Is it time to scrap international competitions?

Tournaments such as the World Cup foster jingoism and are exploited by sponsors

10 August ~ Nation states are the result of wars, intrigues, marriage, propaganda, blackmail, lies and deception,” wrote former German cabinet minister Norbert Blum in the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper yesterday in a column headed Nationalism Equals Idiocy.

Blum pointed out that during the 74 years of the German Empire (1871-1945), “Germany went to war with France three times. Generations broke their skulls shedding blood because of national borders. The issues could be as banal as the exact entrenchment point of the border stone between France and Germany.” He decries the insular, backward-looking neo-nationalism of states like Poland and Hungary who’ve forgotten that they struggled for their own freedom to cross borders as recently as 1989.

Which raises the question – why do we even still have international sports tournaments? Man-created national borders are, as Blum notes, the historical result of scurrilous manoeuvring and violence, and should play little or no role in a modern, united Europe. So what is the sense in creating spurious rivalries that inflame resentments and attempt to inspire pride in something as superficial as a coloured flag?

Monday night’s main headline on the Guardian‘s website was that two British competitors had won the bronze medal in the 10m synchronised diving event. That was the biggest story in the world at that moment in time, apparently. Yesterday morning on the German radio news we heard repeatedly the dolorous words of a table tennis player unexpectedly eliminated at the final-16 stage by an opponent ranked 40th in the world. Again and again, the media cajole us into investing our hopes for joy and a sense of fulfilment in the skills of athletes with whom we just happen to share a common passport.

The opponent, you see, has a different country name in his or her passport. For that reason alone we wish them disappointment and defeat. With some justification, you could maintain that it’s better than shooting or bombing them for the same reason, but that’s just arguing in negatives. It doesn’t help us to understand our supposed affiliation with random sportsmen and women who were born or integrated into the same geographical space that we, too, coincidentally inhabit.

Does it then make any more sense for teams from individual towns, cities, suburbs and villages to compete against each other? I would argue that it does, because most of these clubs are rooted in the social and cultural history of their communities. An individual’s identification with a club generally springs from a more concrete personal experience or contact. While a regional rivalry may suffer from multiple unpleasant facets – see, for example, the frequently poisonous and pointless exchanges between Manchester United and Liverpool fans – it’s not likely that the two cities will go to war. And at least there’s no FIFA-sourced pretence that sport serves as a healing, unifying force for good.

Given that the Olympics and the World Cup have become economically crippling, corruption-riddled, doping-debased mega-events exploited by individual governments around the world to glorify themselves, it would make more sense at this point in history just to abolish them. Few countries can afford to stage them or sustain the facilities that FIFA and the IOC demand. The tournaments’ main results are jingoism, chronic debts, and the enrichment of sponsors, participants and functionaries, while the human rights of those who build the infrastructure, or who are displaced by it, are trampled upon with impunity.

In football, the movement of players between countries and nationalities has now become so fluid that the concept of a national team has lost much of its meaning. Thanks to the power of modern communications, there are no particular styles of play attributed to individual countries any more. There are no tactical secrets – everyone’s reading from the same play-book, which may fluctuate between three, four or five men at the back without raising much excitement either way. Brazil and Cameroon have long been just as results-oriented as Denmark and the US.

The more problematic and bloated that the politically charged World Cup becomes, the more that the world’s most powerful clubs regard it as a superfluous burden on their major investments – their players. The increasing clout of the wealthiest clubs over national associations has long been seen as an evil by progressive football fans, and rightly so. But the national associations, and by proxy FIFA, UEFA and the other continental bodies, have been setting their own self-serving houses ablaze for decades.

For the betterment of humanity, if not necessarily for the good of the game, it might be time to concede that, for the medium term at least, the clubs have earned the right to have a far greater say in football’s structure. We might not at all like what they suggest – an international superleague, say – but in the coming years that ought to represent a truer reflection of a hopefully more progressive world. Ian Plenderleith

This article first appeared on the World Cup Human Rights blog