As the Czech Republic leads the United States 2-0 at the half in the first World Cup match for both teams, it occurs to me how odd it is to be able to watch the game live on ESPN2 (which I am in fact doing at the moment). Last World Cup, it was much harder to get live coverage, even of the US team’s matches, to say nothing of the matches of other and better teams. I was able to catch a fair bit of the tournament since I was in Germany for half of that summer, but the stateside coverage was, as I remember, quite pathetic — especially given that the World Cup is the biggest sporting event in the world. I mean, I’m a baseball fan, but the World Series is small potatoes compared to the World Cup (or, to use the German title that better expresses what this is, the “Weltmeisterschaft” — just the “world championship,” no further explanation needed.

Why football — “soccer” as we Yanks call it — is largely absent from the sports scene in the United States strikes me as a fitting subject for international relations scholars to tackle. The predominance of football in basically every part of the world except the center of the empire seems like precisely the sort of anomaly that IR theory ought to be able to tell us something about: why this distribution? Why this odd coupling of dominance and absence? IR theory and IR theorists (present company excluded) tends to ignore popular culture, so one might legitimately wonder what, if anything, it could tell us about something as globally prominent as the World Cup.

[That “if anything” was what we call foreshadowing, because the answer, in my opinion, is that IR theory tells us virtually nothing useful about the World Cup — and that’s to IR theory’s detriment. But I should actually get there instead of just declaring that.]

There are lots of ways to divide up IR theory, obviously. For this little exercise I’ll just use a rather conventional three-plus-one division (instead of doing Dan and my usual thing and trying to construct a realist-constructivist blend into existence by continually referring to it). So let’s briefly examine realism, liberalism, constructivism, and an alloyed blend I’ll call “critical theory.”

Realism: states, anarchy, competition for relative power, and the pursuit of territorial security as the paramount goal. States ignore relative power at their peril, because they get selected out of the system if they don’t pay enough attention to the only bottom line that matters in international politics. Realism and the World Cup: it simply doesn’t matter whether a country loses or wins a sporting competition as long as it can still muster enough military capacity to either defend itself against an invasion or to assert its will in areas more central to its security concerns. Popular culture — even something as massive as the World Cup — is ultimately irrelevant to what really matters in world politics. The only exception to this dismissal would be if one introduced “prestige” and argued that a country stood to gain a boost in its international image if it prevailed in the World Cup, and that somehow this would translate into enhanced influence for the country in question . . . which would be a bit of a difficult stretch to make. Even noting that states and their authorized representatives do in fact act as though the outcome of the game mattered in this way does not really address the issue, because it simply begs the question of why states and their authorized representatives act this way, since clearly the United States losing to the Czech Republic (which they are continuing to do as I type) doesn’t affect the US’s territorial integrity or relative military capacity.

Liberalism: states, anarchy as absence of a centralized enforcement mechanism for contracts, competition for various kinds of benefits, and a vague notion that state actors make their decisions rationally. Liberalism and the World Cup: well, host states sometimes make some money, and football teams generally can be money-making enterprises. FIFA, the global authority for football, is the kind of NGO that many liberals are fond of analyzing, since it promotes coordination and cooperation without imposing its will through a military threat. But really, what does this tell us? Not much. States do stuff: check. Their actions are strategic, more or less designed to achieve their ends: check. But this doesn’t tell us why anyone cares about football, or why Americans as a whole care less than the rest of the world seems to.

[Rosicky just scored again for the Czech Republic. 3-0 Czechs after 76 minutes. This game is pretty much over.]

Constructivism, mainline Anglophone variety: states have identities, anarchy isn’t determinate, interaction can transform social arrangements. Constructivism and the World Cup: the identities of states (nations, more precisely) are wrapped up with international competition, so how a team does matters to the people who constitute the nation that the team represents. America’s identity isn’t connected to football, so no one watches it. But once again, this doesn’t tell us much of interest; it shovels all of the interesting questions into the background. How did these identities get constituted as the identities that they presently are? How solid or stable are those identities?

[Now the commentators are just talking about how the US has to start thinking about its next match, against Italy, and not really commenting on the present game at all. It’s really all over.]

Critical theory, broadly understood: social relations should be analyzed in terms of their overall contribution to the (re)production of the social order. In particular, analysts should be focusing on how notions become hegemonic, how the “common sense” of a social order is created, and what that common sense obscures or veils or obfuscates. Critical theory and the World Cup: not to be too facetious, but from such a perspective the World Cup has to look like the ultimate opiate of the (global) masses, the ultimate distraction from the real issues facing the world — and those real issues, rather predictably, turn out to be the continued dominance of the oppressive bourgeois capitalists (who, incidentally, are making money on the tournament). Try though they might, citing Gramsci and Stuart Hall and other post/neomarxists whenever possible, critical theorists ultimately have to regard the content of popular culture as epiphenomenal. What matters is the function of things like the World Cup — and that function is already known in advance.

Verdict: IR theory doesn’t tell us much about the World Cup. Or about popular culture in general.

Now, there is a kind of theorizing that can tell us much of what we want to know, and shed some light on both facets of the puzzle: lots of football in the rest of the world, not so much in the United States. Not surprisingly, I think that a more relational mode of analysis can do the trick here. First point: there is no “reason” in the sense of a general law why football interest is distributed globally in the way that it is. There is just a specific sequence of historical events that culminated in the present distribution; given a different sequence, I might be wondering why the United States had no baseball, or no tennis, or whatever. Second point: there is nothing about the specific characteristics of a particular sport that explains why it is dominant or non-dominant; commentators can wax as poetic as they like about how football is such a European/Latin American/African/whatever game, and how baseball or football or basketball is such an American game, but statements of this kind are less explanations and more reflections of the very situation that stands in need of explanation. Third point: there’s nothing inherently stable about the present situation, and whatever stability we see is the result of ongoing processes of stabilization that have to be grasped, analyzed, and discussed.

So here’s a very quick stab at an answer, building on Markovits and Hellermann’s notion of “sport spaces”: particular sports achieve and sustain their dominance because they become woven into the fabric of everyday life. This weaving consists of several elements, including (perhaps most importantly) a career path for talented athletes within a country that leads to professional competition in that sport; from that career path comes popular interest, media coverage, and the whole rest of the package associated with a dominant sport. In the United States, good athletes in high school tend to play baseball, football, and basketball, largely because those are the sports where there is a clear career path: a draft, some kind of minor league system (in American football, the minor league system is college football), established teams with the money to pay players, and so on. In other parts of the world, there is a football career path, making it possible for talented athletes to take it. Where did these career paths come from? As you might expect, the story is somewhat idiosyncratic for each country and each sport, but the early part of the 20th century seems to loom large as a moment when a lot of factors (including the emergence of realtime broadcast media) came together to create a sport space in each country. No one covers football in the United States because no one plays football in the United States, and no one plays football in the United States because the best players go someplace else in order to pursue that career path — just the way that the very few European baseball players end up in the United States. (Baseball gets zippo coverage in Europe for just the same reason.)

So why all the coverage this time around? All I have to say is that during this match I have watched three commercials entirely in Spanish. Some advertisers smell a market. Sure, coroporations act so as to make money — but that’s not an analytically interesting statement. What is much more intersting is why the Spanish-speaking population of the United States is likely to be watching football on a weekday afternoon — and answering that question requires a more relational turn.

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