The World Cup kaleidoscope

David Hayes
9 June 2010

Philippe: What is the World Cup really about? Money, pure and simple. This is a beanfest for global corporations. The statistics on sponsorship, advertising, and merchandising are staggering. The top fifteen sponsors – McDonalds, Budweiser, NTT, Gillette, the usual suspects – will pay FIFA, the world governing body, £375 million to display their images at the tournament. Adidas is paying ten teams around £60 million to wear their products. And the money is not just decoration – it has colonised the very soul of the game. Brazil is a franchise of Nike. When injuries to key players are discussed – Ronaldo in 1998, Zidane in 2002 – the sponsors are in the wings, pulling the strings. It used to be a game. It’s now a global business.

Rita: The heart of it all is still passion, the sense of belonging to something wider than yourself – a team, a cause, a country. The focus on commercialism forgets that there are twenty-four national squads each of whom represents an epic national story for the people back home. From Slovenia to China, the smallest participating country to the largest, people will be gathered round their TV sets and radios, brought together in a spirit of intense, positive togetherness. The game is the connective tissue of the nation. At the end, win or lose, people will have travelled together on a journey and feel differently about themselves. It is an emotional depth charge in the imagined community.

Ali: For me it’s about globality rather than nationalism. We hear a lot about ‘shared national experiences’, but these are often top-down, highly-orchestrated events, without spontaneity, and by definition confined to a single territory. By contrast, the World Cup is one of those rare occasions when the idea of a global citizen becomes real. This is a world party that everyone wants to be at. People are not limited in their allegiance – you are free to choose a country to support, to discover new heroes, to experiment with different identities. This is the postmodern world. And this freedom extends to the participating nations – where else do you have Senegal or Turkey competing with Germany or the United States on an equal stage? No-one is privileged, the playing-field is level, only the best wins, and nobody gets killed – the essence of the World Cup is global justice!

Yolande: The World Cup is about television. It is a mechanised spectacle, nothing more – the world reduced to the confined, static, managed dimensions of the TV set. The event becomes an intense daily effort to capture, process, and package a multifarious but messy reality into a form that is easily digestible – and of course sellable – for the various ‘domestic’ (meaning family and national) audiences. It is about the impoverishing of life by television – done often with awesome expertise and sophistication, but a compound lie nevertheless. The real ‘real thing’ is infinitely more interesting. But television can never come near it.

The game’s a bogey

Rita: The arguments of Philippe and Yolande about money and television seem very similar to me!

Philippe: Yolande’s case is like an inversion of the French philosopher Baudrillard on the 1990-91 Gulf war – because it wasn’t seen, it didn’t happen. My point concerns purpose and context. FIFA is in the midst of a huge financial scandal over the actions of its head, Sepp Blatter – it has lost £215 million in four years. Its marketing partner, ISL, collapsed, as did KirchMedia, which spent £750 million to control broadcasting for the next two World Cups. The huge sums involved here gave companies the right to influence everything – the scheduling of matches, kick-off times, merchandise, even logos on shirts. The competing nations are only brands. The very rules of the game will be next. The world is for sale, and the World Cup is its biggest bazaar. Without a logo, you don’t exist.

Rita: This is all too cynical for my taste. To adapt Tom Paine on Edmund Burke – you lament the plumage but forget that the bird is vibrantly alive. The World Cup is a glorious human drama and an unmatched multicultural spectacle. Football is of all games the one that, at its best, combines the technical, the aesthetic, and the emotional. Add a big, noisy, partisan crowd and the setting is complete. No wonder it attracts the most poetic descriptions – ‘theatre of dreams’, ‘the beautiful game’ – which never completely curdle into cliché. This is the ultimate stage for over five hundred beautiful athletes to display the essential skills and virtues of their sport. All human life – ambition, joy, respect, frustration, relief, agony – is displayed on that field of green.

Ali: This is precisely why it goes broader even than intense collective emotion on the national level. The World Cup is a ‘shared global experience’ in which individuals as well as countries shift the sense of themselves, becoming part of the same mental and affective universe. The story of Nakatsue, the isolated Japanese village hosting Cameroon is an example. People who have never met or seen a foreigner in their lives learn that the latter are not to be feared, but welcomed. It’s about going beyond yourself, including your inherited loyalties and prejudices. The World Cup makes this possible in countless small ways that never get near the headlines, but which accumulate to become part of the evolving global consciousness.

Yolande: The opposite of cynicism is naivete. Television is the fulcrum here between money, passion and global experience. It takes the passion which properly belongs to the game and the fans, packages and sells it to a world audience – and in the process degrades it into pap and formula. It started as a window onto the game and ends by colonising the game itself. Can you imagine a World Cup without television? It’s obvious that the competition could not be sustained without those juicy contracts. But it’s not just influence, it’s alchemy. TV in the age of globalisation has perfected the art of fragmentary focus, of parcelled highlights against musical soundtracks, of the momentarisation of time, of radical individualisation of meaning. It is a dangerously false view of human reality, including football. One which we have come to depend on even when being disabled by it. Television feeds the imagination only to kill it.

Rita: Money and television may make the modern World Cup possible, but what people do with it belongs to them. What is wrong in Philippe and Yolande’s analysis is that it imaginatively appropriates from people the intimate experience that is, despite all the corruptions you can name, theirs to manage. In other words, you’re doing exactly what you claim advertising and television does. The implication is that you shouldn’t support your own or anyone’s team, or surrender to the sheer excitement of a marvellous game. You’re performing the same trick, but without their saving grace of humour or at least the semblance of affective feeling. You need a new script!

Philippe: Not guilty! What I’m doing is to hold the space open for the recovery of precisely those virtues you champion. It is the marketing people, the sponsors, the advertisers, who have made the inner life of football a hollow drum that only echoes their own conceits. There is no moment of genius, error, beauty, or farce that cannot be immediately assimilated and then exchanged for cash. The World Cup is pre-eminently about money, and money is destroying the sport. True passion, authentic emotion, is never for sale. We have to go back to go forward – and it will be a hard road. But otherwise the game itself will implode on a global level as it is doing on a national.

How will it be for you?

Ali: In any case, everything changes when the first game starts. All the chat, expectation, prediction turns to dust. The World Cup becomes the music of our lives for a whole month – that’s the beauty of it.

Philippe: In the end, the only way to go is to shut the commercials from your mind – or watch them only to deconstruct them. And to support the team least financially compromised by the circus – Slovenia.

Rita: Retain your capacity to be enchanted, and you’ll find joy everywhere. And support the team of whom it was said: “Other countries have history. Uruguay has football”.

Ali: Think of it as a building block towards a real global community. Football is increasingly the metaphorical language of the world. It is the way strangers communicate, countries enter the world stage and be recognised. In 2006, Vietnam; in 2010, East Timor. Welcome to the world! And support the host countries, Korea and Japan, to make their investment in the great game justified.

Yolande: The best thing is always to be at the game itself. It’s the quality of experience in front of you and around you that matters. If you can’t be there, be an information guerrilla – pick up what you can, from whatever source. And then, get out and play, watch, participate. The world is always where you are.


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