With the 2010 FIFA World Cup kicking off tomorrow in South Africa, we asked Martha Saavedra, Ph.D., soccer fan and Associate Director of the UC Berkeley Center for African Studies, to answer some questions about the the single biggest event in the world's most widely played sport.
California magazine: For Americans who may not appreciate the importance of the World Cup, can you give a sense of just how much this tournament means to the rest of the world?
Martha Saavedra: Soccer, association football or just football, as most of the world calls the game, is simply the most popular sport in the world. Over 270 million people are actively involved in the game as players and officials, and many more participate as fans, spectators and consumers. Football is big business, generating an estimated $400 billion worldwide, and it is so big because it is an integral part of daily life for many, many people on this planet. It provides immense pleasure and elicits much passion. It can also bring bitter disappointment, but those afflicted, keep coming back in search of the perfect pass threaded up the line, the dance of one player through a line of defenders, a flying header into an upper corner or a diving save punching a certain goal up and over the top post. This is the allure of the "beautiful game" as a player, coach, official or fan. There are other tournaments and mega-events, but the FIFA [men's!] World Cup has come to epitomize this daily passion.
During the World Cup, the normal work-a-day life stops in much of the world during matches. Fans follow the exploits of their favorite players from club teams - mostly from the European leagues: the English Premier League or La Liga or the Italian Serie A - watching how they perform on their respective national teams. Football personalities, such as Becks, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Drogba, permeate popular culture. People are invested in players, in teams. There is history that is recalled, such that moments from the past- a play, a cross, a foul, a shot - are shared among all. "The hand of God" for instance is enshrined as a global collective memory.
By the way, my favorite player is Marta. She plays for Brazil, of course, and FC Gold Pride, the Bay Area women's professional side.
CM: Will you be attending the tournament?
MS: I will be in Africa, but my plans now are to watch the tournament from Kenya and Tanzania and experience the "African" world cup as most Africans will experience it - from afar but in the same time zone. The number of Africans attending the World Cup is far below what was hoped for. The costs and barriers to buying tickets and traveling are too high for most Africans even though South Africa explicitly lauded this event as not just theirs, but part of the renaissance for all of Africa.
CM: Who will you be rooting for?
MS: I don't have a favorite team yet. I'd love for Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana or any of the African teams to advance. Of course, it would be great for South Africa as the host to go forward. With each match, my loyalties seem to change, especially as I have family ties to both Germany and Chile, and living in California one has to love Mexico. Last year I was in South Africa for the Confederations Cup, and it was wonderful to see Bafana Bafana do well and advance to the semi-finals. And I was so thrilled when the US was beating Brazil 2-0 at one point in the final match - I could have waved a flag if I had had one. The first US match in this tournament is against England and I will be rooting for the US.
CM: You serve on the editorial board of a scholarly journal called Soccer and Society. Can you tell us what that is?
MS: The 10-year-old journal was the first peer-reviewed academic journal to focus on the game of football. It takes on the sport from a multidisciplinary and global point of view. J.A. Mangan, a British historian, was the founding editor. Many, including Roberta Park, Professor Emeritus here at UC Berkeley, credit "Tony" Mangan with bringing the study of global sport to the attention of the academy through his own writing and work in publishing. Boria Majumdar of La Trobe University in Melbourne is the current editor. The journal now publishes five to six issues a year, indicating the growth of serious research on the game. I first became involved with a 2003 special issue on the women's game. There have been special issues on everything from fan culture to a social history of the game in India to football in Scandinavia. The journal is global, but also has local connections. Berkeley faculty members, including Sam Mchombo (African American Studies) and Derek Van Rheenen (Education), have published articles in the journal. Sam's 2006 article examined football, development and the fight against HIV-AIDS in Malawi. Derek's 2009 piece explored the rich history of ethnic and amateur soccer in the United States with a study of the rise of the Greek-American Athletic Club in the San Francisco Soccer Football League (SFSFL), the oldest American soccer league in continuous existence. Ilann Messeri, a Berkeley native and UC Santa Cruz alumni, wrote a 2008 study of how the Richmond High School soccer team plays a central role in local Latino community, strengthening and even creating social networks. The critical study of sport still is not fully accepted in the academy, but the success of this journal and many other peer-reviewed journals on sport indicate how this is changing.
CM: The writer Franklin Foer wrote a book a couple years back called How Soccer Explains the World. Not having read it, can you tell us: Does soccer explain the world?
MS: I did read Foer's book and met him when he did a reading at Cody's back in the day. He chose a great title and does present interesting material, but there is much more illuminating work on football. Nevertheless, I would say that one can learn a lot about the world by paying attention to football as well to other forms of popular culture. On one level you can learn about local social histories connected with particular clubs or grounds. One can also gain insight into specific patterns of power and authority. My colleague, Susann Baller of Basel University, and I have just edited a volume on the politics of football in Africa (Politique Africaine, no. 118 - June 2010, Les terrains politiques du football) where we argue that football can both reflect and inform larger political processes, though often in complicated ways. Football is also exquisitely global and is a good case study in complex, transnational activity. Europe, for instance, is the dominant hegemonic power, but that power is contested from inside and out. There is also the example of American exceptionalism in regards to association football, which one could argue reflects its relationship to the rest of the world in other ways as well. However, if you want to understand some parts of the world, particularly South Asia, you will have to wrap your head around cricket.
