Monthly Archives: December 2009

Homage to Catalonia

Perhaps cribbing the title of George Orwell’s famous 1938 account of the Spanish Civil War is a little much. But, seventy years on, with the question of the what status Catalonia has and should have within Spain still a serious issue, football has become an important battlefield in its own way. Yesterday’s victory of the Catalan “national” selection against the Argentinian team, 4-2, represents the latest chapter in this long-running story. Coached by the legendary Johann Cruyff, with a lonely, exiled, Maradona watching from the stands surrounded by opposing fans, the Catalan team shone in a town used to rallying around Barca as a symbol of town and nation. But what does their victory mean?

In an interview with So Foot before the game Jordi Casals I Vilalta, the new president of the Catalan Football Association, spoke of football and politics in the self-contradictory way preferred by sporting officials. On the one hand, he insisted that football isn’t politics, that the football association and the team they were fielding was not “a party.” At the same time, he made clear he considers the existence of the Catalan team itself a signal and a symbol of the aspiration for autonomy and independence. He declared that “when” Catalonia had won its independence, FIFA — which has not recognized the federation or the team — would allow them to play official matches, just like Spain. Indeed, he added that if the team could “help the dream of so many Catalans become a reality,” that would be a positive thing. Having confidently imagined a future independence for Catalonia and hoped that the “national” team of a nation-not-yet could help realize this dream, he then retreated once again, re-affirming that they were doing “football not politics.”

It’s fascinating to me to see how, even in a situation where football is clearly being used for political purposes, those doing the mobilization so frequently deny that this is what they are doing. Why the hesitation? It almost seems as many fear to admit the obvious, and feel compelled to re-assert that sport is not politics. Or else all officials feel an unbending pressure to conform to the dogma that sport is not politics, and to declare this as a kind of self-evident truth, even as they enthusiastically demonstrate the opposite. The very fact of organizing, and paying for, such a big-time match up, and of mobilizing players for the team, makes broader sense only in the context of a political project.

Barcelona fans take pride in the fact that their team’s jerseys are the only ones left in Europe that don’t advertise something. The subtext is that the jersey symbolizes, as the team slogan goes, “more than a club” — that it represents a region, or more: an aspiring nation. To have an advertisement on the Barcelona jersey would, the logic goes, be a kind of violation: after all, national team jersey’s don’t carry advertisements (though of course Nike and Adidas have found many ways to cross that line…). And of course the Barcelona-Real rivalry has long had, as at least one of major components, serious political overtones, something you can read about in detail in one of our Soccer Politics Pages.

The Catalan selection, meanwhile, consisted of volunteers — players who were paid nothing, and who are under no obligation to play, since unlike national teams this one does not have the FIFA-granted authority to call up players. Indeed, Arsene Wenger refused to release Cesc Fabregas from Arsenal to play, though Fabregas had expressed his with to, something he could not have done if the request had come from the Spanish federation.

In watching these events, I couldn’t help think of another case (whose story I tell in my book forthcoming book Soccer Empire) in which football was put to use in pursuit of national independence. During the Algerian war when professional players in France — two of them tapped to play on the French national team in the 1958 World Cup — vanished and re-appeared in Tunisia to form the “national” team of a nation-not-yet. FIFA was much harsher then, punishing several federations who played against the Algerian team, which nevertheless toured in Asia and the Eastern bloc as well as the Middle East for several years.

If that team worked as a political symbol, of course, it was because they were good. They won accolades, and gained audiences, through their vivid and victorious football, in the process spreading the Algerian flag and anthem, and the giving the independence movement a sympathetic and attractive face. Of course, the political contexts of Algeria and Catalonia are drastically different, and shouldn’t be conflated. It’s a different time, a different place, and obviously a completely distinct history.

