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