Spare Us More ‘Globalization & Football’

Cote D’Ivoire vs. Egypt

The globalization of football is a fascinating topic that shapes the way the game is played, today, and offers interesting pointers on questions of identity, nation, corporations etc. But there’s nothing quite as irritating as the efforts of globalization wonks to graft extraneous analyses onto the game, in order to illustrate their points about the economic and political strategies they’re promoting. The apotheosis of this unforunate habit was Franklin Foer’s “How Soccer Explains Globalization,” which contained some really good, and some really bad football journalism, cobbled together under the absurd rubric of a general theory of globalization.

But I found another example today in Beirut’s Daily Star — Dani Rodrik’s argument that Egypt’s African Cup of Nations win shows that teams with a strong domestic league do best in international competition. I have no quarrel with the broader point he’s trying to illustrate, i.e. that counries with a strong domestic economy do best in a globalized economy. It’s the football analogy that is just plain wrong. Here’s the nut of his argument:

…the winner of the cup was not Cameroon or Cote d’Ivoire or any of the other African teams loaded with star players from European leagues, but Egypt, which fielded only four players (out of 23) who play in Europe.

By contrast, Cameroon, which Egypt defeated in the final, featured just a single player from a domestic club, and 20 from European clubs. Few Egyptian players would have been familiar to Europeans who watched that game, but Egypt played much better and deserved to win. Nor was it a fluke: Egypt is consistently the most successful national team in the Africa Cup tournament, winning it five times previously.

The lesson is not that embracing globalized soccer is a bad thing. If that were the key to Egypt’s success, Sudan, which has no players in Europe, would have done well. Instead, Sudan (along with Benin) was the tournament’s least successful team, losing all three games that it played.

The real lesson is that taking full advantage of globalization requires developing domestic capabilities along with international links. What makes the difference for Egypt is that it has a strong domestic league, which fosters depth of talent and coherence as a national team.

Sorry, Dani, but you’re missing the bigger picture. Egypt has a strong domestic league, meaning its players are in the same place and can train together during the domestic season, and that allows them to do better at the African Cup of Nations than the far stronger individual talent pools of Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon etc. Sure. But that’s because the African Cup of Nations is held in January/February, slap-bang in the middle of the domestic season. Now, if you compare the performances of the various African teams at the World Cup, which is held in the northern hemisphere’s summer — outside of the domestic season — you find that the opposite is true. In the 2006 World Cup, for example, Ghana did the best of the African teams, being the only one to reach the knockout stage. The fates were cruel to Cote D’Ivoire, though, placing them in a “Group of Death” with Holland, Argentina and Serbia (who they beat, having lost narrowly to both the Dutch and the Argentinians — most analysts would agree that had the Elephants been in most of the other groups, they two would have made the last 16, and possibly gone even further). Egypt, by the way, failed to qualify for the tournament. So, on the even playing field of the World Cup, where all teams have the same preparation time, the teams dominated by players based in Europe far out-perform those who pick largely home-based players. (After all, the European clubs represent the game’s elite, like the NBA for basketball, and the fact of a mostly Europe-based squad for an African country is a measure of the quality of its players.)

The point is further underscored if you look beyond the African teams. Italy, of course, is the exception that proves the rule (let’s not consider Germany, here, because it was the home team, and South Korea proved that the euphoria of a home crowd can drive you all the way to the semis), but in general, those countries with the strongest domestic leagues fared worse than those with comparatively weak domestic leagues, whose teams were based largely on foreign-based players. The quarter-finalists included three teams with strong domestic leagues and mostly home-based players (Germany, Italy, England) and five with comparatively weak domestic leagues and largely foreign-based squads. (France, Brazil, Argentina, Ukraine, Portugal). The three strongest leagues in Europe, right now, are England, Spain and Italy. Enough said. (Italy, as I noted, is the exception that proves the rule.)

I’ll go even further and suggest that the recent migration of Spanish players to England will strengthen their national team and make them worthy of a flutter for Euro 2008.