Interestingly, the French imperial orbit provides us with a few other more contemporary comparisons that might, in fact, be more useful. On the one hand there is New Caledonia, a Pacific territory that is still part of France but has a fairly autonomous administrative situation and seems to be well on the road to full independence. FIFA has already admitted New Caledonia, whose football federation is now independent from the F.F.F. (French football federation) of which it was once a part, and they competed this year in World Cup Qualifying matches. They didn’t make it, but perhaps one day they will — so, perhaps, we can look forward to a France-New Caledonia game down the road. Here, the independent football team has arrived at the end of, and as a result of, a larger political process that included a violent uprising against the French state, and violent repression, during the 1980s before a negotiated settlement put in place the current political process.

On the other side of the world, meanwhile — another story I tell in Soccer Empire — the French Caribbean departments of Guadeloupe and Martinique are both members of CONCACAF, and field teams in the Gold Cup. The Guadeloupean team has been noticed a great deal of late, especially in 2006 when they made it into far into the tournament under the leadership of Jocelyn Angloma, once a star of the French national team. This case might illuminate the Catalan case even better than either Algeria or New Caledonia. Although there has long been a forceful independence movement in both Guadeloupe and Martinique, today it seems highly unlikely that either island will gain independence any time soon. In part, integration into France and therefore into the European Union includes many perks and advantages, and indeed help make Martinique the wealthiest island in the Caribbean. Nationalists in the region have repeatedly mobilized football to political ends, and in a way the inclusion of the islands in CONCACAF is a kind of nationalist gesture, and the Guadeloupean uniforms, red and green, echo the colors of the nationalist flag.  At the same time, however, you might say that it is a beautiful compromise. Guadeloupeans and Martinicans, who are quite football mad, get to have their own “national” teams in the Americas, while also remaining part of the F.F.F., and indeed supplying the French team with an impressive number of its star players — including Thuram, Henry, Gallas and Anelka, to name just a few.

Maybe the Catalan selection will find a similar way forward? What if UEFA admitted Catalonia, so that they could compete in regional competitions, even against Spain? This might be an interesting way to have it both ways, just as a compromise form involving increased local autonomy without independence seems the most likely political future for the region.

Yesterday, in Barcelona, the Catalonian selection showcased effective and at times beautiful football, bringing pleasure and certainly pride to their fans. It was, among other things, a nice moment in the meeting between the “total football” once embodied in Cruyff’s Dutch team and today’s Barcelona football that Joaquin Bueno wrote about here several months ago. Whether a nation awaits, of course, is a rather different matter. But if football doesn’t make politics, it certainly shapes it. The question, of course, is precisely how. Perhaps having a Catalan “national” team on the pitch can assuage, even lessen, nationalist aspirations off of it: people can celebrate the nation in the stadium, and might worry less if they can’t celebrate it elsewhere. Or perhaps having such a team can help to trigger and condense a form of national feeling. And if there is some day — who knows? — an independent Catalan nation, people will probably look back and say that football helped pave the way.

Documentary on African Football

Stefan Lovgren, a documentary filmmaker who has worked on a many previous films about Africa, is now making one about football in Africa. It focuses in particular on one football academy in Ghana to tell a broader story about African football, the hopes and exploitation of footballers, and the broader context surrounding the history 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Lovgren was here filming during our October conference on “Sport, Race and Power,” and interviewed Gerard Akindes, Peter Alegi, Paul Darby, three conference participants, for the film.

He’s shared a few short clips from the film with me, including one that explores how football is being used in Sierra Leone to deal with the effects of years of war there among children, and it looks wonderful! Once I know about when and where the film will be aired, I’ll share more information here.

To learn more about the documentary visit Lovgren’s blog.

World Cup 2010: A Coming Out Party for 3D Technology?

The upcoming World Cup will be filmed in 3D and FIFA is soon to make a decision on whether or not these matches will be broadcast live using the new technology, which has been developed by Sony. Special glasses are needed to take advantage of the special broadcast.  From the article:

Now, analysts believe the technology is on the cusp of becoming mainstream and believe the World Cup could play an important role in take-up of the technology.

