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Sociology of the World Cup

June 16, 2010 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

First, to put us all in the mood for this, here is Acoustic Alchemy, The Beautiful game:

As the first games of the World Cup are being played, a lot has already been written about the social aspects of the competition itself that illustrate the fact that there is more to sport events than sport and the embedding of this major event into social, economic and political processes and structures.

Which is why what looks like an old-fashioned functionalist view seems quite naive:

“Why do we love watching sport so much? Because it lifts our loneliness. We feel that we are participating in something huge and communal.

When a big sporting event is on, the world feels a bit less chaotic, fragmented, various. There is a focus. A focus that can be understood – by contrast the meaning of politics is contested and obscure. Here is something that matters (sort of), and that a 10-year-old can fully grasp.

(…)

And international football offers the most intense version. The experience spills out beyond the actual viewing of the game. Before and after the game there is something to talk about, with those acquaintances I usually just mumble hello to, and even with complete strangers. All the complications of the class divide suddenly melt away: we’re all in this together. And for the game itself I have cause to get together with my old mates, for some beer and banter. There will be thousands of little parties, all wired up to the same action.

What else in our culture can create this mood of social togetherness? I suppose there is a common mood at Christmas, and a big royal event makes most of us feel connected to something big and grand – that’s about it.

What about religion? Going to church, or mosque or temple, certainly gives one a regular dose of communal spirit, common purpose with one’s fellow worshippers. But can it provide a sense of solidarity with society in general? Only if there is a dominant form of religion, such as the C of E used to be. In some churches there is still a sense that worship unites the local community, but one has to suspend disbelief a bit to feel that this is the ritual lynchpin of society at large. The fact is that most people see religious worship as strange, naff, alien, politically suspect. It marks one out as a bit unusual. Religion is too awkward, contested. It divides rather than unites. Express interest in religion round a pub table, and you’ll get an awkward silence or a brittle argument. Mention a big sporting event and bonhomie is likely to descend.

So in our culture sport is the only form of ritual that really works, on a large scale. It is really capable of conjuring up a sense of social harmony. The grand occasions of state have struggled to do this for decades, we just have a few relics of that national religious culture, like Remembrance Day.”

That is certainly a very simplistic and superficial understanding. First off, the World Cup is not some collective ritual but the product of an international organization (FIFA) with specific interests. Also, one can only watch the games because rights have been negotiated and sold at a very high price to a variety of television networks around the world, and this is big money we are talking about here. Advertising revenues are expected. There will be a ton of World Cup related merchandise sold before, during and after the competition. Such a collective ritual is facilitated by information and communication technologies that have shrunk distances (although there is no abolishing the time zones).

As Fabien Ollier notes in this interview in Le Monde, the World Cup can be seen as planetary alienation:

“Il suffit de se plonger dans l’histoire des Coupes du monde pour en extraire la longue infamie politique et la stratégie d’aliénation planétaire. Le Mondial sud-africain ne fait d’ailleurs pas exception à la règle. L’expression du capital le plus prédateur est à l’œuvre : les multinationales partenaires de la FIFA et diverses organisations mafieuses se sont déjà abattues sur l’Afrique du Sud pour en tirer les plus gros bénéfices possibles. Un certain nombre de journalistes qui ont travaillé en profondeur sur le système FIFA ont mis en évidence le mode de fonctionnement plutôt crapuleux de l’organisation. Ce n’est un secret pour personne aujourd’hui. De plus, il y a une certaine indécence à faire croire que la population profitera de cette manne financière. Le nettoyage des quartiers pauvres, l’expulsion des habitants, la rénovation luxueuse de certains townships ont été contrôlés par des “gangs” qui n’ont pas l’habitude de reverser les bénéfices. Avec la majorité de la population vivant avec moins de 2 euros par jour, cet étalage de richesse est pour le moins contestable.

Le déploiement sécuritaire censé maintenir l’ordre, assurer une soi-disant paix civile n’est autre en réalité que la construction d’un véritable Etat de siège, un Etat “big brother”. Les hélicos, les milliers de policiers et de militaires ne sont là que pour contrôler, parquer la misère et protéger le luxe, pour permettre aux pseudo-passionnés de football de vibrer. La mobilisation de masse des esprits autour des équipes nationales induit la mise en place d’une hystérie collective obligatoire. Tout cela relève d’une diversion politique évidente, d’un contrôle idéologique d’une population. En temps de crise économique, le seul sujet qui devrait nous concerner est la santé de nos petits footballeurs. C’est pitoyable.”

