First, if you are one of those anthropologists who do not watch television then this is not the blog for you. Second, if you are one of those anthropologists who doesn’t appreciate sport, particularly the beautiful game, then this is definitely not the blog for you. Lastly, if the 2010 FIFA World Cup has you a little giddy and waking up at odd hours or arranging your work schedule to watch 32 teams battle for global glory then read on and hopefully enjoy some of the thoughts I have had as a soccer fan and anthropologist about this event, particularly over the past 6 years since South Africa won the bid for this year’s tournament. Over the next couple of weeks the Savage Minds consortium has been kind enough to let me blog on the event. I will have a few scattershot comments below but in the next few posts I will address some threads of possible interest to anthropologists. So far, the games have been entertaining one week in and will become more intense deeper into the tournament.
The World Cup is THE global sporting event despite claims in the United States to a ‘world series’ or a ‘super bowl’, nothing compares to the unifying aspects of 32 nation states vying for the championship every four years. As one commentary noted this past week, nothing speaks to the belief in American exceptionalism and unilateralism more than the mass ignorance toward the global impact of soccer. Work stops in many parts of the world during games, particularly in those countries playing at that moment, except for the United States. The ongoing debate in the United States media is whether or not one should or should not like soccer. The debate is over.
Thankfully, there are more children in the United States playing soccer now than football so in 12 years the US national team will be in the top tier of FIFA consistently and a threat at that particular world cup. (Yes, I’m calling it now) I was one of those kids who ended up in the sport via my first team as a child in El Paso, Texas known as the Sand Sharks. Growing up in Texas you play football…the American version. If you have not reveled in the guilty pleasure of Varsity Blues or read the excellent book Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger, then this may be another aspect of culture and sport not well known. One plays football until they are no longer large enough to not get the wind knocked out of them every other play, not that I’m speaking from personal experience necessarily. So, the fact that soccer is not the standby sport but is primary now for many youth speaks to the opportunity for a more global connection.
Still, in many different media outlets from print, to web to television the story line has been one of fascination with the fervor of fans from different countries, and then pondering why there is not the same fan base in the United States. The good and the bad: the National Public Radio blog ‘show me your cleats’ and their general coverage has been more complex than most. Other news outlets relish in the bewilderment of why so many people pay attention to the games throughout the world. Unfortunately, almost all media coverage has bought into criticisms of the vuvuzela horn, the principal fan device of South African soccer fans. When I lived in Durban about one mile from the stadium complex you could hear the buzzing wafting up the hillsides from games. I grew to love its deafening noise and the festive environment of club soccer in South Africa as well. It also showed one of many windows into racialization processes in the country.
When one attended games at the old stadium in Durban where soccer was played that was next door to the state of the art facility where the local rugby team played, it brought home the racial politics of sport in South Africa. Through the built environment one could sense the hangovers of apartheid. Rugby is the white sport and soccer is the black sport. The movie Invictus and ESPN commercials about soccer and Robben Island prisoners have demonstrated that dichotomy. There is a chance now that soccer will have equal standing in South Africa right beside rugby and cricket, the game that marks former colonies more than any other.
The ramp up to the world cup presented much speculation about South Africa as well. There was an ongoing discussion that FIFA would pull the tournament because the stadiums would not be completed. Many discussed the fear of crime and the possible consequences of attending matches in South Africa. Many of my colleagues have been studying the impact of the World Cup on housing and other economic issues in the country. While one can celebrate as a fan, one must also realize how the World Cup elides many socioeconomic issues in South Africa as elsewhere. And, there has been constant speculation as to whether or not South Africa would be able to pull it off. One week in and things are going quite smoothly, and I do not recall in all of my years of watching soccer any of the same discussions about other World Cup venues. It is not a coincidence that these dilemmas only take place when considering this is the first global sporting event of this magnitude on the African continent.
So, beyond being simply a fan of soccer and the media spectacle and marketing of ethnicity and nationalism that occurs alongside it, why should anthropologists care about the World Cup? It is a way to talk about globalization. There are a slew of books out there that do a fairly decent job of this including How Soccer Explains the World by Franklin Foer and Globalization and Football by Richard Giullanotti and Roland Robertson. Both books add a popular culture approach to discussions of globalization and serve as good counterpoints and/or accompaniments to any discussion of globalization and anthropology. Whereas the primary way that globalization is usually discussed is through a fascination with speed, commerce and other macro movements, soccer enables a focus on the articulation between the global and the local and other cultural aspects that serve as excellent fodder for the classroom. As media anthropologists the possibilities of analysis are endless. One thing is true across the board as commented on by David Brooks, watching soccer is simply agony and every fan knows this no matter where they are located in the world so you may feel my personal strife which goes with how the US and Mexico fare. Favorite game so far: Serbia vs. Germany.
Next post I will talk about the World Cup pulling on Global Shadows by James Ferguson and Ethnicity, Inc. by Jean and John Comaroff. In the meantime, if you have the chance, check out the spectacle that is the Budweiser United nationalist play on Big Brother via YouTube. It takes Benedict Anderson to another level. And, no place exposes bias more than the several Twitter feeds on the tournament where passion, nationalism and ethnicity expose themselves. I will be talking about this and other commercials and marketing from an anthropological vantage too. And, of course, I will have to have some further commentary on the sweet sounds of the vuvuzela and what makes the World Cup in 2010 a uniquely African experience.