The Straits Times

JUN 20 1998

 What is really at stake in the World Cup finals 


IF GEORGE Orwell were still alive he might warn you about getting too comfortable as you settle down to watch football's World Cup this month. 

For Orwell, sport was war without the shooting and as you cheer for Italy you might ponder the risks. 

No, I am not seriously suggesting that football and sports in general can be a dangerous obsession, but there is a serious side. 

El Salvador and Honduras went to war in 1969 over football and various Olympic games have been boycotted because of political disputes. 

Hitler's 1936 Olympics in Berlin was a symbol of the ethics of rising fascism and Palestinian terrorists killed Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. 

Striking Air France staff seems tame by comparison. 

There are also the more positive sporting stories such as the role of ping-pong diplomacy in US-China detente. 

The observant fan might note that Iranian and US teams are drawn against each other in Group F in the World Cup and their French hosts are keen to see detente between the two so their oil companies can make money without fear of US sanctions. 

So what might a politically-minded World Cup watcher see behind the sporting genius on the pitch? 

For Europeans, the lessons seem particularly interesting. It seems that a closer union in Europe is in the making -- at least that is how it must look to fans of Chelsea football club in London who have grown proud of their cup-winning team led by Italians. 

Perhaps Londoners will be cheering for Italy as much as England. 

They might also be forgiven for thinking there is a developing single European style of football, created by the free movement of their stars around the EU. 

There certainly seems to be a strong European Union built on criticism of France for providing so few tickets to non-French people. 

Much like the dislike of France because of its bullying of EU partners over the head of the European Central Bank, so there will be a shared European pleasure in seeing the French team punished for the supposed arrogance of its bureaucrats in managing the World Cup. 

British fans will see the presence of a separate team from Scotland as a harbinger of things to come. 

British Eurosceptics will see this as yet another effort by the EU to divide and rule the British Isles. Thank goodness the Irish did not make the finals! 

But the more far-sighted British will take pleasure from the fact that Anglo-Saxon capitalism is stealthily grabbing control of European football through its management of the global financial markets. 

Now that UK clubs are obtaining vast amounts of money from selling shares and British satellite television is dominating markets and providing vast profits for clubs, British teams can now buy the best players. 

Who needs to grow your own stars when you can buy them on the open market? 



The smug British will smirk at their new, covert strategy for regaining control of the game they claim to have invented. And yet Europeans should not get too self-satisfied about the finances of football. 

Even the biggest stars of the game do not figure in the top 20 of global sporting money-spinners. Ronaldo, Maldini, Shearer, and Del Piero are paupers beside Michael Jordan, Evander Holyfield and Tiger Woods. 

Football will have to become even more subject to Anglo-Saxon money markets if it is to truly be a wealthy global sport. 

This might seem like an odd thing to say when the cumulative total of the TV audience for the World Cup is expected to be 37 billion people, and about a quarter of the world's population is likely to watch the final. 

But despite the fact that US is a minor footballing nation, the main economic powerhouses of the World Cup will be from the American-dominated global capitalist economy. Coca-Cola, Hewlett Packard and Anheuser-Bush will be joined by the odd Japanese multinational such as Canon. 

The combination of the money and the most powerful teams suggest a world run by the Atlantic world. 

There is much soul-searching just now in Asia about why they have so few teams at the World Cup and why none is expected to get past the first round. 

The Arab world has a foothold in the form of Saudi Arabia, but it is seen as merely the flimsy product of a large pool of fleeting oil revenue. 

Africans sometimes make much of their rising talent, but they are clearly seen as the weakest parts of the Atlantic world. 

Nigeria somehow symbolises the sense of unreliability and corrupt practices that few take seriously as a challenge to the wealthier parts of the Atlantic. 

At least the World Cup will be relatively free of some of the political problems that plague the Olympics. Thankfully, we will hear little about drug abuse. 

The Olympics are also criticised for making women second-class citizens, but the World Cup that only involves males is enjoying a rapid increase in popularity among women. Perhaps it has to do with the intensifying tendency to exploit the stars as sex symbols. 

Football, like the Olympics, is marred by excessive interference by bureaucrats and politicians -- often corrupt ones at that. 

As in the Olympics, there is good reason to doubt the impartiality of umpires. Tempers are bound to rise when these failings are combined under the glare of global television. 

But in the end, such political questions will actually add to our enjoyment of the spectacle and sheer skill on show: football is often called working class ballet. 

It is also worth remembering that football is a pinnacle of competition in an increasingly globalised political economy. Therefore, we can take all the more pleasure, at least for a month, in the illusion that we live in a world of independent sovereign states.

[The writer is the Director of Studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. He contributed this article to The Straits Times.] 



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