The Not-So-Beautiful Underside of the Beautiful Game

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.

12 thoughts on “The Not-So-Beautiful Underside of the Beautiful Game

  1. This is crap. UEFA club teams are allowed any number of foreign European nationals because of the EU rules, but many limit the number of non-EU nationals. FIFA does limit to nations, and regulates national-transfers strictly to prevent abuse, but national teams are mostly not closed in the sense you claim, and if they are, it’s up to the nation, not FIFA.

    And while it may be true that national teams will never be as good at entertaining, they will never be as important, for the simple reason that they buy their membership, unlike countries. This is the reason that the FIFA world club championship is only a curio: it falls into the hole between these two things.

  2. Marcus,

    I’d like to see you tease out “many of the nuances that reveal volumes about national character, culture and politics” since I’m apparently “missing something important.” And I say this honestly.

    But even if there are lot of things I’m missing here about the side aspects of the game (that might make it a more interesting overall phenomenon), I’d still like to ask why they make it a better game itself than alternative sports (which is the point Sven and I have been raising)? If Britain’s (esp Rooney’s) play says something about English culture and politics, does that necessarily make the play any better to watch?

    Using Sven’s list, isn’t it still fundamentally a game that has very little strategy compared to footballl and baseball, requires less athleticism and teamwork than basketball, and less skill than baseball and hockey? Add to that things like minimal offense, the use of the less dextrous parts of the body, and so forth and I’m not seeing it.

    But I’m open to be enlightened.

    And you should note, I am not as unschooled about soccer as you might think. I played for years; I watched Soccer Made in Germany pretty religiously as a kid – it was the only way to see soccer where I lived (hence my favorite soccer players were folks like Schumacher and Rummenigge); I was seriously unhappy when Germany lost to Italy in the 1982 World Cup; and I lost a tooth in college as a sacrifice to the sport.

    Moreover, part of my original yawn may have been due to an overall diminishment in my own interest in sports following a pretty hard bunch of experiences personally that made me rethink the role of sports in my life (and the role they ought to play in our community) since they seem a lot less important in the whole scheme of things. That being said, I too am still prone to some of the enthusiasm that sports engenders…. so I can certainly see why people are excited regardless of how good the game is.

    BTW, would love your thoughts on the Nisbet/Spencer debate I highlighted earlier.


  3. Perhaps my comment will be harsh on UEFA, with evolution being what it is, but UEFA has not traditionally been as freedom-oriented as this article suggests. For example, although Bosman is generally known for introducing freedom of contract at the European club level, the lesser part of the opinion squarely addressed (and abolished), UEFA’s 3+2 rule, which limited the number of foreign players that could appear in a team’s starting eleven. Moreover, if I am mistaken, Michel Platini has recently talked about wanting to go back to limits on the number of foreign players that clubs can carry.

  4. BTW, for the reasons you give, you should love that the World Series in baseball isn’t a nationalist party and the lame World Baseball Classic pitting nation vs. nation does not even have all the world’s best players playing in it.

    1. I’ve attended some WBC games and loved it. No event has “all the world’s best players” but good events bring most of the good players together and give them a reason to compete at their highest level. The WBC fits the bill way more than you basic Milwaukee v. Pirates game or even Giant-Dodger rivalry games.

      The WBC delivers passionate and excellent play.

      1. Given how pitchers must prepare themselves for a long season, the pitching in the late winter for the WBC does not reflect that part of the game at its best.

        But bad baseball is like bad pizza, its still pretty good!

  5. Hmmm … Both FIFA and UEFA are always trying to assert their political “might” on the game. The reason for UEFA being the more modern organization is they’ve to meet their members on eye level. You can’t mess around so much with clubs like Real, Inter, Bayern, Chelsea, … Inter won the Champions League with no Italian player on the pitch except for the last 5 minutes.

    FIFA itself does not really care about nations or harbour some old fashioned nationalistic beliefs. More appropriate would be the term feudalism. Sepp Blatter the unelected king handing out national fiefdoms in return for no questions asked. It’s an open secret that in order to host a world cup tournament you must hold your nose and bribe some of these mini-dictators.

    As much as I enjoy the world cup as such there’s a lot wrong about it. The world cup will add 0.5% GDP growth in South Africa for the cost of R33 billion. Most of these investments went into airport improvements, stadiums and crime protection. The stadiums will be white elephants afterwards. I don’t think there will be a lot of “trickle down” to the poor in South Africa living below the poverty line.

    The first thing I would abolish is the concept of a host nation. Instead it should be a 4 year circus wandering from one continent to the other. Existing stadiums could be used again and investment could focus on infrastructure, that makes sense in the absence of football (transportation, …) This would also put a stop to these nonsensical beauty contests. And I would stop FIFA to siphon so much financial gains from participating economies.

    In regard to Grover: I think the beauty of soccer is simplicity. Everybody can play it without infrastructure and with minimal gear. In other words it’s the game of the poor. My father as a kid played soccer after WW2 in war ravaged Vienna. 4 stones for the 4 goal posts and no ball. Instead they used a “Fetzenlaberl” which was old fabric stitched together to resemble a ball. I still have it and it works 😉

  6. While there are frequent disputes between FIFA and UEFA, I think this article points to one of the main cultural differences between American sports and European ones. In the U.S. we crown a single champion at the end of the season. In Europe teams compete in multiple competitions at once. A soccer player may compete with his club for the league season title, the league tournament title, the country’s cup tournament (among all the clubs), the champions league or Europa cup, all while playing on his country’s national team competing for the European cup, Confederations cup, or the World cup.

    So lose one, another one is still up for grabs. This has the disadvantage of not crowning a decisive champion, but has the advantage of keeping fans’ interest on a number of levels: even if a team is eliminated early on in one competition, they may remain competitive in two or three others. And fans keep spending money to watch matches. Teams and players are judged on the number of trophies they bring home from the many different competitions.

    Just this season Portsmouth, a team at the bottom of the Premier League table, managed to keep their fans coming to games because they made it to the finals of the FA cup (where they eventually lost to Chelsea).

    All this to say that Americans like crowning a definitive champion in all sports: winner-takes-all. A look at the debate surrounding college football’s bowl system confirms this. American sports are also more insular (no offense Toronto Blue Jays). British or Spanish club teams, for example, look at themselves as part of the broader network of international football. The Yankees and Lakers see any international competition as little more than an occasional nuisance.

  7. Hey, Marcus, what is Ajax doing on your list of “the best [club] teams in the world?” Back in the glorious days of Cruyff and total football, sure, but not for a long time. Then I think, hmm, Marcus’s pride in all things Dutch is speaking — patriotism, nationalistic sentiment.

    And what drove Ajax out of the top ranks? The dominance of the almighty cash nexus, driven by the size of the available TV audience. A small market team can no longer really compete in an age when the market rules.

    Much to be said for freedom of contract, of course, but much to be said as well for associations based on other kinds of ties than are provided by offer, acceptance, and consideration.

    Your friend, Tom

  8. “…sponsoring its own competition between national teams every four years, the European Cup…”

    That should be the European Championships. The European Cup was the precursor to the Champions League.

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