The author argues that soccer is a global phenomenon with enormous political and economic potential, and those who invest massively in it, will reap great economic, social, political and cultural benefits.
The on-going Soccer World Cup has reached the nock-out stage. Sunday 1 July 2018, Russia, the host country, played with Spain, and the former emerged winner, after extra time, and penalty shoot out. This year’s World Cup has come with surprises—hitherto mighty teams such as Germany, Spain, and Portugal, have been sent home. The African continent has no single team left, after Senegal was sent home through “Yellow Cards.” Most funs of African teams are doing some soul-searching to decide on whom to redirect their emotions as we approach the quarter finals, semi-finals and finals.
The criteria for selecting which team to support follows any of the following unrelated or even contradictory elements: colonial or linguistic ties (former colonial country; religious affiliation; team with more African players; team with one’s favoured players, etc.). This is the psychology of soccer. What is in soccer that excites wild emotions? Why is soccer such much-loved sport all over the world to the extent that it is now more popular than most religions or politics?
Since I started following the World Cup in 1990 up to today, I have come to a conclusion that football or soccer (as it is popularly known) has inbuilt philosophy and has a political economy of its own, like any self-contained system. I will try to describe and analyse what could be the key philosophical and political economic elements of soccer using the World Cup as an illustration. The main argument I will make is that soccer is a global phenomenon with enormous political and economic potential, and those who invest massively in it, will reap great economic, social, political and cultural benefits. And from a pan-African perspective, Africa’s abysmal performance in the 2018 World Cup is a warning that African countries, both individually and collectively, are gradually losing a pan-African vision and passion. How can a continent of over 1.2 billion people fail to front a serious pan-African team that can reach finals in the World Cup? Africa has basically failed to invest financial and human resources in sport that Africa clearly has a comparative advantage.
Soccer: global sport for the poor
In comparison with other world sports such as golf, rugby, lawn tennis, table tennis, baseball, cricket and swimming, soccer is relatively cheap. All over Africa, children are seen playing in compounds or on the road, just using a ball made of banana fibres or plastic papers. The goal posts can be just two stones or two small sticks. You can even fold two shirts and make a goal post. No one can claim that they do not have sport facilities to play soccer.
The rules of the game are also pretty straight forward: 11 players for either team; duration of the game—90 minutes split into 45 minutes each segment; only a goal keeper is allowed to handle the ball with his hands; faults are punished (handling the ball, kicking your opponent, being off-side, etc.); the referee is the final arbiter but he is assisted by lines men and recently a machine can help detect faults). These rules are universal norms and they apply everywhere regardless of race, creed, and nationality. This is what makes soccer popular global sport since all can easily follow it and understand what is going on even if one does not know the language of the commentators.
Soccer: global values and norms
What constitutes the philosophy and ethic of soccer? Apart from rules that guide the smooth operation of soccer, there are some values and norms that those who wish to excel in soccer must have. In a way a football match is a microcosm of society. All the virtues and vices found in society can be discerned in soccer.
While commenting on soccer and comparing it with religious values, I coined the following acronym: SOCCER—Sacrifice; Organisation; Commitment; Courage; Enthusiasm; Resilience. All soccer players spent a lot of time practicing and this takes time and sacrifice. A soccer team is an organisation with clearly defined roles: manager; coach; captain; referee; goalkeeper and various players. Organisation happens at the team level but also within the game itself. Commitment follows sacrifice. If you are not committed to practice, and to team spirit, forget winning a game. Courage is another key virtue in soccer. A goalkeeper is “in the line of fire” just like those who play defence. Those who score are those who have the courage to try but also to break through the defence of the opponent. In fact soccer can be compared to a battle. The faint-hearted need not enlist themselves. Enthusiasm is about energy and passion. That is why soccer thrives on funs who help to boost the morale and enthusiasm of the players.
A Rukiga-Runyankore proverb says it all: Guma, guma embwa ekeita muha—courage, courage, a dog killed a hyena. If you enter the field to play soccer with an attitude of having been defeated already, you will most likely get defeated. Enthusiasm is what keeps the players at it, going after the ball, keeping alert, being eager to win and to explore all opportunities that present themselves [to them]. Resilience is all about not giving up. 90 minutes is a lot of time and some players give up. That is why you see a lot of substitutions. Poor performance is one reason for substitution, but often times, players lose momentum. Will power is crucial here. All great achievements are a result of resilience—studies, politics, business, sports.
