Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Outcasts

So, this book by Steve Menary seems to be all the rage among the blogeratti at the moment. A reasonably thorough review was justed posted over on Culture of Soccer, and there's been some chatter elsewhere, too.

Generally, the book has been pretty well received. However, I'm going to have to be the contrarian on this score. I desperately wanted to like this book. The premise is brilliant the material is great and the settings are exotic. The problem is that Menary simply doesn't deliver.

The opening chapter, which lays bare the many oddities of FIFA membership rules (the Faroe Islands are allwed in but Greenland is not, depsite having roughly similar legal relationships with their parent country, Denmark) is meant to set the stage for the book that follows by demonstrating that FIFA is "forgetting" various parts of the world. But while these forst thirty pages are by far the book's best, they fail to convince that current rules are in fact terribly unjust. Previous admission rules - such as the ones that allowed the Faroes and the Palestinians in in the first place may have been dumb-ass. But present ones?

The only country I can see that has a case here is Gibraltar (about which more later). Zanzibar? Part of Tanzania. Get over it. The channel islands? Part of the UK. Get over it. Greenland? Part of Denmark and there's only two pitches on the whole damn island. Get over it. The Kurds? The Sami? They may be people but they ain't countries. North Cyprus? Tibet? Tougher call, and one which sucks for Turkish Cypriots and Tibetans, but international recognition is kind of important if you're going to play international matches.

So what's the problem here? Not much, really, but that doesn't stop Menary from doing a little hopscotching around Europe trying to find whiny local FA people who want to achieve some kind of recognition for their plight. Their cases are almost uniformly unconvincing.

The exception is Gibraltar, which has basic self-rule and whose football is not part of the UK pyramid. They are best positioned on legal grounds to make the leap to international football, but for deep-rooted historical reasons, the Spanish have dug in and threatened to withdraw their teams (i.e. Real madrid and Barcelona) from UEFA competitions if Gibraltar is allowed in. And so UEFA prevaricates on Gibraltar's application, despite having lost the case at the Court for Arbitration in Sport. It is, in fact, the Gibraltar-Spain situation which has cause both FIFA and UEFA to become choosier about admitting micro-states, albeit only after letting in a lot of farily dubious candidates over the past twenty years, thus setting the stage for whiny books like this one.

This book screams "quickie". The research and editing are both sloppy. You can mostly overlook this because of the exotic locales, but it grates after a while. Less forgiveably, it underplays what is possibly the most interesting story of all here - namely, the shambles that is the NF Board. They are an eccentric bunch, these NF Board types, and the many chancers who seem to have glommed on to it. They seem to want to re-create a lot of the pageantry associated with FIFA, only to give it a "Springtime of Nations" gloss as they represent the oppressed nations of the world (oppressed? Padania were given provisional membership last month...). But their crtieria for membership is, shall we say, flexible - and seems to consist of a lot of internet searches. Who is the Masaai FA, anyway? They don't seem to exist in actual fact - yet they are listed as a member by the NF-Board.

And, indeed, as the book progresses, the NF-Board is put to shame by the happy-go-lucky types at St. Pauli FC who managed to organize the FIFI World Cup for "nations without countries" with no bureaucracy and minimal fuss in the summer of 2006. The NF-Board has yet to organize a serious tournament. That's the real story in this netherworld of International football, and while Menary dutifully reports some of it, he doesn't follow it to it's logical conclusion (i.e. "this non-FIFA stuff is quite insubstantial") for the obvious reasons that it undermines the rationale for the book in the first place.

There is room, of course, for non-FIFA international football. There are lots of peoples out there who do not form a nation-state but who still want to express their collective identities through sport. That's legitimate. But it's ludicrous to expect that FIFA or the IOC or any other international sporting body should be under any obligation to satisfy them. In sport, the Westphalian settlement still holds; were it to crumble, the result would be anarchy, not justice.

(And that's the last time in 2008 you'll hear me defend FIFA. I feel dirty.)

Anyways, if you're a devotee of footie lit, Outcasts is probably worth a gander, if only because the rest of the 2007 crop of books was so dismal. But scale down your expectations; like its subjects, this book isn't ready for the big leagues.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Tom said...

Very interesting, AG. Having read the review & interview by David at Culture of Soccer, it's fascinating to see a counter-point (though David's original review and a couple of the author's answers do back up a little of what you said, I think).

I'm also somewhat stunned to see you defend Fifa, but I think you're right in principle (I haven't read the book and am not expert in any of the cases, so can't say if you're right in fact, though I expect so).

2:21 AM  
Anonymous ursus arctos said...

I only read the Culture of Soccer interview, and it raised in my mind a number of the potential weaknesses that Gramsci focuses on. That said, my sense is that the book was conceived of as more of a human interest travelogue than as a critical examination of the respective nation's claims to sovereignty, and that the author was wary of bashing the NF folks who sponsored him.

It is also typical of international football politics that the "country" with the best case is the one most frustrated by politics.

Padania, really? The Klan doesn't play football, do they?

5:39 AM  

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