Globalization’s sins and World Cup relief

The 2018 World Cup in Russia is here. Globally, a hum is in the air. It’s all happening: viewing parties, betting slips, group stage predictions, TV studios scrambling, podcasts (I highly recommend We Came To Win) and more. Soon, the world’s largest TV audience will be watching, and Twitter will be clogged with various match hashtags, like #PORSPA or #ARGICE.

The World Cup is the sporting world’s premier “mega-event,” and as such, the tournament is studied as a model of globalization. Indeed, the sporting mega-event is possible only in a globalized age.

By globalization, I mean the world’s increased connectivity and global integration sparked by breakthroughs in transportation and communications technology. Of course, globalization has various dimensions – economic, political, cultural, etc. – which overlap, interpenetrate, or confound each other.

It’s easy to see why the World Cup, “as a mega-event,” is scrutinized as a globalized event—and often touted as a supreme example of everything that’s wrong with globalization. It’s an easy charge to throw around, given that the World Cup is: draped in the logos of transnational corporations (TNCs), is run by the famously corrupt FIFA, is sometimes built on “slave” labour and is frequently involved in displacing populations.

And let’s not even get into some of the tournament’s infamous hosts, like Mussolini’s Italy in 1934, the Chilean government in 1962, the Argentinean Junta in 1978, or Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

In this light, it’s easy to be cynical about the World Cup. However, I want to push back against this increasingly accepted view. It’s too simplistic to simply tar the World Cup with the sins of globalization.

Breaking it down

Let me explain. First, there’s the nature of the actual tournament. Teams are drawn strictly from pools of national players. This fact is a relief. Increasingly, the business of the summer and winter transfer markets is European soccer’s biggest story each season.

For example, last season was defined by Neymar’s transfer from FC Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain F.C. Transfers are increasingly topping €100 million, and teams are bankrolled by billionaire foreign owners or funded through sponsorship revenue received from companies or the obscenely rich TV contracts in European soccer. It’s no wonder something like the “Against Modern Football” movement is alive and well.

Yes, the World Cup is heavily shaded by globalization’s dark side, but at least there’s no transfer market. Teams are limited to whatever players are available to a given country, which means that even “big” soccer countries like Brazil, France, Argentina, or Germany all have weaknesses, which can’t fixed by the transfer market. Without the transfer market, fans must accept the action on the pitch, rather than yearn for another batch of transfer market moves.

Second, in an aggregate sense, the World Cup still holds a communal power over us that exceeds club soccer. Perhaps more than any other major sport, soccer uniquely requires the association of a team, aside from Diego Maradona in 1986. Philosopher Simon Critchley calls this a sort of idealized form of socialism in that “the social” carries the sport. Success in soccer is predicated on a unit of 11 players fluidly controlling the dynamic chaos of a pinging ball. This factor especially applies to the World Cup, where teams don’t have the benefit of training together weekly for entire seasons.

However, even more significantly, the World Cup’s associative power is goosebump-inducing for fans. Nations can become networked communities all collectively watching and sharing meaning. For example, the memory of Mexico’s infamous “Dos a Cero” disaster marked a nation, or Germany hosting the 2006 World Cup ushered in a new post-WWII identity.

Club competition pales in comparison

Sure, European club soccer also creates powerful moments of collectivity, but these moments are limited to a single city/region/fanbase. The scale of World Cup collectivity is much larger, centring the sensuous event (“sensate ecstasy” is what Critchley calls it) that is watching a football match.

As such, the World Cup illustrates something paradoxical about globalization. Roland Robertson’s concept glocalization points out that a mega-event like the World Cup is experienced both on global (i.e. universal) and local (i.e. particular) levels, hence it’s “glocal.”

Although the World Cup operates on the homogenized global level, for communities watching together the tournament is also deeply diverse. That diversity is what makes the World Cup so special.

For my readers in the U.S. – yes, we don’t have a nation in the World Cup this time, but as a “young” soccer country, we can still learn much from the World Cup about the process of creating national meaning and traditions around soccer. So I would encourage you to watch how fans from other countries—perhaps on social media or in your local community—watch the World Cup. What do they do? What meanings are drawn? And finally, what do you want to do next time the U.S. plays in the World Cup?

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