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Soccer turns the world order on its head

JENNIFER ROBERTS/jennifer roberts The Globe and Mail

The World Cup kicked off in South Africa last week, and once again, the connection between politics and soccer has tongues wagging.

There is some exaggeration about the effect of triumph and failure on governments. Brazil's stunning loss to Uruguay in the 1950 final in Rio de Janeiro did not harm president Gaspar Dutra. The victory some months later by his successor, Getulio Vargas, was unrelated to the soccer debacle. The fact that Italy won the 1982 World Cup, held in Spain, did not help prime minister Giovanni Spadolini, the first non-Christian Democrat of the postwar era, whose party was expelled from power soon after the national team's triumph.

More than any other sport, the World Cup generates "upward mobility." Upsets are frequent. North Korea defeated Italy in 1966, Algeria beat West Germany in 1982 and Cameroon became a sensation in 1990.

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The fact that some developing countries are among the top teams alters the traditional political and economic pecking order, at least for a few weeks, every four years. The kind of reshuffling of international hierarchies that the G20 struggles to generate actually takes place at the World Cup, before an audience comparable to that of the Olympics.

The tournament turns on its head a world order still dominated by the United States. Although the World Cup attracts a U.S. television audience comparable to Major League Baseball and soccer is the top recreational sport for American children, the game is still relatively minor as a spectator sport. Therefore, its weight in the U.S. domestic sports-related economy is not huge.

However, U.S. politicians are increasingly using soccer as a tool to connect with Hispanics, who have become an electoral force. It has little to do with foreign policy that Vice-President Joe Biden attended the World Cup opening ceremony and the U.S. team's first match against England, and that President Barack Obama has announced he will follow the tournament with interest. It is a question of domestic demographics and politics.

In Europe, meanwhile, the World Cup brings a strange sense of comfort in these troubled days, allowing Europeans to maintain an illusion of superiority no longer sustained in other fields. Europe is a decadent political and economic power compared to the rise of Asia. The European Union's $14-trillion economy, while close in size to that of the United States, largely props up a barely sustainable welfare state. But at the World Cup, Europeans often excel and China is entirely irrelevant. (It failed to even make the tournament after losing to Iraq in qualifying.) The World Cup, then, has an effect on Europeans similar to that of Britain's Commonwealth of Nations or France's Francophonie - it preserves the memory of long-gone imperial greatness.

International soccer is also a catalyst for trends related to globalization. More than other sports, it has brought down barriers to the flow of people, capital, goods and services. Virtually no Latin American, African or Central European squad has a majority of its top players playing in domestic leagues. Over half of the non-Europeans competing in South Africa this year are playing professionally in Europe - mostly in Spain, Italy, Germany and Britain. The Ivory Coast's national team has 20 players in Europe. Just as interestingly, only four of the 23 players on the U.S. team play at home.

The influence of these "foreigners" in the communities that host them goes far beyond sports. The attachment of millions of fans to local-team foreign players who bring them joy during the year has some meaning at a time when the contradictory forces of globalization and nationalism, of increased cross-border exchanges and nativist or xenophobic reactions, are at work. For millions, these players are the most direct connection to cultures, languages and customs from faraway lands.

The World Cup will bring a needed relief to nations exhausted by the psychological consequences of the economic crisis. South Africa is a fitting host. The corruption and increasing authoritarianism of the African National Congress notwithstanding, it symbolizes the emergence of countries - including a much-improved South Africa itself, now boasting the world's 18th largest stock exchange - that are eager to move ahead.

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Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and the editor of Lessons from the Poor.

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