Soccer vs. McWorld

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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