Soccer vs. McWorld

The world's favorite game is actually a buffer against globalization


| January 22, 2004


Michael Jordan may have been popular enough to inspire a few thugs to steal shoes, but he never drove Japanese women to shave their pubic hair. That high honor was reserved for David Beckham -- the English midfielder who has kicked Jordan aside as the world's foremost sports star -- after he turned up for a 2002 World Cup game with a mohawk.

Beckham is big partly because soccer is. 'After all,' writes Franklin Foer for foreignpolicy.com, 'more than basketball or even the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, soccer is the most globalized institution on the planet. 'But,' he concludes, 'in many ways, the beautiful game reveals much more about globalization's limits that its possibilities.'

Loer traces soccer's global scope to post-World War II Europe, when clubs began to cross borders for matches. 'Once competition globalized,' he writes, 'the hunt for labor resources quickly followed.' Soon, every field was mined in the worldwide search for the next star, which increased both the level of play and the need for clubs to find the best players, regardless of nationality. Much like other sectors of the global economy, critics of soccer's cross-cultural trends 'could not ultimately stave off the seductive benefits of cheap, skilled labor from abroad.'

Yet it turned out that soccer is surprisingly resistant to de-nationalization. Loer cites England, Portugal, Poland and Japan as examples of clubs that hired foreign talent in vain attempts to build more competitive teams. Vain, because no individual can alter a team's fundamental playing style, which, Loer argues is 'deeply ingrained in the culture of the game.' The English favor long-balls. Italians are tough defenders. Brazilians simply dance. Soccer fans know this. And it's evidence, Loer says, that critics of globalization 'underestimate [indigenous cultures' ability to withstand the market assault.'

Still, Foer says, big money matters in soccer. The well funded teams, like Manchester United, dominate the game and have always done so, with only short intervals of eclipse. The British team Chelsea has prospered on the field thanks to infusions of Russian oil money. Soccer style may preserve national differences, but international cash flows can still build winners.
-- Eric Larson

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