World (Cup) Politics
For Some Teams, The War on the Field May Mean Peace At Home
By Russell M. Page
Copy Editor, CMC ‘13
Judging by the 180-student turnout at Pickford Auditorium on the first day of Pitzer political studies professor Nigel Boyle’s “History and Political Economy of World Soccer” class, Claremont students are flocking in droves to examine the sport from a deeper perspective. As this summer’s 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa nears, students seem eager to learn about how soccer signifies much more than just a game. In this year’s World Cup, many intriguing stories blend soccer on the field with important political implications. The Port Side met up with Professor Boyle to discuss his class and the political significance of the World Cup.
Boyle, who hails from the British Isles, is an avid soccer fan. While his current course defies the convention of a small, intimate Claremont class, the demand was high enough in the World Cup year to justify the large lecture style. Boyle supplements lectures with field trips to games, game viewings, and a weekly film series that all students are encouraged to attend on Monday nights in Pickford.
In the World Cup this June, teams will play for much more than just a trophy. For North Korea and Chile, success or failure on the field will reflect upon national leaders. The United States is bringing its best squad in years to the Cup. European teams are playing on the continent their countries conquered and colonized, and are trying to prove that they still rule the sport. African teams will try to play up to the hopes of their continent as it hosts it first major international sporting event. South Africa, less than twenty years after Apartheid and still afflicted with major problems, knows that a secure and well-run World Cup will bring great pride to the nation and the continent.
Both nations on the Korean peninsula will play in South Africa, and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il is already making preparations for the aftermath. Because the North Koreans have been put into what Professor Boyle labels the “Group of Death” with Cote d’Ivoire, Portugal, and favored Brazil, all odds point to an embarrassment. With the South Koreans poised to do well in the tournament, Kim Jong II’s regime is already preparing to censor its citizens’ ability to watch World Cup games. In 1966, the last time the North Koreans made it to the World Cup, they enjoyed shocking success, upsetting Italy to reach the quarterfinals. While the chances of a similar triumph are slim this year, the North Koreans are relatively unknown – and in soccer, surprises can come from unexpected places.
Chileans just elected Sebastian Piñera president, their first right-wing leader since dictator Augusto Pinochet. Piñera must take on the tough task of rebuilding his nation after the devastating earthquake and tsunami. Though this soccer connection may seem tenuous, all Chileans know that Piñera practically owns the national team. His election did not depend entirely on soccer, but his popularity stems at least partially from the team, which easily qualified for the Cup. If Chile does well in South Africa, then Piñera, can use what Professor Boyle calls “soccer nationalism” to unite his people behind his rebuilding efforts.
The U.S. is heading back to South Africa, where they had an outstanding run in last year’s Confederations Cup by defeating Spain and reaching the final against Brazil. The Yanks have a talented squad and a great shot at advancing deep into the tournament. With Major League Soccer gaining more prestige and American participation in the sport increasing, success in the World Cup can bring the United States respect on the world stage. With the American Youth Soccer Organization training its third generation of players, youth soccer has integrated itself into American culture; more American children now play soccer than any other sport. With participation at an all-time high, the only thing lacking is a serious fan culture. Success in the Cup, may compel Americans to finally start caring about the world’s most popular game.
The U.S. will begin with a game against England, one of the many European teams that recently relinquished its colonial possessions. Both the Netherlands and England are playing in South Africa, to which they brought Apartheid and left behind severe problems. They, along rest of the European teams, seek to prove that Europe still holds the dominant position in the sport. Teams like France, Italy, and Germany will try to continue their powerful reign over the soccer world – but they will play far from their traditional home fields. They will face African teams in Africa, on a continent that is ready to assert itself both on the soccer pitch and in the international political and economic arena.
While the Europeans may have to adjust to being outsiders, the African teams will have their entire continent behind them. Although the South African team is weak and unlikely to have any success, any of the West African teams could do very well. Each West African nation represented in the tournament has had its own political struggles in the last century; each has tried to find an identity after gaining independence. Less than a decade ago, Cote d’Ivoire faced a coup d’état but is now relatively stable under a strong executive branch. Cameroon’s government has dealt with corruption. Nigeria has struggled with ethnic violence and inadequate infrastructure for its large population. Ghana, on the other hand, is the best example of a stable democracy.
For host South Africa, of course, a successful and safe World Cup is critical to raising the reputations of both the nation and the continent. Less than twenty years removed from the ugly practice of Apartheid and still plagued by racism, AIDS, poverty, and political strife, South Africa needs something to cheer for. Like South Africa, most African nations enjoy an upward trend politically and economically. Achievements on the soccer pitch could help highlight the political achievements the continent has made over the last century. Because all the West African teams have talented and deep rosters full of players on European club teams, the World Cup may prove able to transcend sport, uniting the continent in support of a single team. “If one team catches fire,” Professor Boyle says, “they could become Africa’s team.”
Nonetheless, expectations are not entirely positive. In the Africa Cup of Nations in Angola, a bus carrying the Togo national team was attacked by a group demonstrating in favor of independence from the Angolan national government. The incident has inflamed fans’ fears about security in South Africa. Companies have already started selling stab-proof vests to fans. Yet in South Africa, ordinary crime will likely prove a larger threat than terrorism. To ensure success, the country has to make sure that things go smoothly without any major security breakdowns.
If all goes well in South Africa, the nation will benefit greatly. As Professor Boyle says, “In the world outside of the United States, soccer influences everything.” During Nelson Mandela’s presidency, South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup, and the nation rose up and united. This summer, the same phenomenon may occur on a larger scale. Soccer showdowns will represent political battles, and the power of the world’s game will be on full display.