Other values that help in soccer include: team work; co-operation; focus and concentration; honesty (try to score by using your hand and you get free kick); fairness (not being off-side, or not kicking your opponent, in the selection of the team, lines men and referee judging a particular case, not fixing matches or getting a bribe). Soccer tries to follow the principle of rule of law. Disagreements are handled with the help of a referee who acts as a judge following the stipulated rules of the game. If there are major issues, the aggrieved party can appeal to a higher body like Fédération Internationale de Football Association commonly known as FIFA. Fairness is strictly enforced: both teams are accorded same time; teams change sides in case one side has some advantage; each team has only 11 players; injuries are taken care of promptly and fairly; funs cannot be allowed into the field to disrupt the match; when you lose you go away quietly without resorting to violence. I wish politicians would borrow a leaf from soccer.
Soccer: paradoxes and contradictions of global sport
Like any human invention, soccer is also ridden with paradoxes and contradictions. Soccer also has some enigmas that cannot be resolved easily. In the previous section we praised some virtues and values of soccer but all is not rosy. There are also some embedded inequalities, paradoxes and contradictions. For instance, why do poor countries also tend to be the ones that perform poorly? Why do the best teams of the world attract players from Africa and yet African countries cannot afford to build their own national teams? Are the referees and lines men free from corruption? There is much talk about match-fixing—is this real? How are teams that take part in the World Cup selected and by what criteria? How are referees and lines men selected? How democratic is FIFA that governs the World Cup? Might there be hidden politics in the World Cup that the ordinary unsuspecting observer may not know? Who can host the World Cup?
These and numerous other questions are hard to answer. It seems that soccer like any world system, is replete with paradoxes and contradictions and easily falls prey to politics and manipulation. Soccer is clearly a multi-billion dollar enterprise and so it will attract the most ambitious of the human species. Soccer is not just a simple sport, of 22 men running after a bag of air for 90 minutes. There is more to it than meets the eye.
Soccer also poses severe challenges for other systems such as religion and family values. Soccer competes for time and resources with other systems. When the World Cup begins, literary the rest of businesses shut down. Students who are not disciplined will easily spend hours glued to the TV screens watching soccer. It is not easy to measure how many hours viewers spend watching the World Cup, but for sure, it is in millions [if not billions], if we multiply the number of viewers and the hours each viewer spends.
Soccer provides instant gratification and satisfaction. Such a stimulus will build a structure of instant satisfaction that will in turn undermine the ability to delay gratification. Another challenge that soccer poses is when close friends even couples happen to support different teams. If one wins, this might affect their relationship. There are stories of couples who have divorced following a contested match. Others bet and lose huge sums of money. Soccer is a very emotionally charged sport, be careful not to invest too emotionally into it.
Global political economy of soccer and why Africa did so poorly
Economists can try to calculate the amount of money involved in the soccer industry. Consider the factories that produce soccer balls, nets, goal posts, uniforms, medicines, sports illustrated magazines, etc. A decent soccer stadium like Namboole Stadium in Kampala, Uganda or those being used in Russia can easily cost more than US$ 50 million. Managing a soccer team costs millions of dollars. Soccer academies have been set up and they too can be valued at millions of dollars. Selling tickets for a World Cup fetches billions of dollars. Imagine the amount of water and soft drinks funs drink at one single World Cup match. No event anywhere brings such instant financial gains as a World Cup. Soccer teams are indeed multinational corporations (MNCs) alongside Coca Cola, Nike, Nestle, Phillips, IBM, Microsoft, etc.
Soccer being an MNC like others, also follows the laws of global capitalism. There is outsourcing and merging. Small teams get swallowed by big teams. Best players are fished by big teams with the best bidder winning.
