PtG Comment 21.07.2010

The end of the World Cup?

The World Cup is undoubtedly over. It is time for reflection. I want to speculate on the future of the football World Cup based on this year's tournament. Will the World Cup be destroyed by political disputes?

The Spanish paradoxAlthough Spain won the World Cup I don’t think they won many new football hearts. Most of the people who were happy that Spain won had Spain as their favourite from the start. Spain scored half as many goals as Germany and fewer goals than both the Netherlands and Uruguay. When I asked a Portuguese – I was on holiday in Portugal during the World Cup – who he hoped would win the World Cup, he said that he hoped Spain would win because then Portugal could say they lost to the best team. That was how much he rooted for Spain.  Spain was the only country in the World Cup who does not have a national anthem. That’s why you saw no Spaniards sing while their national – er – melody was playing. (North Korea is a borderline case because they rarely sing their national anthem, but instead sing a tribute to their great leader, the late Kim Il Sung). That Spain does not have a song to sing is because of the fact that they have not managed to agree on a new text after Franco's death. The lack of a national anthem has been a symbol that Spain is not yet a united country after the dictatorship.

Therefore, many argued that winning the European Championship two years ago and the World Cup this year will help Spain unite. It is not that simple. The same thoughts were presented when France won the World Cup and European Championship in 1998 and 2000. The victories were examples of good integration of immigrants, it was claimed. France’s failure in this year's World Cup has reminded us that the link between football victories and national unification is highly questionable. It is like peeing in your pants in order to keep warm.

It may seem like a step in the right direction that the Spanish flags were waved, that even people from the Basque Country and Catalonia wore the Spanish national team jerseys, and that 75,000 celebrated the Spanish victory in the streets of Barcelona. But is it a sign of Spanish unification? Hardly. Here are two considerations that puts the theory of unification into perspective:

  1. The day before the World Cup final 1.1 million people demonstrated in the streets of Barcelona against a Spanish court ruling saying that Catalonia will not be allowed to claim independence from Spain. How many of the 75,000 happy Spaniards celebrating the World Cup victory participated in the demonstration the day before?
  2. If someone did participate in both ‘events’ we must ask ourselves why. One reason may be that a lot of people celebrated the Barcelona players' efforts during the World Cup – for the Barcelona players it was a kind of holiday tournament. On the Spanish team six Barcelona players featured in the starting lineup in the final (and seven in the semi final) and all of Spain’s goals were scored by Barcelona players. Perhaps people celebrated Barcelona's superiority on the Spanish national team?

Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, Spain will not be unified through a couple of football matches.

Stereotypes shattered

Football-wise this year's World Cup has seen many surprises: Brazil’s samba-football stamp is gone, the solid Italian defence is shot to pieces, Germany played entertaining football and Ghana showed good defensive strokes. Never has the tournament seen fewer goals (since the introduction of 32 teams, that is) and teams such as the United States and South Korea ran longer than most. Many stereotypes were broken in South Africa this year. Meanwhile, this year's World Cup demonstrated the potential for conflict between national elites who want to bask in the glory of the players' favour, the regular fans and the players that have to provide the national pride.

Representative and elector

For politicians with any kind of respect for themselves, it is important to be present at international sporting events – both to be seen and to meet like-minded individuals. From our TV chairs, we have seen princes, princesses, queens, prime ministers, former presidents, ministers and former ministers in unfamiliar poses in the stands when their teams were playing. In addition to the usual celebrities – like Paris Hilton, Orlando Bloom, Mick Jagger and Leonardo DiCaprio – the political VIPs have been watching the matches from the best spectator seats in South Africa. The VIPs created so much trouble for ordinary fans, when Germany was to play the semi final against Spain in Durban, that 2000 seats were empty during the game. The traffic of VIP aircrafts at the airport in Durban was so great that regular scheduled and charter flights with football fans were not able to land at the airport. It's not only the World Cup ball that is going in the wrong direction.

National prestige

Besides those who are only at the match to be seen or to watch the game, many politicians believe that their presence will either give the team a lift, or that they themselves will gain politically. Their presence fills – they believe, and perhaps rightly so – both a domestic political role and a foreign policy role, and in many countries it is expected that national leaders will take part in the political game. This year’s championship was no exception. Two examples may illustrate this phenomenon:

  1. The Brazilian President Lula suddenly interrupted his visit to South Africa after Brazil was eliminated from the World Cup. He was supposed to stay for the final but did not turn up, using the excuse that he had to return to Brazil to support the work surrounding a flood disaster. I am doubtful that this is the reason. He had definitely been there had Brazil reached the final. And what if the final was against Argentina?
  2. In Argentina’s political circles people were in doubt about whether Argentina reaching the final was good or bad. Had the team reached the final, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez would probably have gone to see the match. Then she would have had to cancel a meeting with China's top leaders, as she did in January to great dismay of the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party. If that had happened, Argentina could have lost major deals with China.

