The World Cup will gather together millions of fans supporting their country’s teams, Kanishk Tharoor writes, but the true new face of global football is one of scattered supporters and competing international brands. (Published in The National)
When the World Cup begins today, remember those who are not there. Not the teams and fans of countries like Egypt and Russia, who narrowly missed out on a trip to South Africa. No, not them, but rather those poor souls who never truly entertained the possibility of qualification, for whom even hope is something of a luxury.
For countless millions of football fans, the World Cup has been – and seems destined to always be – the affair of others.
This, of course, does not necessarily prevent them from savouring the tournament.
Accustomed to the eternal mediocrity of the Indian national team, certain rival neighbourhoods in Kolkata festoon their streets with either the blue and white of Argentina or the green-and-yellow of Brazil, thus annexing themselves for one month, every four years, to the distant passions and rivalries of South America. When Argentina do well, fireworks reverberate around the city. When Brazil succeed, it is even louder. Football is a losing sport in India, so everybody knows how to like a winner.
Most remote fans will not flaunt their extra-territorial loyalties so overtly. They may even purport to be disinterested in the outcomes of the matches, to be “neutral”, an awfully rare inclination in a sport known for its passionate, often combative spectators. But they will stay up all night or set their alarms for early in the morning with the same diligence as those lucky citizens of decent footballing nations.
Spare a thought for such people, for those football orphans who experience the joy of the World Cup vicariously over satellite TVs or crackling radios or high-speed internet streams. Every tournament, they can only look forward to taking pleasure in the pleasure of other countries.
The matches of this year’s World Cup are expected to be watched by some 30 billion “non-unique” viewers; many if not most will be from neutral territories. That they are drawn to the tournament despite having no dog of their own in the fight is a testament to the World Cup’s great virtue: its unparalleled global appeal.
Football, after all, is “the world’s game.” This may be one of the platitudes about harmony and humanism that Fifa, the tournament’s organisers, are ever keen to trot out. But it is viscerally true. At the 2006 World Cup, I danced and sang (well, in so far as I can do either) in a medieval square in Cologne with Angolan, Mexican and Iranian football fans. Few other sports can bring such unexpected combinations of people together, and no other event (not even the Olympics) evokes such intense global attention, conversation and emotion.
At the same time, “countryless” fans will forego the most powerful aspect of the tournament: the fleeting but meaningful moments of national togetherness that international football contests create. As the historian Eric Hobsbawm has astutely observed, football teams have a remarkable way of sparking national identity. When one country plays another on the football pitch, he writes, “the imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of 11 named people.”
We are tempted these days to distrust nationalism and its attendant chauvinist moods and fevers. But the unity promised by football is often quite benign, if not plainly a force for good. The north and the south of the Ivory Coast put their differences aside to join in support of Les Elephants, their footballers.
So too do Iraq’s Sunni, Shia and Kurds link arms – however briefly – when cheering for their national side. Even in less violent situations, football still finds a role to play. The great warmth of fellow feeling that engulfed Germany in 2006 following the strong performance of their national team was hailed by many as the first truly positive assertion of German identity in a century.
Such responsibility on the shoulders of the national team can be an overwhelming burden. After the economic crisis that decimated Argentina’s middle class in 2002, the country regrouped behind the team’s World Cup campaign. When La Albiceleste crashed out ignominiously in the first round, it was a body blow to a nation already on its knees.
Most countries participating in this year’s tournament lack desperate national crises that only football can surmount. But what the tournament offers fans of any country involved is magical and rare in increasingly fragmented times. It is the possibility of collective aspiration, collective euphoria and collective grief. Though the celebrations may be vigorous in Kolkata for every Brazilian goal, they cannot tap the experience of national joy. Any sense of connection, any attachment is inevitably ersatz.
But there is fast growing an alternative to the half-thrills of supporting a proxy World Cup team. Where national belonging may prevent the remote fan from feeling truly included in the World Cup, top European clubs now aggressively court supporters around the world. Club football dominates the global footballing calendar, and leagues in western Europe – particularly England’s Premier League – are the real bread and butter of the global football industry.
For top teams in the age of effortless information and instant communication, potential fans could be anywhere. Being an Arsenal supporter, for instance, does not require a particular passport or residence in the club’s traditional leafy North London borough. Rather, it merely demands entry, via TV and the internet, into the imagined community of Arsenal fans (“Gooners”). And it is these distant, armchair supporters in far-flung countries who are unwittingly transforming and redefining modern football.
With its great engine in western European leagues like England’s, football in the last ten years has grown into serious global business. Satellite TV brings European club football to hundreds of millions around the world, from the ever lucrative and populous markets of East and Southeast Asia to African slums like Kibera outside Nairobi, where fans congregate in TV halls named “Highbury”, “Old Trafford”, “San Siro”, and “Stamford Bridge”, after the spiritual homes of famous European teams.
Soaring commercial and advertising revenue has inflated the salaries of top players and the potential value of top teams. The purchase of clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City by foreign billionaires is indicative of how attractive such clubs have become both as investments and objects of international prestige and renown. Though European football has for decades drawn the most global interest, never before have its powerful clubs enjoyed such recognition, such enthusiasm, and such wealth.
