MADRID The World Cup is the best sports event on the planet: it disrespects traditional hierarchies and is a potent dissolvent of national barriers.
Even in its early stages, the current World Cup confirms that countries with tiny economies and scant geopolitical influence can match the big powers. Trinidad & Tobago, a country of just over 1 million people and a GDP of only $13 billion, managed an upset draw against Sweden, which is nearly 30 times richer and has a long soccer history. Ecuador, which has taken part in a World Cup once before, beat Poland, a team with a mighty history that was a top scorer during the qualifiers in Europe. Not to mention Ivory Coast, now a World Cup star.
The World Cup is all about social mobility: success comes from initiative and creativity, not from political planning or economic power. The United States or China can dominate international events in which a concentration of resources on the development of physical capabilities enhances competitiveness (such as the Olympics). But in soccer, the worlds best teamBrazilowes little to athletic power and much to individual flair and spontaneous collective coordination (facilitated by certain cultural traits).
Many newcomers have impacted the game in the last few decades. Algerias defeat of West Germany in 1982, Cameroons run to the quarterfinals in 1990, Croatias rise to the top four in 1998, Senegals victory over France in 2002, and Togos presence in Germany 2006 underscore the seditious and iconoclastic nature of soccer, a game in which power is beyond the control of any one nation or cartel.
Branko Milanovic, the author of a study on soccer for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says, In the four latest World Cups, there were always at least two newcomers among the top eight national teams. According to his studies, the average difference among national teams has been reduced to one goal.
Two factors explain why the World Cup has become so competitive: the free mobility of players across national boundaries and the commercial nature of soccer clubs. Until the 1990s, Europe and Latin America severely limited the number of foreign players their national leagues could use. In many countries today, there is no limit. The nation-state has almost been abolished for league soccer. Clubs in Italy, Spain, England and Germany feature an overwhelming number of foreign players. In England, most of Chelseas players are foreign-born, and fans who define their identity through their soccer team could not care less. FC Barcelona, the No. 1 club in the world, would be nothing without Ronaldinho from Brazil, Samuel Etoo from Cameroon, Deco from Portugal and Lionel Messi from Argentina.
Players bring home skills learned through their contact with athletes of other nationalities. Ivory Coast, which has half of its team playing in the French league, is producing world-class soccer. The United States, which unlike the rest of the world shunned soccer (an export of the British empire) for a long time, has been getting better, in part because eight of the 11 players on its starting team are based in Europe. Germanys coach, Juergen Klinsmann, lives in California and has dared import American management and fitness techniques, causing a national stir.
The other factor in this globalization of soccer is the metamorphosis of clubs into commercial enterprises. A number of MBA programs in Spanish universities now offer case studies on how FC Barcelona has been run since 2003. The club has gone from near bankruptcy to producing 240 million euros in revenue, after investing 100 million euros in international players. Englands Manchester United is listed on the London Stock Exchange and Chelsea is owned by Russian tycoon Roman Abramovich, who was persecuted in Russia for being one of the oligarchs who became rich during the privatization era after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Through ticket sales, television rights and the merchandising of club products, these business entities have taken soccer to a new level (with fans in Asia and Latin America, the merchandising of FC Barcelona products extends over dozens of nations).
None of this means corruption will not tar soccer from time to time, as has recently happened in Italy with the national soccer body involved in fixing matches. But that has to do with the nature of the political environment, not with the nature of soccer.
What is left for soccer to become totally global and even more competitive is for FIFA, the world governing body, to eliminate rules that forbid national teams from using foreign players in international events such as the World Cup. It will eventually happen.