The husband of the current president, ex-president Nestor Kirchner, has experience with lost contracts because of football. A few years ago, he made the Head of Hewlett-Packard wait a very long time for an agreed meeting because he was busy talking to Diego Maradona. The HP Chief Executive Carly Fiorina was so furious that she instead invested the money in Brazil! These days, Fernandez is present at the talks in Beijing, thanks to a bad football... The main message of these examples is that many heads of state put a lot of political prestige in the country's football performance.

International arena

But there are other foreign policy dimensions of the World Cup. The championship will be a meeting arena for politicians from around the globe and used as a venue for talks and negotiations. During the Beijing Olympics, we clearly saw how scared many politicians were to fall into disfavour with China - boycott issues were almost completely absent and there were a record number of heads of state in the stands during the opening ceremony. But it is not only the respect for the host nation that is prominent. The South African President Jacob Zuma used the World Cup as an opportunity to both promote his country and to have political discussions with many state leaders who came to the championship. For the host nations, it is important to get the most out of their investment, but it is also important for visitors to get something in return for taking the trip - at least it seems so. Should the team lose, you can at least justify the trip with a meeting with a political counterpart.

Clubs before national teams?

Increased club power is another point to be made regarding this year's Championship. With the exception of players from Barcelona and Bayern Munich, most of the stars from the biggest and richest clubs in Europe did poorly. Players from the Premier League were by far the poorest. This may be due to the demanding match programme in England and other leagues. An indication of this is that players with little playing time in the major leagues performed best on their national team. There may be other than sporting reasons. After the World Cup it turned out that Wayne Rooney was in litigation with his former agent agency during the Cup, that Cristiano Ronaldo became a father through a surrogate mother in the first week of the tournament, and that Lionel Messi was planning charity football in Panama and Haiti during the championship. None of these had very good championships. But it may also be that the desire to represent the country is much smaller than the desire to perform for those who pay the wages – the club team. The national team is thus seen as the B-team.

The law of increasing inequality

And here we are at the core of how this year's World Cup challenges our understanding of football and the World Cup tournament in general. This year's World Cup could be the start of a growing gap between politicians’ expectations for the World Cup and their desire to make political capital off the game and the players' concern for the national team. If this tendency is reinforced, we will see dramatic changes on the international map of soccer. Here are some changes that may happen sooner than we think:

  1. More conflicts might occur between political authorities and the football players who either do not want to play for the national team or are under-performing. This year we have seen that the French president put together an investigation commission to investigate the French national team and that the Nigerian President suspended the national team from all activities. If the disagreements between political leaders and players increase, the future will offer more of such conflicts between political leaders and their team.
  2. We may also see more politicians who engage themselves more strongly in their team’s rights. This can either be by getting involved in the seeding system of a championship so that their team will have – in theory – the simplest possible route up to a possible final. Or it can be politicians who seek to have decisions reversed or to have regulations changed in a way that will benefit their own team. The British Prime Minister got involved in the debate about the use of video technology after England’s goal against Germany wasn’t recognised, and this is an example that we may see many more of during future championships.
  3. FIFA is usually crystal clear when politicians interfere in national team football. FIFA has threatened both France and Nigeria with sanctions if the authorities get too meddlesome. With the increasing degree of interference from politicians in order to make the Football Associations perform better or to force FIFA to make changes for their benefit, FIFA will get a far greater political role. If that happens, far more serious conflicts between FIFA and the national authorities may occur.
  4. We may see changes in citizenship laws or exemptions to citizenship rules with regards to national football teams. After pressure from the German Football Association, Germany changed its citizenship laws a few years ago so that it would be easier for second and third generation immigrants to get their citizenship and thus have the opportunity to play for the German national team. We saw the importance of that policy change during this year’s World Cup. There were few traditional German names on the German national team and the football was also different. Another thing is to open up for immigration of talented football players to fill the national teams if the country’s own players refuse to play. That trend is clearly seen today. For example, many European national teams have Brazilian players, and this trend will surely continue. Such migration might in the long run turn FIFA’s rankings upside down as small countries can buy their way to success.

Homage to Catalonia?

This development will of course only happen as long as politicians remain interested in football and see a connection between football and national reputation building. But the FIFA World Cup might lose its glory. There is a tendency for the club teams – especially in Europe – to be surrounded with more interest than the national teams by both players and supporters. How many times during the World Cup haven’t you heard friends and acquaintances declaring that they root for Spain because that’s where Torres plays and he also plays for Liverpool? Or that they are rooting for Argentina because that’s where FC Barcelona’s Messi plays or England because Rooney plays for United.

Increasingly, the club teams are connected to the national teams, and in the long run the club tournaments such as the Champions League might replace the World Cup in the present form. If that happens, politicians might also begin associating themselves with specific club teams. That way they will no longer need to limit themselves to representing a team – they might even join as owners. If that happens, I'm sure Spain will need to rely on imports of players from other countries or regions in order to cope with Catalonia’s national team Barcelona!

 This article first appeared on Andreas Selliaas' blog 'Sportens Uutholdelige Letthet' on July 20 2010. Follow Andreas' blog (in Norwegian) on