But this rise in stature has been accompanied by the steady overturning of the relationship between clubs and their traditional, local fan bases. English domestic football is notable for its great appeal – the top division, the Premier League, is widely considered the best football league in the world – but there is also growing discontent within the game.
The “football boom” that followed the creation of the Premier League in 1992 (and the accompanying agreement of a series of lucrative TV deals between the league’s clubs and Sky) transformed the sport in England. Since then, ticket prices have climbed immensely, pricing out the traditional working-class supporters who once thronged the rowdy, smoky all-standing terraces that framed English football (these, too, have disappeared since the early 1990s, replaced by comfortable and far quieter all-seater stadia).
Nevertheless, the demographic shift within the grounds can also tell a positive tale: women and ethnic minorities are now far more numerous, while the threat of hooligan violence has greatly diminished. English football is a neater, smoother commercial product, eminently marketable to audiences abroad.
In the last few years, however, anger and organised resistance to the infusion of money in English football has finally begun to build. Fans feel rejected from their local teams, shamed by the supposed greed of the owners, and propelled into action, leading demonstrations or even forming their own clubs in a bid to return the game to its unsullied roots.
On radio talk shows and phone-ins, supporters of many teams rant bitterly about the greed of players and owners, lament the impossible cost of tickets, and remember the good old days when football was about people and not the shilling of big business. This has all transpired fairly invisibly to those outside Britain, obscured from the gaze and the concerns of the legions of fans in Nigeria or India or Malaysia.
But the uncomfortable truth for the natives is that it is upon this international audience – not its domestic fan base – that English and European football increasingly rely for TV and other commercial revenue. If Rob from Salford can no longer afford to watch his beloved Manchester United at Old Trafford or even buy the latest replica shirt, it is of little consequence; special packages allow Samar, visiting from Islamabad, to snap up the tickets, while Tan in Singapore buys official club merchandise from Manchester United’s Chinese-language website for his friends, all of whom stay up till odd hours to watch their team live and direct over satellite TV.
The top English teams have infinitely more fans around the world than at home. So we have an odd reconfiguration of the old colonial relationship: people in the “metropole” feel alienated from their teams – labours of love over many generations – as they are repackaged for the consumption of those in the “periphery”.
For fans in these margins of world football, the globalisation of the sport at club level offers access to a different kind of fan identity, one grounded not in shared geography or history, but in identification with the floating symbol of the club itself. The distinction here between club and national football is clear.
There are obvious, formal ways of establishing national affinities; it will take some suspension of disbelief for a man in Djibouti to embrace the Danish team in this World Cup as fully as a Dane can. But club football affords the possibility of seemingly real membership in a virtual collective, an imagined community of millions, if not tens or hundreds of millions (for those of you who support Manchester United).
Yet there is more at play here than the simple expansion of the traditional boundaries of club influence and appeal. The process of winning fans around the world operates according to the rules of the free market. The top European teams compete to produce the most attractive blend of on-the-pitch product and off-the-pitch style. In other words, in order to raise their global profile, the biggest clubs have long since transformed themselves into swaggering brands.
For those familiar with American spectator sports (or even contemporary Indian cricket), this may seem thoroughly unremarkable. In the context of football, it remains notable if only because of the gaping divide between the best of Europe and the rest. The vast majority of clubs from Latin America to Turkey are neglected by the international media’s disproportionate attention to western Europe. They are consigned to relative poverty and must assume a lower place in the informal food chain that drains the best talent into Europe’s rarefied elite.
These leagues in the shadow of western Europe have limited ambitions to export their product abroad, in large part because they cannot compete with the already established offerings of England, Spain and Italy. As a result, the older logic of local support, of sweaty, parochial intimacy with the collective, prevails in this vast hinterland of the footballing world. The football played in such places may not be of the highest quality. But the spectacle surrounding the game remains relatively unvarnished and raw and, in the eyes of the growing number of football nostalgics in England, true to the spirit of the game.
Albert Camus famously said: “All I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football.” Football taught him camaraderie, honesty, determination, and the rustic value of “sticking up for one another”. The basic civic ethos of togetherness and inclusion imbue the sport, both at the level of the player (it is the most open, the most egalitarian of all major team sports) and that of the spectator.
The manner in which football is supported around the world sets the sport apart. Though this instinct has been undermined significantly in some countries by the encroachment of the English and other European leagues, fans typically embrace their local clubs as social institutions. Here, Camus’ “morality” of loyalty and camaraderie surfaces. The club is an anchor on which to tether a sense of belonging to a collective, however inchoate and ephemeral. This is rather unique to football in its traditional milieu, and it is the source of the magical fervour that makes the game so special: the carnival of chanting, jumping, sometimes dancing that shadows the movements of 22 men in shorts across a green field.
