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Soccer and Globalization

What can the game of soccer teach you about international politics?

June 2, 2002

What can the game of soccer teach you about international politics?

In 1998, when the Soccer World Cup was held in France, it attracted over two billion viewers — or one third of the globe’s population. This year, there will be more — if only because this year’s competition is held in Asia, in a time zone that is convenient to the world’s most populous continent.

Plus, China — the world’s largest nation — now has as many as 350 million television sets. This year, the total number of soccer viewers may thus prove closer to three billion!

But equally telling is who won’t be watching. In all of Sub-Saharan Africa, excluding South Africa, there are only 67 million television sets for the population of around 530 million, according to the most recent data available.

Of course, Africans, who are crazy about their soccer and have five teams competing this year — Nigeria, Cameroon, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia — will be glued to their radios instead.

But one important nation, where nearly all households have TV sets and 74% of families have at least two, will tune them to other channels. It’s the United States, of course. Americans take little interest in soccer.

Even though the United States hosted the World Cup competition in 1994 and the U.S. National Team competes in World Cup 2002, few Americans will bother watching.

Let’s reflect on this for a moment. To many of its passionate fans, soccer is more than just a game. It is, in a microcosm, life itself — with many of its emotions and symbolisms.

That is what explains the game’s attractiveness for its mass audience. But this truism has consequences for the United States as well. As a matter of fact, the distant U.S. attitude about soccer suggests a deeper truth about world politics.

The United States, in its capacity as the only global superpower, has already chosen to isolate itself in many other areas, such as the fight against global warming or for the protection of children.

These are only two of a dozen or so international treaties Washington has decided to ignore. It is only telling that U.S. sports fans will by in large ignore the World Cup — while the rest of the world will be watching.

That case of U.S. sport isolationism is a shame, really. But leaving the United States aside for a moment, the soccer World Cup is full of amazing ironies.

Think, for instance, of Argentina and Turkey, the two countries in the world that have been grappling with the largest financial crises since the previous World Cup.

Their national teams are competing in World Cup 2002 — and are hoping to bring much-needed respite to their embattled societies.

By the same token, some analysts even believe that if the Brazilian team does well — which by its standards can only mean victory — Brazil’s shaky financial markets are going to take off.

Now consider France, the reigning World Champion. Looking at the composition of its national team — which is dominated by players of African and North African descent and led by Zinedine Zidane, an Algerian-French player — the context of the recent political turmoil in France becomes clear.

On the one hand, it helps explain why so many people, nervous about the influx of immigrants, voted for the rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen in the French presidential elections.

On the other hand, it also helps explain why Monsieur Le Pen suffered such a crushing defeat in the May 5, 2002 runoff. After all, without all those immigrants, France would never have won the Cup.

The location of the World Cup this year provides another object lesson in the world’s changing fortunes. When Japan and South Korea were chosen in 1996 to co-host the final competition, Asia was a very different place.

Japan, despite a sluggish economy, was still a world economic powerhouse — with dreams of challenging the United States for global leadership. South Korea, a sprightly Asian tiger, was poised to join the exclusive club of industrial nations.

Yet, today Japan is in a systemic decline that has lasted for over a decade — and shows no sign of ending. South Korea is also much more humble today than six years ago, after a series of financial and economic crises starting in 1997.

Yet, Korea, unlike Japan, is now enjoying rapid economic growth and even aspires to become an Asian locomotive. It is no longer Japan’s poor cousin — and a junior partner in hosting the World Cup. On the contrary, Korea’s economy is by far the more dynamic of the two.

But let’s return to the rather hopeless case of the mighty — if not sprightly — U. S. of A. One reason Americans are not fond of soccer may be its low scoring.

Of all the major team sports, it is the one in which goals come at the highest premium, and 0-0 results are quite common. Contrast this with basketball, where teams routinely score nearly 100 points per game per team. That’s a much better deal, on a goals-per-dollar basis.

Even more telling, U.S. sports commentators like to contrast soccer and baseball. In soccer, a three-goal lead usually represents an insurmountable distance.

In baseball, the home team batting at the bottom of the ninth inning always has a chance of winning. As one famous American baseball player put it:

“It ain’t over till it’s over.” Belief in unlimited possibilities — and second chances — is an important aspect of Americans’ national character.

Yet, there is an important part of U.S. society that will be watching World Cup soccer passionately — even though most games will be aired in the dead of the night.

The foreign-born proportion of the U.S. population is now at the highest level since the heyday of immigration early in the 20th century. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that the United States currently has 56 million immigrants and first-generation Americans.

Over 12 million of them are of Mexican origin. And they will certainly be watching the Mexican national team compete. So will other immigrants.

Truth be told, the question of whom they will root for if their team meets the United States in the round of 16 may be crucial for America’s future as a melting pot.