Soccer Fans Look To 2010 World Cup
MICHEL MARTIN: It's got mega stars, fanatical fans, national pride at stake. And every four years, it garnished one of the largest gathering of athletes in the world. No, we are not talking about the Olympic Games, but World Cup. And even though the tournament doesn't take place until the year 2010, qualifying matches are already under way. The fervor is already in overdrive. Here to tell us more is Franklin Foer. He's the author of "How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization." Welcome. Thanks for joining us.
Mr. FRANKLIN FOER (Author, "How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization"): Good to be here.
MARTIN: Why do the qualifying rounds start so early?
Mr. FOER: Well, people - first of all, they - it's wheedling down of all the nations - all the soccer playing nations in the world to the 32 teams that will take place, that will take part in the World Cup in South Africa. So there are a lot of countries that need to be whittled out. And so at this stage in the qualifications, you've got a lot of the minnows of world soccer kind of getting knocked out. So the United States just competed against Barbados in two games, which eliminated Barbados from the competition.
And then, we move into, you know, each continent, each soccer federation has its own different system for qualifying for the cup. And so, we're moving through these kind of long, elaborate qualification procedures to whittle down the teams to the 32 that will go to South Africa in 2010.
MARTIN: So each region is in a different stage of the qualifying rounds right now.
Mr. FOER: Yes. Exactly. So in South America, they've already played six games of qualification, and Europe is about to go into another big bout of qualification matches in August.
MARTIN: Can you just - do you need an advanced degree to understand how the process works? Like who plays whom, how do you qualify, how many rounds? I mean, do I have to go back to school for this?
Mr. FOER: Yeah, no, exactly. It's all based on - it's a totally unrationalized process that grows out of the different political alignments in each of the various soccer federations around the world. And it's definitely not a rational system, and it requires almost fanatical devotion to figure out what the heck is going on.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: OK. I feel better. Feel a little better. Now, the World Cup, like the Olympics, is very much tied in with a kind of national pride.
Mr. FOER: Yeah.
MARTIN: But increasingly, don't players move around the world? Do...
Mr. FOER: Yeah. We just watched the European Championships that was played in Switzerland and Austria over the course of the month of June. And it's really - it's one of the biggest sporting events of the decade. It happens every four years, and it was a really interesting tournament because you have all these European teams, but almost every European team had a player from Brazil on its team. You had a Brazilian mid-fielder playing for Turkey, for Portugal, for some of the Eastern European countries.
It's kind of an unsettling thing to see. And then you have coaches who don't come from the countries that they're coaching. So Russia, which advanced really far in the tournament, was coached by a Dutchman. Portugal was coached by a Brazilian. Greece was coached by a German. So you do have labor - labor moves quite freely through this soccer playing market. And nationality is - it's one of these amazing things. Nationalism is still hugely important in this event. People feel incredible passion for their national teams, but their national teams aren't necessarily composed of their countrymen.
You have kind of mercenaries who come into these teams who nationalize as citizens, you know, a week before the tournament to play for their teams. Yet, the nationalism persists.
MARTIN: One of the other things that unfortunately seems to persist is racism. It's something that surfaced in the last, sort of, World Cup final when I think people remember one of the French players was insulted by a player from another country, and he head butted him. And he later said that he had been, you know, grievously insulted in a manner that was intended to be particularly hurtful.
Do you think that the globalization of the sport, the fact that the players are moving around around the world and playing for teams that are very far away from the countries of their birth will finally ameliorate that?
Mr. FOER: Well, first of all, just the narratives surrounding the headbutt is incredibly complicated, and it's been the subject already of documentaries, and doctoral dissertations, and the like. But the FIFA, which is the body that governs world soccer, and UA for the body that governs European soccer are especially obsessed with trying to stamp out racism. During the European championships, the captains of each team read a prepared statement before the games denouncing racism.
And there were signs surrounding the field commanding fans to say no to racism. And so, I guess, I suppose the fact that they had to go to such great length to denounce racism is probably good evidence of its existence. But you know, I think that there's - a lot of this depends from country to country. But you know, I think over time, the presence of these players from abroad will help stamp out racism.
It'll take a long time because you got places like Spain and Italy, which are as globalized and they have as many African and Latin American players playing in their league as any place in the world, yet racism is still a fact of life in their soccer stadiums.
MARTIN: So Franklin, I only have about a minute left so - but I'm going to put you on the spot because I can't resist and because I need to sound smart when I go to a party, and I want to act like I know what I'm talking about. So, give me the 4-1-1 on - are there any teams that you think are going to surprise us? Are the teams that we should keep our eye on, the sleepers...
Mr. FOER: Yeah. Well, it's hard to say...
MARTIN: The ones to watch.
Mr. FOER: You know, with that two years to go to the tournament and so much changes over the course of two years in soccer, it's hard to say, and you don't even know who's going to qualify. Right now, Brazil who is always the favorite to win the World Cup isn't even in one of the top four slots in the South America Federation. So if they were to continue playing like they're playing now, they wouldn't even qualify for the World Cup.
England, which didn't qualify for the European championship, could be a really strong team going into the next World Cup. They just hired an Italian coach named Fabio Capello, who is one of the best coaches in the world. So I would be a fool to make any predictions at this early stage.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: OK. What about South Africa, which is hosting the World Cup in 2010? How they doing?
Mr. FOER: Yes. Well, they never have - they have some strong players, but they don't have this particularly strong program. So they're never going to do that well at a World Cup. Although, host nations always tend to do better than you expect.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: That's funny. The host effect. OK. OK.
Mr. FOER: Yeah, yeah. The home town advantage.
MARTIN: All right. We have to leave it there, Frank.
Mr. FOER: OK.
MARTIN: Thanks so much.
Mr. FOER: Thank you.
MARTIN: Frank Foer is author of "How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization." He joined us from his office in Washington. Thanks so much.
Mr. FOER: Take care.
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