As the world focuses on its most watched sporting event, many Americans (including an occasional Pileus political scientist or two) remain oblivious to every aspect of the game, missing many of the nuances that reveal volumes about national character, culture and politics. These Americans are missing something important.
To the true football fan, the World Cup itself is part of an ideological struggle between two competing corporate goliaths, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (“FIFA”) and the Union of European Football Associations (“UEFA”). Even the names of the two organizations are themselves indicative of the ideological divide. The stakes are high – in the hundreds of billions of the currency of your choice. The goal is nothing short of world domination. And the time for choosing sides is closing in upon us.
FIFA represents the distinctly twentieth century notion that nationhood is the most important and powerful bond between humans. While nations are free to define themselves, individuals, for the most part, are not. FIFA insists upon a competition between nations qua nations, but FIFA does not demand that nations define themselves in a particular way. There is no requirement that “a national,” or what we Americans commonly refer to as “a citizen,” be defined in same way that Germany, Serbia, Italy, or Spain choose to define those terms, namely, by ethnicity. Nationality, under these ethnic conceptions of it, is “closed” to those born outside the required genetic boundaries. As in race-horses, it is a matter of breeding.
But nationality need not be determined by ethnicity. It can be circumscribed, as we Americans have chosen, by shared values. We have no official language or blood-line requirements that prove dispositive of citizenship. As the pre-eminent bastion of individual freedom and personal responsibility, American nationality is largely a matter of choice. It is “open.” During the twentieth century, we Americans moved closer to the rest of the world by placing strictures upon the choice, but these markers are still largely markers of choice.
The American conception of “American nationality” explains why our football team, like our citizenry, looks like a melting pot. While other examples of more open conceptions of nationality can be found in the faces of the teams representing France, England, and the Netherlands, many nations competing in FIFA’s World Cup can be characterized as having closed conceptions of nationality.
UEFA, on the other hand, represents a distinctly different ideal, one that is timeless. It is also one with which Americans ought to sympathize, namely, freedom of contract. To be sure, UEFA also satisfies some of the thirst for nationalism, sponsoring its own competition between national teams every four years, the European Cup, in the interstices of the World Cup. But UEFA’s real claim to fame is its sponsorship of club competitions, the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Europa Cup. These two competitions are between club teams, not nations. These clubs are organized, for the most part, on free association and freedom of contract.
While some countries place limitations on the number of foreign nationals that can play on their club teams, European club competition permits footballers to play for whichever employer is willing to pay or develop them. These teams, and the UEFA-sponsored international competitions between them, generate billions of dollars, and drive the market for players around the world. The economic effectiveness of UEFA is evidenced by the ability of European clubs to draw players from around the globe. The best teams in the world (Barcelona, Liverpool, Real Madrid, Ajax, Chelsea and Bayern München) are the truest melting pots, boasting teammates from every continent, speaking as many as twenty different languages, and all focused upon one goal: the UEFA Champions League Cup.
FIFA and UEFA are openly critical of each other, and it is no secret that FIFA craves the power and success of UEFA. FIFA has tried to promote its own club competition, the World Club Cup, in which the winners of the various continental competitions around the world participate. This competition is largely ignored however, with virtually no television coverage, even in Europe. Instead, the real football world is focused annually on the Champions League, which every pre-eminent international footballer considers one of the two trophies he must hoist in a successful career. The other, of course, is FIFA’s World Cup.
But UEFA understands what FIFA does not, namely, that freedom works. National teams will never be as good, as entertaining, or as compelling as teams composed of free individuals willingly and contractually cooperating toward one common purpose. Open systems of nationality come closer to the ideal of freedom than closed systems, and the national teams themselves recognize this. Germany, for example, is a successful national team drawn from a “closed” conception of nationhood. But Germany fields players born outside the formal genetic constraints applied to mere mortal would-be citizens. The German national team boasts Cacau (a native of Brazil) and Jerome Boateng, one of the two Boateng brothers playing in the 2010 World Cup; the other is a member of the starting line-up for their native Ghana. In other words, if you are good enough, even closed nationalities can be open to you.
FIFA and its World Cup, like nationalism, will persist as long as we have nations and nationalists, ethnic pride and prejudice, to perpetuate them. These ideas that destroyed so many lives on so many occasions throughout the twentieth century are the not-so-beautiful underside of the beautiful game. The game is unquestionably more beautiful without them.