“Global sporting events… are very important drivers of new technology, particularly in the TV market”, said Tom Morrod, Senior Analyst at Screen Digest.

Thankfully, FIFA is only considering this as an enhancement of how the game is viewed in households or at bars. This past Sunday, in an interesting and very bizarre experiment, Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, brought new 3D technology into the stadium. At the start of the 2nd half, the PA announcer announced the “first live 3D broadcast ever to be shown on giant video screens at a major sporting event.”  The publicity stunt has garnered negative reviews, unclear as to why people would need to look at a giant video screen with funky glasses rather than the actual game itself.

Puskas Awards 2009

Puskas (

Puskas (

Created in honour of Ferenc Puskás, captain and star of the Hungarian national team during the 1950s, the FIFA Puskás Award will be bestowed upon the player from either the men’s or women’s game judged to have scored the best goal of the year.

The final decision gets determined by users. In making their decision, the FIFA Football Committee applied the following criteria:

1. Aesthetics (a subjective criterion – long-range shots, team moves, acrobatic goals etc)
2. The importance of the match (an objective criterion – in descending order: national teams, continental tournaments, domestic first divisions)
3. The absence of luck or an opposition mistake as a factor making the goal possible
4. Fair Play: the player must not have conducted himself poorly during the game or, for example, have been found guilty of doping
5. The date: goals scored between July 2008 and July 2009

The winner will be unveiled at the FIFA World Player gala on 21 December and the voting will be closed on the 14th of December.

Until the ceremony please make  your choices & explain why you have chosen it:

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My vote goes to Nilmar’s goal in the Internacional-Corinthians match that was played on May 10, 2009… His diagonal run towards the box passing several players and his insistence on scoring is worth seeing. As seeable D’Alessandro’s pass from behind the center line leaves Nilmar as the second player that is closest to the opposite post. He creates his own space and progressively continues with the ball. Obviously, positioning mistakes and lack of communication within the defense can be seen as other reasons  for the goal. A detailed analysis of the goal has been given in the following video:

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Egyptian Blues

Front page story on NYT regarding Egyptians reaction to the Algeria – Egypt playoff loss for a spot in the 2010 South Africa World Cup.  While my last final exam tomorrow precludes an analysis, the series of matches between Egypt and Algeria have served as a platform, a somewhat cathartic space, for all the ill-will to come out that these two nations harbor for each other. From a story in the popular sports blog, The Bleacher Report, before the playoff game:

The madness does not end there, as the press in both countries escalated the war of words. Algeria accused Egypt of “selling Palestine to the Jews” and “losing the six day war” with Israel. Egyptian writers responded with taunts of “France made you slaves”.

In a bizarre twist, a multi-national company like Coca-Cola has become embroiled in the media war, starting a campaign with the tag line “I was there in 1989”, and selling Tee Shirts and mass producing posters!

A simple Google search of the Algerian – Egyptian rivalry and an understanding the 1989 battle between the two countries for a spot in the 1990 World Cup will help shed light on the havoc taking place today between the two countries.

Mario Balotelli and a question of citizenship

I stumbled upon this article that describes Ghana national team coach Milovan Rajevac’s new pursuit of Italian striker Mario Balotelli. Balotelli, an Inter Milan forward, is widely regarded as one of the top young talents in the world. Having been born in Italy to Ghanaian nationals, Mario is eligible to play for both national teams. He has already represented Italy at the U21 level, and appears to have no intention of switching his allegiance. In a September 2008 article Balotelli reiterated his desire to play for Italy, saying “I’m Italian, I feel Italian, I will always play for Italy…I’ve never considered playing for Ghana, even two years ago when they called me up”.

However, it appears that Ghana’s national team feels it has a shot at the young striker’s services. Balotelli has fallen out of favor with some Italians due to his aggressive personality, and he has recently been subjected to racist taunting inside of of Italian stadiums.

