Tag: soccer

Belabored Belated Thursday Football Linkage

I’m back from Brazil and resurfacing with many story ideas from my recent adventures. In the meantime, if you are like me, you have soccer on the brain and are getting your head around yesterday’s winning loss to Germany by the U.S. team.

I’ll make a tangential attempt to make a linkage to international politics, which is rather easy when you see the scope of money involved in building the stadiums in Brazil, the threats of player work stoppages, particularly by African teams, for failure to pay appearance fees, and the outlandish price of Neymar’s new shoes for Nike. Here is what I’ve been reading that connects soccer to international politics:

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Can You Pass the Cricket (errr.. Soccer) Test?

Its World Cup season again.  That time a year when I start getting interview requests about soccer/football, fandom, and loyalty.  The assumption for many seems to be if you are a citizen of a state, you must give a certain amount of loyalty to said state.  Fixed nationalism for many is an assumption.  With global immigration patterns and international connectivity, these sorts of ideas can no longer be assumptions.

This leads us back to the mythical test of national loyalties.  Can you pass your local cricket test? It’s a simple proposition, basically, do you support your national team above all others. Developed due to Lord Tebbit’s famous cricket test, the contention by the politician wasduck soccer that new British immigrants were disloyal to the country and evidence for this was that the immigrants support their former home’s national team over the English cricket team.  The claim continues to be made especially in light of the influx of those of Latin American decent into the United States.

Loyalty is a difficult question.  American audiences are always amazed to see Latin American teams descend on American cities by the tens of thousands to see the Mexican National Team, Bolivian, or any other prominent Latin American team play in the US.  The reason these teams do so is simple, they are ready avenues to revenue given the relative affluence of the market and the loyalty of the audience to the nation of their birth.

For some this is shocking.  For someone like me, it is certainly understandable.  Why is it that we do not question loyalties developed at birth to political parties, religions, or even cars, yet we question it when Latinos continue to express an attachment to the teams of their birth.  This development makes a lot sense from the perspective of a political protest.  Rooting for a sports team can be a safe place to protest.  It is an allowed expression of nationality.  This practice is not necessarily a challenge to the state, just an expression of pride.

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Are you ready for some football?

It’s been a big week for football (that is, soccer to all you U.S. readers). The raffle for 2014 World Cup tickets in Brazil started today ($90 is the starting price for first round games). Brazil had a dry run of hosting the Confederations Cup soccer tourney over the summer, which went great, aside from the mass protests by Brazilians upset about corruption and state incompetence that challenged the country’s leadership.

In other news, the British Premier League started this week (now on NBC instead of FoxSoccer, with hilarious Jason Sudeikis spoof of Americans’ lack of football knowledge mocked in a promo), with much handwringing about Arsenal’s chintzy manager Arsene Wenger and whether or not Gareth Bale will be transferred from Tottenham to Real Madrid for a staggering $150 million dollars (where a Spanish club can come up with this kind of cash at this moment in the country’s economy is beyond me). After Russia (!) hosts in 2018, there is still some question about whether World Cup 2022 will actually be held in the searing 120 degree summer heat of Qatar or moved to winter (the international politics of FIFA, anyone?).

And the sport is changing and challenging notions of race and citizenship. Enter Mario Balotelli or Super Mario. Continue reading

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What I Ended Up Reading in Between World Cup Matches Abroad

Last month during the Greece/South Korea World Cup game, my eight-year-old son noticed the players speaking to one another in English, and asked me: “Mom, is English the official language of soccer?” As with so many of his astute little queries, I didn’t know the answer at the time. But while in Asia, I read three fabulous books that kept bringing me back to this question and finally not only answered it, but helped me see why it matters.

First: How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization by Franklin Foer: sort of an empirical, if anecdotal, validation of FIFA’s claim that the world’s language is not English, but soccer itself.

This is a great read, if a bit simplistic. I know professors who have their students read this book freshman year, and Jon Western’s discussion of traveling in the Middle East over the past few weeks of WC finals echoes some of Foer’s insights. But Foer doesn’t actually explore the relationship between the English language and the globalization of soccer.

For that, I browsed through most of Robert McCrum‘s Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language. As the subtitle implies, McCrum’s central argument is that English has already become a sort of global Common.

