Global Politics and the World GameOctober 9, 2009
By Nnamdi Iwuora
Dr. Leonard Suransky recently asked for my thoughts on the possibility of a course in the summer of 2010 dealing with the relationship between sports and politics. The idea is that this would culminate in a class field trip to the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. The prospect of such a course immediately filled the soccer fan-atic in me with giddy excitement. I could already see myself in a burgeoning soccer stadium, surrounded by my unconditioned football loving ilk, cheering my favorite soccer stars at the first World Cup to be held in Africa. I could hear the distinct rhythms of the talking drums, the blare of the vuvuzelas, the energetic dance steps . . . my blissful dream was momentarily cut short as I remembered that the Super Eagles (my national team) were unlikely to make the soccer feast. I quickly pushed thoughts of the perennial under-achieving Super Eagles to the back of my mind. Nothing was going to spoil this party for me; I was going to the World Cup! “Yes (more like HELL YEAH!), by all means!” was my reply to Leonard. “What do we need to do to get the ball rolling?” I inquired excitedly.
Inevitably his answer was something about us doing loads of preliminary research. Usually, I am not the most enthusiastic researcher but this topic involved my two great passions: politics and sports. I immediately typed “politics and sports” into Google search, eagerly anticipating the results Google would spawn. I had barely spent five minutes going through my results when I realized that some of the most iconic moments in modern political history had actually taken place on sports fields all over the globe. From Jesse Owens dusting his running shoes with Hitler’s racial theories in Germany, Tommie Smith and John Carlos symbolizing the denigration of a race by performing the power to the people salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, to in recent times certain members of the Iranian national football team wearing green arm bands to show sympathy to the victims of the recent political unrest in the country during a match in South Korea.
Later that day, Leonard brought my attention to an interview with Franklin Foer, the author of the book, How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization. Foer felt that the world could be better understood by understanding the effect that soccer has on society, especially group identities. His thesis got me thinking about my own personal encounters with soccer and globalization. A couple of days previously, I had gone to a Turkish Donner stand to get a kebab sandwich. As usual my inability to speak a word of Dutch and to remember the exact kebab combo sandwich I enjoyed turned what should have been a simple trade involving sparse verbal exchange into a drawn out animated conversation which involved me pointing at every ingredient in the store and asking: “What is that?” The stand attendant—visibly trying to contain his mounting frustration—answered me in curt, heavily accented monosyllables: “Onions.” “Beef.” “Chicken…” Usually these encounters ended with the attendants giving me a look that clearly said that if they never saw me again they would be the happier for it. However, this time my bumbling kebab ordering skills must have sparked some interest in this attendant for he asked, “Where are you from?”
“Nigeria,” I replied casually. As a foreigner who can’t speak a word of Dutch you get used to that question.
“Hey! Uche!” he exclaimed, grinning from ear to ear.
“Uche!?” I repeated, surprised—Uche is a common Nigerian name but I still didn’t know why he had just blurted the name out.
He gave me a look that said that he was surprised, too, that I didn’t know what he meant. “He is good footballer; play for Fernabache in Turkey,” he explained excitedly.
Immediately it clicked. Uche was a Nigerian international footballer who had plied his trade on the Turkish team Fernabache. We immediately went into an animated discussion about other famous Nigerian and Turkish footballers and iconic football moments we had both witnessed. I remember that I found it fascinating the amount of similar experiences we shared because of football. At the end of our soccer conversation, he told me that because we were now friends he would give me a tip. Apparently, there was a special deal that day at the stand and I could get a kebab twice the size I had ordered for half the price. I switched orders immediately.
That encounter at the kebab stand wasn’t the first time I had made an unlikely friend or gained some favor because of football. Months before that, I had a discussion about Ajax FC—a club which has had its own fair share of Nigerian talent adorn its colors—with a local bartender. That conversation still pays the dividends of numerous free rounds of drinks anytime I visit the bar. A couple of years ago in The Gambia, I made my first Gambian friends due to a discussion about the collective pride we had all shared in 1996 when Nigeria became the first African country to win a gold medal in Olympic football. As I think about it, this list could go on and on. Soccer has even begun to help me cross the cultural barriers in the ladies department; almost every girl I meet nowadays supports my dear Arsenal FC (Go Gunners!)—helping me break the enormous obstacles of “small talk” (eat that Manchester United fans!).
The mutually reinforcing relationships of globalization and technological innovation have brought soccer to people as never before. An estimated 2.2 billion people tuned in to watch the last World Cup finals. Billions of people tune in every weekend to watch the top football leagues in the world, with the English Premiership alone estimated to have over half a billion viewers from 202 countries (the UN only has 197 members). Top teams like Manchester United and Real Madrid have become global phenomena, boasting fan bases that are larger than the populations of most countries. The global identities these teams have created are already being exploited by the transnational corporate world to market billions of dollars worth of diverse merchandise worldwide. In addition, top soccer players such as Christiano Ronaldo, David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Samuel Eto’o, etc., have become global icons, with almost as much sway as statesmen, especially at the grassroots level. International governmental and non-governmental organizations have recognized this status of soccer players, co-opting them in diverse global campaigns against issues such as poverty, illiteracy, climate change, HIV/AIDs, racism, etc.
The fact that most of the issues mentioned above affect the world’s poor—estimated to be about 70% of the world’s population—and the fact that football might be the only sport they can afford to play, might make soccer icons—most of them from austere or indigent backgrounds themselves—pivotal figures in tackling these issues. This association between soccer and the grassroots is increasingly bringing soccer into the political arena. George Weah, a former FIFA World Footballer of the Year, almost became president of Liberia riding on a wave of grassroots support. Players like Lilian Thuram, Olequer, and Didier Drogba have all come out making strong political statements in favor of the oppressed and poor masses. Inevitably, the more globalized the world becomes, the more soccer icons shall become involved in global issues and the more they would want to have a say in world affairs, especially as regards the poor. Hence, in a globalized world, the role of soccer is definitely bound to grow in world politics. The question of whether soccer should or can play a strong role in world affairs is still open for discussion, but it is obvious that it is providing new forms of opportunity for global interaction, identity creation, and problem solving.
After doing some preliminary research, my excitement at the prospect of a course on soccer and politics at Webster has reached new heights. The excitement in me as an International Relations student has even surpassed the earlier expressed heady excitement evoked in the football fan in me. The discipline of IR was conceived as the study of state foreign relations and international issues in order to formulate policies and situations that fostered international peace and security. Soccer’s (and sports in general) effect on society provides one such avenue through which international issues might be tackled. Studying the effects it has had politically and the future role it might have in international politics is an answer to the original call of the discipline and is a veritable pursuit for any social scientist; soccer stadia, blaring vuvuzelas, and incredible dance steps are only the icing on the cake.