From a tactical perspective, procuring Mario Balotelli would greatly strengthen an already powerful Ghana side for the World Cup, while Italy (who could surely benefit from his services but appear unlikely to do so) probably isn’t as desperate for a top striker by next June. Ghana’s actions open up the debate for what exactly constitutes a national team player. Even though they are acting within the rules, should Ghana’s actions be accepted in world football? The United States has been involved in similar cases in recent years, most notably with Freddy Adu, Jose Francisco Torres, and Giuseppe Rossi.

South Africa and FIFA

Here is an interesting article on the World Cup draw “show” and match-ups hosted by Theron.  It was funny how the article mentions, “The only uncomfortable moment came when Blatter forgot the venue of the World Cup’s first match (which, of course, is Johannesburg).  The FIFA president redeemed himself, however, when he announced that the World Cup trophy would remain in Africa, as a gift, after being presented to the tournament winners.”

The article then goes on to say, “FIFA’s desire to leave a legacy on the continent was further underlined by a video presentation that announced investment of more than $40 million in African soccer projects. They might have been better off spending the money on security.”  This brings us back to our conversation on infrastructure projects in South Africa and the true functions for which they are being constructed, as well as their legacies after the event ends.  The article seems to have a rather disdainful attitude on all the money spend on the stadiums and venues when there is poverty knocking nearby.

I’d be interested in seeing how the television rights holders plan on portraying this South African poverty considering that they are “anticipating record audiences.”  If they plan on doing background stories on certain players or teams, like ESPN often does, I would hope that they would include a commentary on the social conditions in South Africa as well.

World Cup Draw Blues

In the early days of the World Cup draw, in the 1930s, organizers from FIFA gathered around a table and drew lots from a hat. Once it was Jules Rimet’s grandson Yves who got the job of picking the lots. Until relatively recently, the draw still consisted of men in suits from FIFA doing the honors. Call me a traditionalist, but I sort of wish we still used the same system, and that FIFA didn’t feel the need to make picking balls out of bowls look like the Academy Awards. Even if it took a long time before we actually got to it, and even if I’d personally pick Rimet’s grandson or pretty much any other little kid over Charlize Theron and David Beckham for the job of overseeing the whole business, the essential is accomplished: we can now start the sixth-month process of worrying, predicting, and hoping as we await the kickoff of the World Cup in late June.

I participated in a conversation as part of Duke’s online office hours just before the actual draw began, which you can see here. I also published an op-ed here in the Durham Herald Sun about the draw today. I’ll publish another in the newspaper about soccer in the U.S. next week. Both were done before I actually knew the outcome, so here’s a few additional reactions:

First, the obvious: The Brazil-Portugal match up, as well as the Brazil-Ivory Coast games, will be wonderful early matches.

France lucked out, in a way, and there will be a consolation for me at least if the team, rather than redeeming itself as it needs to after the past several months, self-destructs in the early stages of the World Cup: that will help South Africa progress, which I very much hope it does.

Good news for the U.S., of course, and the match-up with England will certainly be an early highlight of the tournament. The general reaction in both England and the U.S. to being in a group with Algeria, however, was a little unseemly, and probably a bit too confident, as one journalist in Algeria has cheekily pointed out. Algeria beat Germany in 1982, only to be pushed out of the tournament through the famous and despicable collusion between Germany and Austria during the final group game, and I hope they get a chance to move on in the tournament this year, ideally along with the U.S. from that group.

In general, the African teams got a rough draw. We should all begin send pleas and prayers to whatever higher powers we think will help to ensure that a reasonable number of them nevertheless get through to the round of 16. If I have to watch an Italy-Germany final, or indeed if we end up with eight teams in the quarter-finals that make the World Cup into the European Cup plus Brazil, I’m swearing off football for life and turning to golf.

I’m counting on the fickle football gods to provide us with something different this year. Football needs it.