When you look at the soccer stadium you are mesmerised by the numerous adverts of thousands of global brands. A stadium is indeed like a temple of global capitalism where religious enthusiasts go to offer sacrifices and worship the gods of profit, power, prestige and fame. The High Priest is the Referee, the players are the priests, the lines men are altar servers, the congregation of the faithful are the spectators and funs. No wonder that the greatest competition that religions like Christianity and Islam are facing is from soccer. Oh you worshippers of the true God beware of what you are competing with.
Why did Africa do so poorly in this year’s World Cup? The reasons are not rocket science. First, the political economy of soccer is the main culprit. While the rules of the game are fair, and the playing field is fair, the countries from which the teams emerge display huge income inequalities. So the World Cup just mirrors the contradictions in the global economy. How many African countries can afford to train world-class soccer teams on a daily basis? How many African countries have invested in soccer and have standard stadia for their respective teams?
Few African countries have invested in soccer by way of soccer academies to train the young talents. Few African countries, even when they have Ministries of Sports and Youth, have invested in recruiting national teams that qualify for the World Cup. Instead what we see are talented African players being bought by famous teams such as Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City, Barcelona, etc. The poor performance by Africa at the World Cup started many years before, due to negligence of otherwise popular and affordable sport, with some planning.
Briefly, African countries need to invest in cultivating the young talents all over Africa, lest the young talented players continue to be bought by the rich teams in Europe. Under the Social Affairs Department at the African Union (AU), a special section on youth talent promotion with a special focus on soccer is needed urgently. I have not yet heard national development programmes insisting on investing in soccer instead of defence and security. The much-talked demographic dividend with the youth bulge can only benefit Africa if the issue of youth and soccer is taken seriously.
A pan-African critique is in order here. If African countries were truly pan-African, why wouldn’t a group of countries put up a formidable team housed in one African country? Pooling some resources would help a great deal. If we were to get the best players from Nigeria, Senegal, Egypt, Uganda, South Africa, Tunisia, Cameroon, and Angola, and create a pan-African team, I see no reason why Africa would not take the World Cup home. In the elaborate AU’s Agenda 2063, there is a section that speaks of reviving African culture for development.
Investing in a Pan-African soccer team could be one of the AU’s flagship projects. Africa loses because it is still divided along the colonial borders, and we all expend our emotions cheering foreign teams. The proof of this argument is found in the fact that the strong soccer teams that most African support during the English Premier leagues have some of the best players from Africa.
The other reason why Africa did so poorly lies in the law of probability. Other regions have also done poorly with heavy weights going home. But the difference lies in how many teams were fronted in the first place. If you have few teams playing at the World Cup from your continent, the law of probability dictates that you have a higher chance of going home pretty fast. It all goes back to the original position (to borrow the phrase of John Rawls in his Theory of Justice) with which Africa entered the World Cup. The Biblical intuition is true: “Those who have more, more will be given them. Those who have little, even the little they think they have will be taken away from them.” Africa lost because it had lost much earlier, even before the World Cup had started. The philosophy here is that success begets success, and failure begets failure. The famous law of attraction.
As the World Cup progresses, let us learn a few lessons from this global sporting event for the future. Not all is lost. Africa is still in the World Cup through some divine conspiracy since countries like Brazil have more than a quarter of Africans or people of African origin. Africa is still in the World Cup, because the African philosophy of life or Ubuntu never allows giving up, and also because of Mbiti’s famous aphorism: “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.” The World Cup is a global phenomenon, and hence we should all celebrate the human spirit at work. We humans are still in the World Cup, and that is why the analogy of religion is appropriate. Soccer is the only global secular faith we have, all can relate with it, and all can delight in it. But let us not forget that soccer and in its manifestation as World Cup, is a call to global consciousness, a call to recover our humanity, unity, and global compassion for all our brothers and sisters. The travel to Russia to witness the World Cup and the viewing of the World Cup on screens across the world, should inspire us all to think of the plight of migrants and refugees who are roaming the planet searching for a better life and opportunities. The World Cup reminds us that we are one World, One people, one race, and that we should celebrate this global human consciousness and work for globalisation of love and life, for all human beings.
*Doctor Odomaro Mubangizi teaches social and political philosophy and is Dean of the Department of Philosophy at the Institute of Philosophy and Theology in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.