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The World Cup War
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BUENOS AIRES – Larger than life football divinity Diego Maradona has promised that if Argentina, the team he manages, wins the World Cup in South Africa that kicks off on Friday, he will parade nude around the Obelisk in downtown Buenos Aires. Such a strip-tease special would surely amuse an exhausted “international community” dealing with the same old Iran sanctions, AfPak droning, Israel spinning, Koreas squabbling, Europe slumping, China rising and BP spilling.

First of all, let’s make it clear. It’s not “soccer”. It’s football, as the Brits invented it (although the Chinese – who else? – were already kicking a ball with their feet 5,000 years ago). And it’s as football, not soccer, that the ultimate opiate of the people is eagerly consumed all across the world. Crack British historian Eric Hobsbawm has observed how football displays the essential conflict of globalization: the very complex relationship between uber-commercialism and deep emotional attachment as far as every one of the sport’s fans is concerned.

The conflict is on even as fans following matches in the field are now being treated as mere extras in what every World Cup now turns out to be: a mega, month-long television special starring the football equivalent of Hollywood megastars. Football is global entertainment’s biggest industry – and also a magnet for money laundering.

How much is Argentina’s world footballer of the year Lionel Messi worth? US$150 million, $200 million, $300 million? Other players are also known around the world – Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, the Ivory Coast’s Didier Drogba, England’s Wayne Rooney (and then there are much-regretted absentees such as Brazilian Ronaldinho – not picked – and injured German captain Michael Ballack).

All over the sprawling developing world, and all over Europe, football is the most globalized sport because in the collective unconscious it somehow broke the American-forged pattern – Hollywood, pop music, TV soaps – of what mass culture is all about. American power alone could not fulfill the global desire for supremely ritualistic mass fantasies – playing for playing’s sake, playing as a metaphor for life itself, playing as war. In football, the United Nations Security Council – with veto power – is actually Brazil, Italy, Argentina, Germany and a lively bunch competing for the fifth spot, from England and Holland to Spain and the Ivory Coast.

Football mercifully allows a playful notion of national identity to be rebuilt – war by other (playful) means. Listen to the sound of a million vuvuzelas – the long-trumpet like South African instruments which will be an extremely audible backrop to the games; war games are now the name of the game in South Africa. But somehow a nagging feeling remains – as if in the end there was always the same bloody winner.

You play, we collect

As leading Uruguayan writer – and football fanatic – Eduardo Galeano once said, “FIFA is the IMF of football.” Much like the International Monetary Fund, the Federation Internationale de Football Association is obscenely wealthy, extremely powerful and run like a hyper-exclusive club.

FIFA was founded in 1904. Only 310 people work at the headquarters in Zurich. And only around 1,000 work across the staggering 208 member-countries (“only” 192 nations are members of the UN, which employs over 40,000). The 24 members of FIFA’s board – paid around $50,000 a month – spend their precious time traveling around the world doing deals with nation-states and corporations. Much like the IMF, turnover is minimal. Most FIFA suits have held their jobs for more than 15 years.

FIFA is responsible for the commercialization of any single product linked to professional football, sponsorship and TV rights. It’s at the epicenter of a $250 billion market. In 2009, FIFA made $1 billion. Only with the World Cup in South Africa, FIFA netted $3.8 billion.

An icon of savage capitalism, FIFA never loses money. It’s fully insured. For this World Cup and the next one in 2014 in Brazil, that amounts to $650 million. As for national governments, the deals are not that sweet. South Africa’s government planned to spend $450 million for this World Cup. Costs mushroomed to no less than $6 billion – and going. This includes building five new stadia and rebuilding five others. Durban’s is supposed to become a landmark in the style of Bilbao’s Guggenheim museum.

Yet the much-vaunted high-speed train from Pretoria to Johannesburg is delayed – only a stretch has opened between Johannesburg’s airport and the upscale Sandton neighborhood, the wealthiest (mostly white) square mile in Africa, where FIFA’s 200 or so delegates will stay and its president, super-bureaucrat Sepp Blatter, will sleep at the faux Michelangelo Towers protected by five bodyguards and with access to a Disneyesque African en-suite bathroom as well as a personalized mini-bar stocked with the best South African chardonnay and Evian-made ice cubes.

