Is the football World Cup worth being debated in terms of International Relations?

The World Cup in Brazil is able to fascinate hundreds of millions of people, despite all facts and rumors on corruption, old men networks, irresponsible labor conditions in Qatar (host of the 2022 World Cup) and authoritarian and aggressive streaks in Russian politics (the site in 2018). The game is easy to grasp (“the round one has to be moved into the square one”), and easy to play. It mobilizes collective emotions second to no other global game, despite the fact that two of the biggest countries are still hesitant to get into it (India), or are not very successful so far (China), while the U.S. is apparently catching up quickly. Is the current World Cup worth being debated in terms of IR? Or are we, the experts, secretly sitting in front of our screens, or anonymously in the crowds of public viewing, hoping to get away with it incognito?

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  1. Dorothea Schäfer 3 years ago

    Soccer in general and the World Cup in particular is big business in the entertainment industry, so is pop music. Is pop music worth being debated in terms of International Relations? I do not think so. It is worth being debated whether FIFA has too much power and makes governments of emerging countries to waste money for huge arenas which afterwards have no benefit at all for the countries and what governments could do to constrain the power of FIFA. It is also worth to debate whether Brazil could have spent that money better for investment in the country’s infrastructure and for more employment protection legislation. And finally, it should be debated why so many governments are unable to use the World Cup and the money raised for that purpose in the interest of the country, f.e. by building an infrastructure that helps to run the World Cup smoothly but also benefits the own population afterwards.

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  2. Andrey Makarychev 3 years ago

    Sports mega-events deserve attention from social scientists due to a number of reasons.
    First, they are capable of legitimizing certain types of policy strategies and discourses. As the most recent experience of the Sochi Games suggests, global sportive tournaments can – in spite of the originally cosmopolitan spirit of the Olympic movement – simultaneously boost nationalism and give greater legitimacy to corruptive practices. In many cases mega-championships are important elements of experimenting with and cementing new security arrangements – surveillance techniques, measures of controlling vast public spaces, neutralizing public protests, and so on.
    Second, mega-events are always about inclusion and exclusion. We should definitely keep an eye on the fact that the growing number of Western cities are voluntarily rejecting the idea of bidding for hosting high-profile events, while others still feel proud to compete for bringing them to their cities. This means that it is mainly non-Western countries that need to improve their international standings through (re)branding themselves and thus plugging in the global communicative milieu. We also need more research on sports mega-events as cultural hotbeds and messengers: what cultural meanings and contexts are prioritized and what, vice versa, are marginalized or silenced?
    Third, mega-events demonstrate how vulnerable are national sovereignties even of those countries that strive for reasserting themselves as key members of international society – through policy fora like BRICS and others. In spite of all sovereignty-grounded rhetoric, it is FIFA (or International Olympic Committee) that runs the show through a long list of administrative regulations, from issuing standards of urban development to imposing rules of commercial advertisement. Host national governments have to adjust to these global rules of the game and even can take advantage of them through raising their international profiles and visibility.

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  3. Alexei Voskressenski 3 years ago

    The World Cup can be debated in terms of IR indeed. It is a wonderful example of the benign side of globalization. Through their football teams, countries can compete on an international football arena which is changing its geographical location with every event. Fans coming from their countries to other countries to watch the game are mobilized freely in an effort to support their national teams and also others. And the preparation for the game and of each national team is a collective effort and a result of a competition of experts, trainers, doctors etc. on a national level. Indeed every international sport event can be described in such terms. And Olympics and Formula 1 are also technical competitions. Does it mean withering the realpolitik competition between states? Should we think more deeply about that?

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  4. Shen Dingli 3 years ago

    While China rapidly rises as the world’s second largest economy, its men’s soccer play has not been catching up. This is rather peculiar, especially as China might have invented soccer ten centuries ago as some have claimed. Given its large population base, China has already been in the top echelon of modern Olympics for a while, and its women’s soccer play has also made quite a headway in the past two decades.

    The lack of competence of its men’s play seems to reflect its overall unbalanced domestic and external development. While the country has been professionalizing its sports industry, its new rich would rather invest in foreign players for the sake of China’s national league. This may be necessary for a while but not for too long. Eventually China has to unleash its own players’ talents. China’s IT giant, Huawei, has been successful through a similar process of international competition, why couldn’t its soccer circle take a lesson from it?

