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World Cup 2002: triumph of the globalised game?

Don Flynn says that the glamour of the World Cup can't hide the fact that football everywhere is teetering on the brink of disaster.

It is claimed that 1.5 billion people watched the Brazil- Germany World Cup final in Yokohama on 30th June - one quarter of the population of the human race.

It was the culmination of a tournament celebrated as the point in which association football had finally matured as the human race's most popular game. Thirty-two national teams played in the tournament, representing all but one (Australasia the exception) - of the human occupied continents on the face of the planet.

The final did come down to the traditional rivalry between the premier soccer-playing land-masses - Europe versus Latin America. But the other fragments of homo sapiens made more of an impact on the competition than ever before. The Turks and South Koreans made it to the semi-final stage, and Senegal and the USA achieved the considerable success of making it to the quarters.

The Korea-Japan tournament represented a phase-change in the way soccer projected image to the world. It had to become a friendly game, where the business of kicking a ball about could be represented as cultured and inspirational.

The Asian hosts made magnificent contributions to the elevated tone of the tournament, by providing spanking new stadia which were works of art in themselves. From the flying saucer of the International Stadium in Yokohama, the boomeranging-curves of the Miyagi, the science fiction images of the Sapporo Dome, through to the Busan Asiad Stadium's weird giant metallic jelly-fish, it seemed that the architecture of the game had been visited by a new imagination and the notion of the traditional football ground had been re-invented for the 21st century.

Global culture

And the crowds for this World Cup behaved as though they had been individually selected for what looked like a showcase of globalised world culture.

The Japanese and Korean authorities appeared to have divided their respective populations between the competing reams to provide each with a guaranteed following. Faces were painted as the flags of the chosen nation, changing only as teams dropped out and everything came down to Brazil v. Germany. Yes, the World Cup was an astonishing success for the world's modern myth-makers, offering up a vision of benign sporting patriotism which swims like angelfish around the coral reefs of 21st century internationalism.

Nothing would make us queasy about this adoration of the 'beautiful game' if it weren't for the sense of a shadow cast over the face of football, which has made the whole idea of football as the future of humankind seem a lot more problematic.

The simple truth

The truth is quite simply that throughout much of its operation professional football isn't working. Soccer is a mess frequently characterised by poor organisation, reckless gambling, corruption, greed, and a total inability to make the sums add up.

That it continues to function at all is a minor miracle . It is essentially shored up by media magnates prosecuting the global telecommunications revolution who desperately need at least one product to sparkle amongst the dross of old films and recycled comedies and sitcoms on offer as the 'new' tv experience. Compared to the cost of producing new programmes at the standards set up the terrestrial channels in the past, buying vast tracts of soccer and other sports represents a bargain, with the added advantage of a guaranteed market built up by others in previous decades.

If soccer has a useful role to play in projecting a gentler and friendlier face to global culture, it does so by flatly contradicting the idea that globalisation necessarily equals capitalism.

At this point in the history of the game, very few people are showing any sort of success in making a profit out of the business.

In both South America and Africa, where soccer-mad populations suggest a vast market for footballing enterprise, the professional leagues have teetered for years on the edge of complete bankruptcy.

Across much of Asia, huge audiences for football exist, in contrast to a tiny base of players. The opposite is the case in the USA, where soccer vies with the tradition American sports on college campuses as a game to be played, but which no one wants to watch once the college days draw to a close.

The European model

In Europe - the first home of the professional sport - only a handful of profitable leagues exist, each of which includes a minority of clubs which are actually making - rather than loosing, money. The showcase leagues of world soccer are nowadays restricted to England, Spain, Italy and the less fashionable Germany. Not that this has harmed international football. The French and Scandinavian games have not been noticeably short of international success despite having the bulk of their international squads playing outside the home countries. The African and South American nations continue to achieve success on the same basis, just as we can expect the future flourishing of Asian and North American soccer, if it occurs, to rest on the basis of successful exports to the handful of successful European leagues.

So have the Europeans (or at least the three big European leagues) actually discovered a route to profitable football which has escaped the rest of the world? Not really.

In many ways the apparent prosperity of these few competitions is based on factors extrinsic to the actually playing of the game. Prior to 1992, when the FA succeeded in bribing the English club elite into abandoning the 104 year-old Football League, professional soccer was maintaining in existence 92 clubs in a unified competitive structure. Few made money, most struggled to survive, but catastrophic failure was comparatively rare, with only a handful of clubs ever closing because of cash crises.

Pushed to the brink

Things were pushed to the brink in the 1980s as consequence of the Heysal Stadium disaster, which as well as resulting in the deaths of over 90 spectators, also brought home to the powers-that-be the central importance of competitive European football to the security of the domestic game. Then came the Hillsborough tragedy, which forced an even more fundamental re-thinking of the game as a traditional working class pastime, founded on squeezing as many as possible onto deplorably unsafe terraces. English football in the 1990s charted out a path for itself based on expensively improved stadia and desperate competition to win a place in the succeeding season's European competition.

The basis for football's Faustian deal with capitalism was laid during this period. Investment was brought into the game, but the old shackles of the sport's administration, which required a substantial trickle down from the star clubs to the lower leagues, were broken.

The formation of the Premiership shattered the link that bound the Man Us with Leyton Os, and forced the Middlesbroughs and Fulhams of this world to compete the global elites for the star players across the world.

Winners and losers

It was a system productive of very few winners, and a large number of losers. Even amongst the regular crop of European qualifiers, success has often been relative, fleeting and ultimately hollow- as followers of Chelsea, Leeds and even Liverpool might be prepared to testify. Beyond the ranks of the elite, such formerly great names as Everton, Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur have been doomed to a shabby and unprofitable existence, living off the crumbs from the Premiership feast.

And beyond that - well, the 2002-03 season begins with the Football League clubs - three quarters of the total of professional teams in England - locked in litigation with the ITV broadcasters in an effort to recover the 130 million due to them from the collapsed digital broadcasting project.

The financial base of the game remains dire. The scramble for European success means over-dependence on the global labour market to provide the super-skilled players needed to bring a chance of good fortune in the modern game.

This has injected a massive dose of wage-inflation, with most clubs exceeding the 70:30 ratio of wages to other expenses generally considered to allow for a modest viability. More disasters unquestionably lie in store for the world's greatest game in the years immediately ahead.

The beautiful game

And despite all this, lovers of the beautiful game are still left with the ultra modern, futuristic images of Korea-Japan as a promise for how great the game could be.

If it is true that one-in four of all living human beings would vote for it in homage to the unsurpassed excitement and skill of a great game of soccer, you would think its future secure well into the future.

Maybe it is. The energy, the commitment, the vision, the vast scale of the global appetite for the game are undoubtedly there, but the issue is whether free markets will really bring it all together as a project which will survive into the indefinite future.

In this, world football might be seem as something of a metaphor for the current state of globalisation itself.

The visions of border-transcending achievement, of a genuine world culture, of enterprise and progress, of honourable competition and useful co-operation - seen in abundance during the glorious Korea-Japan World Cup of 2002 - are all there, but is it really capitalism which will carry this and more into the future?

September/October 2002