CM: Aside from South Africa, which automatically qualified as the host country, and Algeria, the other African teams in the tournament -- Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Nigeria -- are all West African. Is this regional dominance in the sport historical?
MS: This is a good question. Passion for football is deep across the continent. North African countries are also strong. Egypt, though knocked out of this tournament by Algeria, is a powerhouse. Its national team won the last three Africa Cup of Nations tournaments, and Al-Ahly, the Cairo-based club is the most successful on the continent. Other countries have a strong historically presence in the game. Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt and South Africa formed the Confederation of African Football in 1957. Ethiopia won the Cup of Nations in 1962 and Sudan in 1970. Ydnekatchew Tessema, an Ethiopian, was the president of CAF from 1972 until his death in 1987, and left a strong if somewhat controversial legacy. The dominant African teams to some extent represent countries with larger populations as well as post-colonial ties to Europe. Indeed, 80% of the African players in the 2010 World Cup play for European teams.
Developing a team at the top level also requires deep pockets, though FIFA provides some assistance. On the women's side, Nigeria has long been dominant, but at the last Women's African Championship in 2008, the hosts, Equatorial Guinea, beat South Africa, 2-1, in the finals. Equatorial Guinea has a population of barely a half a million as compared to seven-time champion Nigeria's population of over 150 million. No doubt their oil revenues along with the commitment of someone high in the leadership played a role in helping them to successfully prepare.
CM: Much has been made of the fact that there is a single white player on the South African squad. Is that significant and do you think race is going to be an issue in this tournament?
MS: In South Africa, football historically was associated with the Black African population while cricket was associated with the white English-speaking population and rugby with the Afrikaaner and Coloured communities. The South Asian community was evident in both football and cricket. Of course, the lines were never fully clear and there is a history of mixed sport, consciously so during the long fight against apartheid. In 1995, as the movie Invictus portrayed, the Rugby World Cup took place in and was won by South Africa. That tournament and Nelson Mandela's embrace of the Springboks, symbolized the end of the apartheid in sport. However, history is ever-present and the trajectories laid down in the past century still exert a lot of power. So the cluster of social, economic and cultural factors which draw a child to or exclude him or her (and for women there is a whole other set of issues) from one sport or another result in a tendency for the historical patterns to repeat.
Will race be significant? It is always significant in South Africa, and it continues to be salient in football. However, some recent work indicates that the game is more integrated and racially diverse than recognized. And gender, class, ethnicity and age may be just as salient.
CM: Earlier this month, Archbishop Desmond Tutu severely criticized South Africa. Citing rampant crime, cronyism and corruption, he said, "It looks like we have lost our pride." Do you think the World Cup will help salvage South Africa's pride or will it highlight the purported loss of it?
MS: It will do both. I have read comments recently about how FIFA has become the government (e.g. not allowing a flyover above the stadium as was done in the 1995 Rugby World Cup). There is a lot of controversy as to whether the tournament will bring all the purported benefits - infrastructure, jobs, tourists, investment, etc. Instead, many see it as a large public subsidy of private gain. There are concerns about corruption, debt, suspension of democratic freedoms, and repression of protests. Africa Action sponsored an online conference today (9 June) to address the true political economy of this mega-event. The bottom-line is that these mega-events have never brought the social and economic development promised. Many feel that the excesses reflect the larger problems of the South African polity.
There is the somewhat intangible element of exposure to a global audience. There are certainly a lot of stereotypes about Africa in general and South Africa in particular. The next few weeks could change the images that many have embedded in their psyche about Africa.
CM: How big a concern is security at this World Cup?
MS: The US State Department seems to think there could be a problem. And there have been reports of thefts already. Last year, when the Indian Premier League Twenty20 cricket competition, the newest, biggest sporting global venture, encountered security concerns in India, the whole second season was moved to South Africa without a problem.
CM: Another developing country, Brazil, is due to host the 2016 Summer Olympics. Do you think these two events signal the emergence of the Southern Hemisphere in global affairs?
MS: Absolutely. The Global South, so to speak, is flexing its power and influence in many areas, including sport. The 2008 Beijing Olympics was part of this trend as is the aforementioned IPL. And Brazil will also host the 2014 men's World Cup. Yet, it is important to remember that the first World Cup was held in South America in 1930 in Uruguay, a country thoroughly 'footballized' according to Eduardo Galeano.
The evolution of FIFA into its current corporate form also occurred under the leadership of Brazilian João Havelange, the president of FIFA from 1974 to 1998, and mentor to Sepp Blatter, the current president. In terms of international sport, though, most federations are still based in Europe, but as the IPL indicates the circuits of power are becoming more globally diffuse.
CM: Both South Korea and North Korea qualified for the tournament. Given the heightened political tensions on the Korean peninsula, that would be, needless to say, an interesting match-up. Are there other potential contests that might carry some geopolitical significance?MS: The US versus England match on Saturday. This could re-ignite historical struggles!