For my non-French readers, the history of the World Cup is one more expression of political infamy and predatory capital with transnational corporations partnering with FIFA and the presence of organized criminal organizations. They will be the true beneficiaries of the Cup, not the local population. Indeed, as with the Olympics, ghettos and poor urban areas will be “cleaned up”, their dwellers expelled. In South Africa, townships will be renovated and gentrified under the control of gangs.

Also, any international sports events inevitably involves the technologies of the surveillance society that turns the hosting country into a state of siege that mostly has to ensure that the “right” people have access to the games and that misery and poverty remain invisible. This involves a great deal of militarization.

And then, there is the political diversion and the channeling into nationalistic ideologies. In times of economic crisis, for two weeks, there will be much talk about everything regarding “our” players. In France, this is the time that the government has chosen to “reform” retirement, a topic that normally triggers general strikes. Probably not this time.

Moreover, as Tony Karon noted, far from being the temporary forgetting of political conflict, the World Cup can be a reflection of it:

“Payback for wartime humiliation was also the Argentine narrative for Diego Maradona’s notorious “hand of God” goal against England at the 1986 World Cup (and the “goal of the century” he added later in the game). Sure, Maradona used his fist to prod the ball over Peter Shilton for the opening goal, but for a country still smarting from the wounds of the Falklands/Malvinas War four years earlier, England had to be beaten by any means necessary. As Maradona said afterwards: “We knew they had killed a lot of Argentine boys (in the Malvinas), killed them like little birds. And this was revenge.” Sure, Maradona had cheated, but so had the British, in Argentine minds, by sinking an Argentine warship outside the zone of exclusion around the islands, killing some 323 sailors. Jorge Valdano, who was on the field that day, knew Maradona had cheated, but said “at that moment we only felt joy, relief, perhaps a forced sense of justice. It was England, let’s not forget, and the Malvinas were fresh in the memory.””

Moreover, the World Cup is one of these global sports events that reflect the thickening of global governance structures that have designed global rules and regulations, similar to the WTO and other such global institutions. There is indeed no doubt that globalization and the rules of global governance have affected football, the rules regulating movements of players and other aspects of the game. Tony Karon:

“International football often demonstrates just how fluid and fungible the notion of nationality can be. In the same 2006 World Cup, when Croatia played Australia, three players in the Croatian squad were actually Australian, while seven of the Socceroos were eligible to represent Croatia.

And then there are the Brazilians: not those representing their own country, but the likes of Portugal’s Deco and Pepe, Spain’s Marcos Senna, Croatia’s Eduardo da Silva, Poland’s Roger Gurreiro, Turkey’s Mehmet Aurelio, Tunisia’s Francileudo Dos Santos and dozens more who have represented a total of 26 other national teams.

Switzerland’s electorate may be increasingly hostile towards immigrants, but the country’s fortunes in South Africa in June will depend heavily on the Turkish forwards Gokan Inler and Hakan Yekin, Cabo Verdean holding midfielder Gelson Fernandes, Ivorian defender Johan Djorou, Kosovar Albanian wide man Valon Behrami and a half-dozen other players from former Yugoslavia. Let’s just say that in international football, these days, the Zulu Scotsman named Makhathini in the Cadbury’s Lunchbar TV ad would no more raise an eyebrow than does Scottish striker Chris Iwelumo, whose dad is Nigerian.

Many of these shifts in identity are enabled by Fifa policies allowing a player to effectively “choose” a country to represent at senior level (even if they’ve played for a different one all the way up to under-21 level). But they are also the fruits of accelerated human migration that has accompanied economic globalisation. So eroded are national boundaries in the modern game that it mocks the very idea of a flag, anthem and passport that distinguishes “us” from “them”.”

For instance, as Tony Karon notes, the game is thoroughly globalized in terms of movement of peoples. This is anything but a neutral process. Power is at work here as well as core clubs (in Wallerstein’s sense of “core”) plunder the Global South from their most promising players and treat them as valuable investments and national considerations do not apply:

“The fact that the European game now features all the world’s soccer heroes is the reason you’re as likely to see a Chelsea or Arsenal shirt being worn at a mall in Shanghai or San Diego as in a Baghdad demonstration or Mogadishu firefight.

