WASHINGTONThe World Cup kicked off in Johannesburg last week, and once again the connection between politics and soccer has tongues wagging.
There is some exaggeration about the effect of triumph and failure on governments. Brazils stunning loss to Uruguay in the 1950 final held in Rio de Janeiro did not harm President Gaspar Dutra. The victory some months later by his successor, Getulio Vargas, was unrelated to the soccer debacle. The fact that Italy won the 1982 World Cup held in Spain did not help Prime Minister Giovanni Spadolini, the first non-Christian Democrat of the postwar era, whose party was expelled from power soon after the national teams triumph.
More than any other sport, the soccer World Cup generates upward mobility. Upsets are frequent. North Korea defeated Italy in 1966, Algeria beat West Germany in 1982, Cameroon became a sensation in 1990.
The fact that some developing countriessuch as Argentinaare among the top soccer teams alters the traditional political and economic pecking order, at least for a few weeks, every four years. The kind of reshuffling of international hierarchies that the G-20 group of nations is trying to generate nowadays, so far without much success, really takes place at the World Cup, an event whose audience is comparable to the Olympics.
The soccer tournament turns on its head a world order still dominated by the United States. Although the World Cup attracts an American television audience similar to what Major League Baseball draws and soccer there is the top recreational sport for children, the game is still relatively minor as a spectator sport. Therefore its weight in the domestic sports-related economy is not huge.
However, soccer is a tool that American politicians increasingly are using as a way to connect with Hispanics, now an electoral force. The fact that Vice President Joe Biden attended the World Cup opening ceremony and the U.S. teams first match against England, and that Obama has announced he will follow the tournament with interest, has little to do with foreign policy. It is a question of domestic demographicsand therefore politics.
The World Cup, meanwhile, gives Europe a strange sense of comfort in these troubled days, allowing it to maintain an illusion of superiority no longer sustained in other fields. Europe is a decadent political and economic power compared to the rise of Asia. The European Unions $14 trillion economy, while close in size to that of the United States, largely props up a barely sustainable welfare state. But at the World Cup, where Europeans often excel, China, with an economy nearly three times larger than Germanys, is entirely irrelevant: It failed to even make the tournament after losing to Iraq in the qualifiers. The World Cup, then, has an effect on Europeans similar to that of Britains Commonwealth of Nations or Frances (BEG ITAL)La Francophonie(END ITAL): It preserves the memory of long- gone imperial greatness.
International soccer is also a catalyst for trends related to globalization. More than other sports, it has brought down barriers to the flow of people as well as capital, goods and services. Virtually no Latin American, African or Central European squad has a majority of its top players playing in domestic leagues. Over half of the non-Europeans competing in South Africa this year are playing professionally in Europemostly in Spain, Italy, Germany and Britain. The Ivory Coasts national team has 20 players in Europe. Just as interestingly, only four of the 23 players on the U.S. team play at home.
The influence of these foreigners in the communities that host them goes far beyond sports. The attachment of millions of fans to local-team foreign players who bring them joy during the year has some meaning at a time when the contradictory forces of globalization and nationalism, of increased cross-border exchanges and nativist or xenophobic reactions, are at work. For millions, these players are the most direct connection to cultures, languages and customs from faraway lands.
The World Cup will bring a needed relief to nations exhausted by the psychological consequences of the economic crisis. South Africa is a fitting host. The corruption and increasing authoritarianism of the African National Congress notwithstanding, it symbolizes the emergence of countriesincluding a much-improved South Africa itself, now boasting the worlds 18th largest stock exchangethat are eager to move ahead.
Alvaro Vargas Llosa
Alvaro Vargas Llosa is Senior Fellow of The Center on Global Prosperity at The Independent Institute. He is a native of Peru and received his B.S.C. in international history from the London School of Economics. His weekly column is syndicated worldwide by the Washington Post Writers Group, and his Independent Institute books include Lessons From the Poor: Triumph of the Entrepreneurial Spirit, The Che Guevara Myth and the Future of Liberty, and Liberty for Latin America.
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