To the uninitiated, and especially to those alien to the lure of spectator sports in general, it may very well seem a silly sight: thousands of men – yes, no matter where, it’s mostly men – many of them drunk or in the process of getting drunker, belting out songs that drone and wail above the din, urging on their side with foul-mouthed chants, fiery flares, and rolls of toilet paper tossed in great dive-bombing arcs onto the pitch. And, indeed, the behaviour of football fans can tread the border between silly and psychotic, as recurring outbreaks of football-related “hooligan” violence attest. It is, nevertheless, churlish to deny the power of the spectacle. Few sports can replicate the atmosphere of even an average football match.
One of the frequent complaints aired by disgruntled fans in England is that the atmosphere has drained out of many Premier League stadia. Contemporary football in the top European leagues (especially in England) would compel the traditional, passionate fans like those described above to sit down while watching the game, to visit concession stands, and to demand an acceptable sporting “product” on the field. But many football fans around the world (and, indeed, in the UK) are as interested in the pageantry surrounding the game as the game itself, as keen to participate in the spectacle as they are to witness it. Their mode of engagement with the sport is a reminder of how much football encourages not only a relationship between fans and their team, but between fans themselves.
International fans of club teams like Manchester United and Barcelona are denied, both by virtue of their distance and by the very nature of their connection to their team, the texture of this experience and community. Restricted to the internet and TV, their knowledge of such teams is filtered through glitz and polish. It is buttressed by the consumption of images of celebrity and individual glamour, of players who are less members of a team than representatives of a brand.
Nike’s “Write the Future” World Cup promotional video – ubiquitous on TV and available in full online, where it recently surpassed 12 million views on YouTube – is a masterful example of this way of presenting football to the world. It is lush, frenetic and totally mesmerising. Several of the world’s top stars, including Didier Drogba of the Ivory Coast, England’s Wayne Rooney, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, whiz around the football pitch, their actions on the field spliced with stylised visions of their futures should they fail or succeed. It is the consummate film of its kind. Here, we see in its perfected form contemporary football’s cult of the individual, of stars whose boots, shirts, faces, lives, even brands (in self-referential scenes, Ronaldo christens a stadium after himself, Brazil’s Ronaldinho advertises his own DVD) can be bundled into a slick, enthralling commercial package.
`In some ways, the World Cup is only an occasion for those industries around club football to flex their muscles to their fullest. It is obviously in Nike’s interest to sell its already profit-turning stars to the world (Nike made $1.7 billion in football-related revenue last year). But it is also in the interest of the top European club teams that boast such players in their ranks. In the competition for international audiences and market share, the brand power of individual players is a decisive factor. Fans are drawn to the glamour of Ronaldo, Rooney and Lionel Messi rather than their respective teams. Support for a club becomes necessarily entangled with the consumption of glistening images and calculated marketing.
The genie cannot be put back in the bottle, nor should it be returned. It is true that the internationalisation of the game has widened the gap between the best and the rest in the English and other European leagues. But there is something faintly perverse about the English longing, for example, for the grey days before the Premier League and the arrival of foreign money, attention and talent; the standard of play is scintillating now in comparison to the muddy, clogging dirge that passed for football in 1980s and early 1990s, and which was further haunted by the menace of endemic racism and violence. More generally, football as a global passtime has surely gained in popularity through the growing international appeal of high-quality leagues like the Premier League. Success at that level can inspire boys in Sierra Leone and Singapore in ways that their own trifling domestic tournaments could never hope to imitate.
The saddest result of the general trajectory of football’s global growth is not the disenfranchisement of fans in Britain and other parts of western Europe, as unfortunate as this process has been. Rather, it is the final transformation of how millions of people access the sport. This is not so much a problem in the strong footballing countries of Latin America and Europe (those countries that frequently qualify for major international tournaments), even as their domestic leagues live in the shadow of those in England, Spain and Italy. Local clubs in these regions will survive and perhaps even flourish despite lacking the same international audience. They will retain the intimacy of passionate football support, the boisterous solidarity of the terraces.
Unfortunately, in most of the world, spectatorship at the local level will wither away, if it has not already done so. What is good for football as a global business may be damaging for football’s future as a living, indigenous fixture in many countries. Kolkata, the most football-obsessed part of India, used to boast a vibrant league with several storied clubs, like the century-old Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, and Mohameddan Sporting, teams that would play each other in the mammoth Salt Lake Stadium in front of crowds approaching 120,000. With the coming of satellite TV and a steady diet of European football, a substantial portion of Kolkata’s fans (including essentially the entire middle class) were weaned off the swampy fare in their local stadia. You can’t really blame them. It’s far easier and far more comfortable to watch good football in the cool of your own home or in a tea shop than brave the summer heat in a rickety, crumbling stadium to witness footballing dross.
But just like the World Cup, the excitement of club football remains in another world, a rarefied and distant place, accessed only at arm’s length through the sparkling prism of international commerce. And it is a beautiful place, a magical far away land, full of glossy, giant-like heroes, who loom impossibly high over the ghosts of the here-and-now.
Kanishk Tharoor is a regular contributor to The Review and an associate editor at openDemocracy.