jetted off to watch Spain take on Italy in their first group game.

    If Germany get past Greece, expect the front and back pages to carry the same stories, as euroskeptic England (cue the inevitable jingoistic, wartime rhetoric from the tabloids) or Italy (cue more admonition on the spendthrift ways of Southern European economies) await in the semis. And beyond that, Germany could meet Spain in the final. If that happens, Merkel and Rajoy will probably have more than football to discuss at the halftime break…

    • Henning says:

      Indeed, Rob, it’s particularly good timing for Europe’s battled economies to battle it out against the EurOpressors (though that shouldn’t factor into the match between the Czech Republic and the Portugese). If Germany meets Spain in the finals I hope it’s not a 2008 deja-vu. Germany and Greece have met many times, but by far the most memorable match had little political undertones:

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