Thursday, June 01, 2006

Globalization and Football


It occurred to me today that football has really undergone two waves of globalization - much like the world economy. The first wave of globalization - both economically and sportingly - occurred in the late Victorian era, when British sailors and railway engineers brought the game to pretty much every nook and cranny in the world, along with the other fruits of the industrial revolution.

(Quick note to the Italophiles who suggest that modern football is a descendant of the medieval Florentine game of "calcio" : that particular legend owes more to Mussolini's fevered propagada machine than it does to historical truth: for more, see John Foot's excellent new book Calcio.)

The second wave of football globalization had to wait several decades. Arguably, it began in July 1970, when the World Cup was for the first time broadcast live around the world in colour! But the process was really kickstarted by two separate events in the mid-1990s (again, coinciding neatly with a larger process of economic globalization). The first was the arrival of big TV money, courtesy largely of Rupert Murdoch and his various media properties.

(Does it strike anyone else as odd that football owes so much to an Australian? When I lived in Australia, I never heard soccer referred to as anything other than "wogball". And this was in a school largely populated by first generation Croatian and Armenian immigrants....)

The second event was the Bosman ruling, which was not only soccer's equivalent of the Curt Flood case (it created the "right" of free-agency), but also the case that forced European football to (shock, horror!) actually conform to European law. European leagues that had formerly restricted teams to three "foreigners" could no longer, in violation of the Treaty of Rome, describe other Europeans as "foreign". The upshot of this was that European teams suddenly became hugely more cosmopolitan - in the UK, first Chelsea then Arsenal would occasionally field teams without a single British citizen in the starting XI.

Football's anti-globalizers, like their political and economic counterparts, are humourless pedants whose view of the pre-Bosman past contains so much rose-tint that it's actually opaque. The most beautiful teams in football today - Arsenal and Barcelona - have achieved their status precisely because of the way they merge different national styles and players.

OK, yes, the monstrosity of Chel$ea is a product of these same forces. And agreed, Chel$ea does appear to be a conscientious objector in the war to make football a more attractive sport. But there's no point throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Viva globalization. Viva Bosman. Viva Murdoch.

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