Any country willing to organize a World Cup must virtually surrender to FIFA’s rule – and that includes changes in national legislation. Four years ago, South Africa’s parliament attributed to the World Cup the status of “protected event” ruled by specific legislation. The organizing country must relinquish to FIFA the rights for everything from publicity and marketing to the control of the perimeter around the stadia (FIFA is in fact a sovereign state around any stadium in South Africa). Much as the IMF, FIFA is no humanitarian body. For associated corporations, FIFA’s role is to open markets – Africa in the current case. Here’s an example of how FIFA really works.

A stadium in Athlone, a “colored”-majority, poor Cape Town suburb, would have been able to provide many needed jobs in the area and be the catalyst for a process of paving roads, building new houses and improving public transport. Instead, FIFA privileged Green Point stadium, built between the sea and Cape Town’s favorite postcard, Table Mountain, five minutes from a luxury mall and close to a golf course – and financed with public funds.


A FIFA inspector told South Africa’s Mail and Guardian newspaper that billions of viewers would not want to see “slums and poverty” on TV. As if the World Cup was not being held in a country with nearly 40% unemployment and half the population living on less than $1 a day. German weekly Der Spiegel at least put some of it in perspective, publishing a special report comparing Europe’s thirst for young African footballers to a new slave trade.

A host of academic studies agree that for a World Cup host country it is more reasonable to build what it needs in infrastructure than to spend a fortune on an event that ultimately only benefits organizers and corporate sponsors. Licensed products available in the country during the World Cup are all imported from China. When the World Cup is over on July 11, no fewer than 150,000 workers in South Africa will become unemployed.

The identity of god

Yet most of the world is not aware of all the distortions; the glitzy appeal of football as show business is too seductive. Moreover, a World Cup is still mostly about layers and layers of byzantine intrigue fueling “war” – war with all its commanders and decorated soldiers, from the “Asian Rooney” Jong Tae-se, one of the few North Koreans who has actually make Dear Leader Kim Jong-il smile, to former Paris Hilton squeeze and Vanity Fair cover boy Cristiano Ronaldo (“I do not play alone and I do not perform miracles”).

There’s perennial losers Spain, always praying their time has come – even though the current number two in FIFA’s ranking now has such a deep pool of talent that it could actually out-Brazil Brazil. There’s catenaccio (door-bolt) stalwarts Italy, the holders, who can never be ruled out as the true masters of always coming from behind.

The US may surprise with no-frills, ultra-effective play – Bob Bradley is one wily coach – but believing in a US win is a bit of a stretch. Brazilian coach Dunga – a crass, cranky, arrogant, former defensive midfielder who privileges mediocre workhorses to creative geniuses – is being spurned by legions of Brazilians who would rather lose in style playing jogo bonito (the beautiful game). Jogo bonito nowadays is more like Holland attacking with Arjen Robben (if his injured shoulder does not stop him playing), Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie. And as far as jogo bonito goes, much of the world would love to see an African team playing their hearts out to reach at least the semifinals.

There’s Argentina’s Messi – whom Diego “El Pibe” Maradona described as a man who “kicks about with Jesus”. And there’s larger-than-life Maradona himself – the greatest, most Rabelaisian football genius of all time, former monster cocaine addict, celebrity dancer and now Argentina’s coach, busting his brains on where and how to align six fabulous strikers who netted 133 league goals between them this season.

Other than at South African grounds, it’s hard to find a more happening place in the world to follow the World Cup than the roaring bars of Buenos Aires, where legions of fanatics will be physically and metaphysically debating in front of LED screens who god really is – the old incarnation (Maradona) or the new (Messi). Iran sanctions? What sanctions? Pass the Malbec and watch out for heart attacks.

(Republished from Asia Times by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Argentina, World Cup 
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