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  5. Frauke Austermann 3 years ago

    Of course it is! For anyone who studies European integration, a particular instance of international relations – the well-known Bosman-case – comes to mind. In this case, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) considerably fostered the freedom of movement of people, which is one of the key achievements of European integration. Since Bosman, European football clubs may employ as many foreigners from other EU member states as they wish. Barriers such as transfer fees were also limited. The defenders in the case argued that there would be a decline in public interest in football if too many foreigners played for a given club. The ECJ disagreed so Bosman is a landmark case for European integration and European identity. As a result, football is an attractive case study for EU integration scholars, see e.g. www.free-project.eu.

    The World Cup is, of course, very different. It is an inter-national competition par excellence. The World Cup attracts millions of people who are usually not particularly interested in football. They enjoy the conviviality of witnessing a friendly sports competition of teams that symbolize their nation-states.

    Also when it comes to soft power and public diplomacy, the football World Cup and other international sports events are interesting case studies. In an interdependent, post-Realist world, national capabilities no longer equal the size of an army and its equipment but also consist of the image of a nation-state. This can be considerably boosted (or deteriorate), depending on what type of host the country that organises the sports event decides (or manages) to be.

    Finally, it is interesting to observe that when it comes to football, there are little signs of the often-cited decline of the European continent. In order to make it possible for European fans to watch the matches, the kick-off times in Brazil were adjusted to Central European Time. Although China is ‘the’ emerging power of the 21st century, it so far does not manage to put together a team that even qualifies for the football World Cups, neither does the FIFA consider the hundreds of millions of Chinese football fans to be important enough to adjust the kick-off times to Standard Chinese Time (much to the regret of the author of this contribution…).

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3 Comments

  1. Luc Albinski 3 years ago

    The World Cup: holding up a distorted mirror to global politics?

    Despite football’s global appeal, the thirty-two World Cup qualifying nations were not an accurate cross-section of the global community of nations. For one, the qualifying nations are freer than the average. 66% of the World Cup participants are rated “free” by the Washington-based think-tank, Freedom House, whereas only 46% of the one hundred and ninety plus countries featured in its latest survey achieve this esteemed rating.

    Undemocratic countries are too rare a sighting at the World Cup; in fact there are only four, Iran, Russia, Algeria, and Cameroon. Based on the Freedom House’s research, the proportion of such deviants is almost double on the mean streets outside the Cup.

    Western countries enjoy twice the representation they deserve on numbers alone, accounting for 41% of the nations participating. If one includes the West’s traditional Pacific allies, Japan and South Korea, and Western-aligned, Bosnia, half of the World Cup nations are in the Western bloc. At the UN General Assembly, the West can only rely with relative certainty on about a quarter of the voting members.

    The second largest bloc of nations at the World Cup consists of members of the “Democratic South”, a grouping of forty-odd relatively well-functioning democracies to the south of North American and Eurasia. World Cup participants from the Democratic South include countries such as Mexico, Costa Rica, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Ghana.

    Iran and Russia represent the West’s autocratic challengers. Important absentees in this category include China of course, and North Korea, who participated in the 2010 World Cup along with its nemesis, South Korea, but unlike its Southern neighbour, failed to qualify this time around.

    The World Cup host, Brazil, is a poster child for the Democratic South. Like all members of the Democratic South, deep institutional, cultural, economic, linguistic and religious ties bind it to the West. Despite these profound linkages though, it does not identify itself with the advancement of the West’s geopolitical interests. Analysis of UN votes suggests the West is more likely to find support from its semi-free neighbours on Europe’s periphery than from the better-established democracies in the Democratic South; Albania ahead of Argentina, Bosnia before Brazil, Georgia rather than Ghana, Ukraine over Uruguay.

    Brazil, like many members of the Democratic South, refused to openly condemn Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea, preferring to abstain along with countries such as India and South Africa during the General Assembly vote on the issue in March. But Vladimir Putin is only the latest of a string of “bad boy” challengers of the Western status quo who have curried favour from Brazilian politicians; others over the years have included Omar al Bashir, Hugo Chavez, Robert Mugabe, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mohammed Gaddafi.

    Whilst the bench strength of teams from countries such as Brazil – at least until their calamitous defeat at the hands of Germany in the semi-finals – or Argentina is well known, it is not just on the football pitch that the influence of these non-Western democracies will be difficult to ignore. With almost two billion people and a twelve trillion dollar GDP, the Democratic South’s combined annual military expenditures already exceed Russia’s according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

    With increased wealth comes greater confidence. The pride that many in the Democratic South felt when first South Africa and then Brazil were awarded the hosting of the World Cup is reflective of the desire by many in the South to seek a realignment of global power structures away from what many perceive as an overbearing, overly-dominant West.

