Two omens of apocalypse, or perhaps global salvation: During the 2002 World Cup, the English midfielder David Beckham, famed bender of the ball, styled his hair in a mohawk. Almost instantly, Japanese adolescents appeared with tread marks on their shorn heads; professional women, according to the Japanese newsmagazine Shukan Jitsuwa, even trimmed their pubic hair in homage. A bit further west, in Bangkok, Thailand, the monks of the Pariwas Buddhist temple placed a Beckham statuette in a spot reserved for figures of minor deities.
It should surprise no one that this London cockney has replaced basketball icon Michael Jordan as the world's most transcendent celebrity athlete. After all, more than basketball or even the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, soccer is the most globalized institution on the planet.
Soccer began to outgrow its national borders early in the post-World-War-II era. While statesman Robert Schuman was daydreaming about a common European market and government, European soccer clubs actually moved toward union. The most successful clubs started competing against one another in regular transnational tournaments, such as the events now known as Champions League and the Union of European Football Associations Cup. These tournaments were a fan's dream: the chance to see Juventus of Turin play Bayern Munich one week and FC Barcelona the next. But more important, they were an owner's dream: blockbuster fixtures that brought unprecedented gate receipts and an enormous infusion of television revenue. This transnational idea was such a good one that Latin America, Africa, and Asia quickly created their own knockoffs.
Once competition globalized, the hunt for labor resources quickly followed. Club owners scoured the planet for superstars that they could buy on the cheap. Spanish teams shopped for talent in former colonies such as Argentina and Uruguay. Argentina plundered the leagues of poorer neighbors such as Paraguay. At first, this move toward an international market inspired a backlash. Politicians and sportswriters fretted that the influx from abroad would quash the development of young local talent. In Spain, for example, dictator Francisco Franco prohibited the importation of foreign players. Brazil's government declared Pelé a national treasure in 1961 and legally forbade his sale to a foreign team. But these stabs at nationalist economics could not ultimately stave off the seductive benefits of cheap, skilled labor from abroad. And, after a while, the foreign stars were needed to compete at the highest levels of European soccer. The game evolved to the point where an English club might field a team without any Englishmen.
By the 1990s, capital frictionlessly flowed across borders in the global soccer economy. European clubs not only posted scouts throughout the developing world, they also bought teams there. Ajax of Amsterdam acquired substantial shares of outfits in Cape Town and Ghana. Newcastle United began using China's Dalian Shide Football Club as a feeder. The biggest clubs started to think of themselves as multinational conglomerates. Organizations such as Manchester United and Real Madrid acquired a full portfolio of cable stations, restaurants, and megastores, catering to audiences as far away as Kuala Lumpur and Shanghai. Even with last year's dull markets, Manchester United's pretax profits for the 12 months ending on July 31, 2003, exceeded $65 million.
It is ironic, then, that soccer, for all its one-worldist features, doesn't evince the power of the new order as much as expose its limits. Manchester United and Real Madrid may embrace the ethos of globalization by accumulating wealth and diminishing national sovereignty. But a tangle of intensely local loyalties, identities, tensions, economies, and corruption endures -- in some cases, not despite globalization, but because of it.
ENGLAND, HALF ENGLISH?
During Franco's rule, the clubs Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad were the only venues where Basque people could express their cultural pride without winding up in jail. In English industrial towns such as Coventry and Derby, soccer clubs ballasted together communities amid oppressive dinginess. It wasn't just that many clubs had deep cultural roots. Each nation evolved its own particular style of play -- the Italian doctrine of catenaccio (or defensive lockdown), Brazilian samba soccer, and so on. In part, these were easy clichés. But to anyone who watched World Cups, they were also undeniably true clichés.
Three years ago, England, birthplace of the beautiful game, handed over its national team to a Swedish manager named Sven Goran Eriksson. It is difficult to convey just how shocked English fans felt. For much of the nation's soccer history, beloved, quintessentially English characters had run the team. These “lads," typically ex-players, often turned a blind eye when their squads drank lager on the eve of big games, and forgave men for lack of training so long as they spilled their guts on the field. For all their inspirational power, though, these English managers tended to lack tactical acumen. They recycled stodgy formations that encouraged the same, ineffectual mode of attack -- a long ball kicked over the midfield to a lone attacker, a style that perfectly reflected stereotypes about stiff-upper-lip English resoluteness. Their lack of creativity was evident in the national trophy case. Despite England's singular place in the game's history, it has won a lone World Cup (in 1966, as the tournament's host team), and not a single European championship.