Almost without exception, today the world’s best players play their club football in Europe. Brazil’s and Argentina’s World Cup squads will be picked almost entirely from Europe-based players, and those will also be the mainstay of the likes of Uruguay, Chile and Honduras. Ivory Coast took just one home-based player to the recent African Nations Cup in Angola, and Ghana is likely to do the same at the World Cup. Don’t expect any in Cameroon’s squad, while there are unlikely to be more than two or three in Nigeria’s squad.

Although there are comparatively few South Africans playing in Europe, they’ll be among the key players for Bafana Bafana.

Having assembled so much of the world’s football talent at considerable cost, Europe’s top clubs have begun to organise themselves to protect their investment. They are pushing back against Fifa rules that force them to make players available for international matches, particularly friendlies, often returning home crocked.

The European clubs are particularly irked by the African Cup of Nations, during which they lose many key players for up to six weeks at the height of the European season. (The fact that so many African players now play their “domestic” football in Europe makes it likely that Fifa will eventually succumb to pressure to reschedule the Nations Cup to coincide with the European summer.) But tension between the clubs and national teams is likely to intensify in the years ahead.”

So here again, we face more than just a benign globalization process. Indeed, a lot of ink has been devoted to detailing the winners and losers of globalization. The dividing lines run across and between societies and countries. This is reflected in the world Cup as well, except that this is an aspect that the organizers would rather remain invisible.

Actually, structuring processes are designed to ensure that only the “right” kind of businesses and traders benefit from the World Cup:

“Under strict bylaws enforced at the insistence of football’s governing body, informal traders – a crucial part of any African economy – have been banned around the 10 stadiums where matches will be played. Even the future of the most important legacy project of the tournament – public bus transport – is in the balance, amid government reticence to stand up to South Africa’s powerful minibus-taxi industry.”

And then there is the “softer” discrimination, that of the digital divide and the neglect of the fact that a lot of people in the world do not have easy access to the Internet and credit cards to book tickets:

“The African credentials of the event have also been called into question after it became clear that Fifa’s ultra-secure internet ticketing system had left most of the continent unable to buy seats. With Visa as a major sponsor, Fifa kept ticket sales online until 15 April when poor sales forced them to open ticketing booths in the host country. As a result, only 11,000 African fans outside South Africa have purchased tickets, even though a record six African teams – the hosts, as well as Ghana, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Nigeria and Algeria – have qualified. Local organising committee chairman Danny Jordaan admits the African sales have been a disappointment. “Tickets sold best in countries like the United States, where internet penetration is the highest. Yet we know that African fans often do not have credit cards and access to the internet, and they prefer to hand over their cash and get their ticket. It is a lesson for the future.”"

So, for the locals, it is hard to avoid the impression that the World Cup is “just for the rich.”

But surely, there are economic benefits to hosting such an event, right? Well, according to The Grumpy Sociologist, that in itself, is questionable:

“Those who support major sporting events going to various locales often argue the events will bring in international money via tourists and build a long-term infrastructure that supports the local economy. That might be true for locales that are already well off, but for regions that are hurting, the sporting events do little if anything in the form of long-term sustenance. The 2004 Olympics were held in Greece, and look at Greece now.”

After all, who will be footing the $4bn bill for the World Cup, South Africa itself, in the context of declining revenue.

“In 2004, when Fifa awarded the tournament to the country, consultants Grant Thornton predicted costs of just $300m on stadiums and infrastructure and a boost to gross domestic product of $2.9bn.

Today we know that $300m would not have even covered the cost of rebuilding Soccer City, where the opening game and final will be held, let alone the other $1bn needed to build and refurbish the other stadiums.

When the costs of upgrading airports, inner city transport, telecoms infrastructure and the actual running of the show are counted, the total bill for the World Cup has risen more than tenfold, to almost $4bn.

So, as the costs have increased, have the likely economic gains for South Africa also increased?

At this stage, it looks like South Africa may struggle to make the $3bn originally forecast.

On the other side of the global economic downturn, the projected figures on visitor numbers and their anticipated spend look very optimistic.

Fifa’s ruthless defence of its brand and the interests of its main sponsors mean that there are restricted opportunities for traders and small businesses to get a slice of the tourist pie.”

So, the World Cup already has winners and losers, and I don’t mean the winning and losing teams.

Posted in Collective Behavior, Commodification, Consumerism, Corporatism, Economy, Embeddedness, Global Governance, Globalization, Labor, Nationalism, Social Inequalities, Social Institutions, Social Stratification, Social Structure, Sociology, Sports | No Comments »



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