    There are many quotes about the visceral passion that football inspires but Elie Wiesel’s quote that “people become the stories they hear and the stories they tell” is relevant here too. Stories marked by suffering, struggle and ultimate triumph against ‘Westerners’ in the guise of Spanish Conquistadors, British imperialists, French or Portuguese colonialists and overbearing Yanquis play a role in broader civilizational identities and in the construction of a democratic ethos, this historical backdrop matters a lot.

    Whilst sharing common democratic values and as well as a mutual love for the beautiful game, these passions suggest many in the Democratic South will rebel against unqualified assimilation with the West. From a social psychology standpoint, the optimal identity of a member of the Democratic South may combine a commitment to the democratic values which it shares with the rest of the members, and with the West, with a desire to put some distance, which will vary depending on the international situation and the stakes involved, between it and the former colonial powers and the US in order to preserve its ‘progressive’ credentials.

    The concept of ‘anti-Western democracies’ is an unwelcome paradox for many who assumed that new democracies would fit snuggly within the Western fold. But Samuel Huntingdon, who appreciated the powerful hold that history exerts on a nation’s psyche, would not have found these divisions within the global democratic family surprising though. To paraphrase him, “In fundamental ways, the world is becoming more democratic and less Western.”

    In the semi-finals off the football field, the democratic family is split into at least rival two groups; the West and its Pacific allies, and the Democratic South. They share a faith in democracy and a love for the game but not much else unites them as they face autocrats such as Iran or Russia in the playoffs. It will make for an interesting tournament.

    Luc Albinski
    Institute of Political Studies of Paris (“Sciences-Po”)
    INSEAD

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  2. Wisam 3 years ago

    Dr. Voskressenski makes an excellent point when he says that “it’s a wonderful example of the benign side of globalization” The World Cup, like all major international sporting events, are a reflection of domestic policies and also the allocation of resources, which can encourage economic development. Also, it’s an open display of nationalism, which can build national unity. Something incredibly important for some developing states.

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  3. Daniel Cardoso 3 years ago

    I could not disagree more with Mr. Voskressenski. Large-scale sport events are not benign, they are troubling examples of how globalization can work against the interests of societies in general. What are the disadvantages?

    In Brazil, due to the World Cup and Olympic games, cities are more expansive then ever. Housing prices in S. Paulo and Rio de Janeiro and have skyrocketed. The former has just become the second most expansive cities in the American continent just behind New York. Naturally, investment in luxury apartments, shopping malls and office buildings in these cities abound. To give way to these investments, several house evictions took place in Rio.
    Among the major beneficiaries of major sporting events, constructions companies are the ones that gain the most. In Brazil, only four companies won the majority of the bids to build stadiums and infrastructure.

    Large scale sport events are also opportunities that states take to militarize its police and to increase the means of surveillance. Rio de Janeiro is again a great case in point.

    Furthermore, not all the stadiums, built in several cases with public money, will be significantly used afterwards. In general, the examples we have so far show that the economic legacy of these events is very unclear. All the European Union reports about Greece mention the money the state spent in stadiums as one of the reasons for the sovereign debt crisis. In Portugal the situation is similar. In the case of Montreal, which hosted the Olympic games in 1976, it took the city 20 years to pay off the Olympic complex’s debt.

    IR have paid some attention to the interplay between sports and international politics, but it is necessary to focus more in-depth on the purpose large-scale events like the world cup or the Olympics serve in today’s capitalist system. In this sense, to make a significant contribution for the understanding of the subject at hand, the state-centered assumptions that lie behind a great majority of IR studies have to be relaxed in order to place more focus on the economic system as a whole. Drawing on Agamben’s theory of “state of exception” a hypothesis to be verified would be that large-scale events are organized because they provide governments with the opportunity to put in place “state of exception” policies where standard rights are derogated in order to facilitate rearrangement of cities, militarization of the public space and higher circulation of capital.

    A parallel contribution would be investigate the role that international organizations like FIFA play in promoting and consolidating these “states of exception”. The case of FIFA is particularly interesting because it seems that the organization is itself a “state of exception” given the authority that it has in terms of its interactions with sovereign states and the tax privileges it enjoys in Switzerland and in the world cup host countries.

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