Of course, I’ve long noticed the same trends my son picked up on: English as a kind of lingua franca in transnational spaces. [I was traveling, for example, with a native Arabic speaker, a native Filipino speaker, a brother fluent in Indonesian and Thai locals, but conversation within my group unfailingly took place in some form of English.] I have always tended to chalk this up to some combination of Anglo-American hegemony and the linguistic incompetence of Americans [my Kuwaiti friend rightly trusted his English more than he trusted my Arabic]. But McCrum demonstrates that it’s more than that. The success of English, he argues, is due in large part to the attributes of the language itself: its average word length and lack of diacritical marks make it easy to pick up, write and transliterate. [Try texting in Welsh or in Chinese characters for example.] Most importantly, it’s versatile, capable of transmogrifying (and how), evolving to fit many cultural and class contexts; and it possesses low barriers to entry (unlike say French). McCrum argues that this bundle of characteristics makes English uniquely suited to global spaces and accounts for its rapid proliferation worldwide.

An interesting functionalist account. But is it right that a particular language like English, so mired in imperial history, should take precedence over others? What does this mean about the global culture taking shape? The alternative of course is to build a global Common disconnected from such particularisms, which is precisely what the inventors of Esperanto attempted in the 19th century. But despite a small transnational community of speakers that persists to this day, Esperanto has never really filled its intended function of proliferating as a global lingua franca. Why?

McCrum doesn’t consider how English out-gamed its invented competitors, but this question is explored in the third book I read, the humorous and incisive In the Land of Invented Languages (many, many thanks to the commenter who suggested this one to me). If I had to recommend a single book this summer, here it is. I mean, it begins:

“Klingon speakers, those who have devoted themselves to the study of a language invented for the Star Trek franchise, inhabit the lowest possible rung on the geek ladder. Dungeons and Dragons players, ham radio operators, robot engineers, computer programmers, comic book collectors – they all look down on Klingon speakers…”

Author Arika Orent continues:

The lessons the Klingon phenomena can teach us about how language does and doesn’t work (trust me on this) can be fully appreciated only in the context of the long, strange history of language invention, a history of human ambition, ingenuity and struggle that, in a way, culminates with Klingon.”

This brilliant little book is a journey through some of the world’s 900 invented languages and the “mad dreamers” who made them up, pitched them to the world, and failed to get any takers. I put it down halfway inspired to become an Esperantist, for there is something beautiful in the decision to choose a global tongue for its very trans-nationalism, rather than having it chosen for you by syntax and historical circumstance – the process that McCrum documents.

But in the end, I put down my paperback (or my brother’s Kindle, whichever I happened to have) and went back to studying Thai phrases, not Esperanto, and to speaking English with my Arab and Filipino counterparts rather than struggling along in either Thai or Arabic. When Spain finally beat Holland in that dreadful final match, it was in some dialect of English – or Globish, rather – that the cheers and groans alike resounded through the beach bar, packed with Dutch, Spanish and other European tourists, where we watched. And as McCrum explains, English is indeed not only an informal working language of soccer, a game originally imported from England, but the official default language of FIFA.

So the basic answer to my son’s question is yes, but it’s what the question invites us to explore about world history, linguistics and the globalizing human mind that’s really interesting.

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money]

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Congratulations Spain!


I’ve been traveling in the Middle East and Europe for the past month and watched all, or parts of, 15 World Cup games in ten or so cities — including a kibbutz in northern Israel — with commentary in at least seven languages. I watched the games –mostly in bars — with Algerians, Mexicans, Germans, Italians, Palestinians, Israelis, French, Australians, etc…. I also watched kids playing and dreaming of their own World Cup on street corners, parks, and alleyways in most places I visited. Truly a joy to watch — especially in so many different places.

So, it’s been a bit of an adjustment since returning to the US a few days ago. On Friday, I got into my car and turned on WEEI Sports Radio in Boston and home of the Red Sox broadcasts — the morning show hosts (both right wingers who often plunge into political diatribes) were in the middle of a nasty rant against soccer and the World Cup. The hostility was striking and reminded me of Franklin Foer’s book How Soccer Explains the World. Foer argues that globalization, in part, explains the hostility by many in the US towards soccer because it is seen as part of “the rest of the world’s program” and a threat to American culture and pastimes — so be it.

My favorite book on the topic though is National Pastime: How Americans Play Baseball and the Rest of the World Plays Soccer by Stefan Symanski and Andrew Zimbalist. Both are economists and the book lays out the historical evolution of the organizational structures of modern baseball in the US and soccer in Europe and South America. It provides an interesting cross-cultural comparision of how these organizational structures and subsequent financing and marketing in earlier eras created the identities and cultural claims and of each pastime. It also has an excellent analysis of the mega-businesses that now control both sports across the globe. Worth a read.

In the meantime, they’ll be celebrating in Madrid tonight!

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