- - Tuesday, December 10, 2013


FIFA, the international governing body for soccer, announced the 32-country World Cup draw on Friday. This global soccer (or, as it’s known in most countries, football) tournament will be held next summer in Brazil. It’s one of the world’s most-watched events: a combined total audience of 26.3 billion viewed matches in the 2006 tournament held in Germany, while 300 million watched the actual draw on live TV.

Alas, the U.S. soccer team is in a real pickle. They were placed in one of the two “groups of death,” along with three-time World Cup champion Germany, 2004 Euro Cup finalist Portugal, and 2010 World Cup quarterfinalist Ghana (which knocked them out of that particular competition).

The United States is a 150-to-1 shot at surviving the deadly Group G and winning the tournament. For a team whose best World Cup result was third place in 1930, this is a daunting task. No wonder the fat lady has already started warming up her chops.

I’m sure some Americans, upon hearing this news, will promptly close their eyes and minds and ignore the World Cup altogether. That’s their choice. If they do, they’ll miss an important sporting event and turn a blind eye to soccer’s enormous global impact on the political process.

While soccer doesn’t influence North American politics, its international influence is the stuff of legends.

David Goldblatt wrote in “The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football” (2006) that while Latin America and Europe had “their own version of the ‘keep politics out of football brigade’” in the early 20th century, “it was the proponents of ‘sports as politics by any other means’ that came to set the rules of the game.” More to the point, “The triumph of the ‘sports as politics’ model in international football was in part the result of postwar politics — ultranationalists, most notably European fascists, steadily came to power and influence in the 1920s and 1930s.”

This may sound like a foreign concept (so to speak) to North American observers, but the international line between politics and sports remains blurred.

When it comes to “high politics,” in Mr. Goldblatt’s view, “football was captured and celebrated.” France, after winning the 1998 World Cup, “decided to celebrate itself as a multiethnic republic and to hold a carnival of the triumph of civic over ethnic nationalism because it won a game of football.” Turkey’s former president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, “declared it worthy of a national holiday” when his country unexpectedly reached the 2002 World Cup semifinals. Silvio Berlusconi, former Italian prime minister and owner of A.C. Milan, “broke off from the tiresome details of politics and policy” to make a televised statement about “Italy’s agonizing defeat to France in the final of the European Championship in 2000.”

John Foot goes even further in “Calcio” (2006): “The idea that politics and sport should be kept apart is laughable in Italy.” As he writes, “Politics is everywhere, from the choice of which bar you frequent to which team you support.”

Mr. Foot also shows how some political allegiances in soccer are broken down. “Lazio fans are more right-wing than those of their rivals, Roma. Inter have a strong right-wing fan base, along with many long-suffering left-wing supporters. Milan’s ultra-fans have never ceded to the right, but their president, Silvio Berlusconi, is a hate figure on the left.”

Then again, should we be surprised? Soccer has an economic impact through league play and international competitions — and many politicians are fundamentally aware of this.

Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski note in “Soccernomics” (2012) that soccer teams have “found new ways of making money. However, the ideas hardly ever come from the clubs themselves.” For example, the prominent Australian businessman Rupert Murdoch approached English teams in 1992 about satellite coverage and paid “about $115 million a season for television rights to the new [English] Premier League.” Today, the EPL “gets about 14 times as much a season from TV.”

Regardless, Mr. Kuper and Mr. Syzmanski acknowledge it’s “almost impossible to run a soccer club like a solid profit-making business.” In their view, “there will always be rival owners — the Cragnottis, the Abrahamoviches, or the Gadhafis, who owned a chunk of Juventus — who don’t care about profits and will spend whatever it takes in the hope of winning prizes.”

This sounds a lot like some North American sports team owners. Maybe we’re not that different after all. Perhaps, just perhaps, you can muster a cheer or two for the underdog U.S. soccer lads during next year’s World Cup.

Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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