Rodrik also notes, without critical comment, that “Many blame [England’s] failure to qualify for this summer’s European championship on the preponderance of foreign players in English club teams.” Yes, many do. And they have very short memories. As long as I have been following football, England have never been a safe bet to qualify for international competition. They failed to qualify for the 1974 and 1978 World Cups, and again in 1994. They failed to qualify for the 1984 Euro tournament, and narrowly scraped in for 2000 and 92. When the English league was full of English players, England struggled internationally. The problem is not the foreign players in the Premiership; it’s the English players. It’s that simple. Sorry, England fans, but the sad truth is that England has simply not produced more than one or two players of the highest caliber at any one time over the past four decades. And that has nothing to do with the number of foreigners at English clubs.

So, please spare us the grand theories of globalization ignorantly grafted onto football statistics taken out of context.

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12 Responses to Spare Us More ‘Globalization & Football’

  1. John says:

    You know Tony, I have read comments such as yours for some time and I always think the main issue/problem here is being missed.

    (See for example Hunter Davies’ similar argument to yours in the New Statesman of 17 March 2008).

    We are told of how wonderful globalisation is for football, how it fosters international unity, how overall standards are improved, etc. Meanwhile football fans around the world have watched how a few teams and players (and of course owners) for a few clubs across the world have become very wealthy while many local teams have collapsed. The globalisation and internationalisation of football, the commodification of what was a sport, a culture, has had a significant cost.

    This is not entirely a new thing. I have observed that football fans your age tend to support Liverpool. Those ten or so years older support Leeds. A younger generation support Man United, and no doubt the kids of today will be still supporting Chelsea when they are your age. What is incredible at the moment is the shear scale of inequality of wealth, and the destruction of a local footballing culture in favour of the Television/Celebrity culture which favours a few.

    An analysis that ignores the basic economics (of inequality of resources) both within countries and globally will only be able to go part of the way to explaining the effects of globalisation on the beautiful game.

    Sorry Tony, you chose to ignore the bigger picture! 😉

  2. Leinad says:

    The globalisation has largely been restricted to a few big ‘brand’ Clubs; Man U, Lyon, Celtic, Barcelona, Boca etc. In Aus, still a largely non-Football all of my friends follow one of the EPL’s big four – some have the excuse of having lived in the UK with the kiddies Chelsea jersey to prove it – but most just pick Liverpool or Barca for the image.

    Being lead by my ineffable underdog sensors to pick Bolton I sometimes envy them.

  3. saifedean says:

    This is a very shoddy argument from Rodrik, even for a macro-economist, and lord knows macro-economics is pretty much entirely based on shoddy arguments.

    Rodrik takes one data point: one particular tournament in one particular year, and builds a whole theory around it, and then generalizes its lessons to globalization, trade and the meaning of life. This is Thomas Friedman-level analysis.

    The reality is that the African Cup itself probably serves to undermine Dani’s point further. How would Dani’s theory explain all the other years in which Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria and South Africa dominated the tournament with Europe-based players.

    The World Cup, of course, offers a perfect counter-example. It is funny also that Italy only won the World Cup after Seria A’s recent deterioration in quality, and the emergence of the great scandals in football. Strong domestic game indeed!

    In fact, Serie A’s golden years only came in the mid-1980’s and ended in the mid-2000’s, sandwiched between Italy’s two World Cup wins. When Serie A was the best league around, Italy was embarrasingly getting knocked-out of tournament after tournament (Euro 2004, WC 2002, Euro ’96, etc…), and even failing to qualify to Euro ’92 at the very same time when AC Milan was dominating world club football.

    Nuff said.

  4. enrique says:

    I don’t believe in any of these theories. I probably am not smart enough to get that deep. I think the whole thing about a country’s national team’s strength has to do with the number of quality of players it develops. Period. Whether they play home or abroad is not that relevant and we can find plenty of examples to support one case (strong domestic leagues and players) or the other (good players playing abroad with weak/strong domestic leagues, bla, bla, bla). England did poorly with local talent and does equally bad now ith foreign talent. Spain did shitty with little foreign talent and does shitty with tons of foreign players. And it will do shitty with migran players. Bottom line: count on Germany, Italy, Brazil and Argentina to do well. The rest, who knows? Anyway. We could get into the psychology of players and countries and it’d be more fun. In any scenario, Spain always down. You can take that to the bank (other than Bear Sterns, sure).

  5. goolam_d says:

    >> macro-economics is built on shoddy arguments <<

    Lol .. thats funny. Great article. Spot on with the basic critique of the tournaments.

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