Has the game gone global?

European influence, not home-honed talent, allowed South Korea, Japan and African nations to flourish in the World Cup.

Alex Standish

Topics Politics

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Many claim that this World Cup is testament to the globalisation of the beautiful game – with emerging footballing nations apparently upsetting the traditional giants (1).

There does seem to be a closing of the gap between the ‘old order’ and the likes of South Korea, Japan, Senegal, Cameroon, Nigeria, Turkey and the USA – but it isn’t a result of football becoming ‘globalised’. Rather, it is precisely the centralisation of football around Europe, with more of the world’s top footballers choosing to play for European clubs, which leads to the relative success of smaller nations.

As South Korea, Japan and African nations progressed in the World Cup, some claimed that the dominance of the Europe-South American axis had come to an end. According to Richard Williams in Guardian, ‘Even if the final turns out to be between Germany and England or Brazil – in other words, between the only two countries left in the contest who have won it before – the 2002 World Cup may still have marked a shift in the balance of power, away from the traditional powers and towards football’s emerging nations’ (2).

But the success of Senegal, Cameroon and Nigeria is a result of the fact that most of their players nurtured their talents in Europe. South Korea and Japan’s achievements have more to do with their home advantage, but again European influence played a part.

The Europe-South American axis may have been broken, but only because South American football has declined as its top players have taken flight to European clubs – leaving Europe as the home of all things excellent in professional football.

Consider where the majority of the World Cup tournament’s players play their football and hone their skills (3). Seventy-five percent play for European clubs – meaning that only 87 out of the World Cup’s 351 players play outside of Europe. Of these, seven play for African teams, six in the Major League Soccer (USA), 12 in the Middle East (11 of whom were the whipping boys of Group E, Saudi Arabia), 26 for Asian clubs (nine of which played for the goalless China), 21 play in Central America, and only 15 in South America.

A closer look at the success stories of this World Cup demonstrates Europe’s growing influence. Senegal, Africa’s most successful team, are largely the product of French football. Nine out of the team’s 11 play in France, and they are managed by Frenchman Bruno Metsu. ‘We are playing for Senegal, Africa and France’, says Senegalese rising star El Hadji Diouf, who will be joining Liverpool after the tournament. French clubs have used Senegal as a recruiting ground for future potential, developed with French coaching techniques. Senegal’s Aliou Cisse, probably on his way to Birmingham City, refers to the Senegal players as ‘the photocopies’ of the French club system.

Nigeria, which actually achieved below expectations in its ‘group of death’, are more of a pic’n’mix side. Kanu pays for Arsenal and Babayaro for Chelsea in the English Premiership; three players play in France (including JJ Okocha of Paris SG); Taribo West played for Kaiserslautern until recently and Christopher plays for Antwerp. The remaining four play in Greece, Switzerland and the Ukraine. None of Nigeria’s strongest 11 play their football in Africa. The same is true of Cameroon’s top 11. Three play in England, and the rest play in Italy, Spain, France and Turkey – but none in Africa.

South Africa also have a strong European flavour. Four of the 11 play in England, including Radebe of Leeds and Fortune of Manchester United; Nomvete plays for Udinese, McCarthy for Celta Vigo, Carnell for Stuttgart, Zuma for Copenhagen, Ngobe plays in Turkey, and Vonk keeps goal for Heerenveen of Holland. Only one in their top 11, Nzama, plays football in South Africa.

Of the American team, five of their 11 play their football in Europe: Friedel for Blackburn, Eddie Lewis for Fulham, Reyna for Sunderland, Joe-Max Moore for Everton, and Regis for French club Metz. Not included in the 11 are O’Brien, who joined Ajax at the age of 16, and Donovan, who is currently on loan to the US Men’s Soccer League from Bayer Leverkusen.

Japan and South Korea’s World Cup fortunes probably have more to do with home advantage on the back of mediocre domestic leagues and sheer determination. But, both teams have significant European ties. Their managers are both European. Japan’s Nakata plays with Parma and Shinji Ono for Feyenoord. Japan’s Inamoto describes his move to Arsenal as ‘the best thing for my career… They inspire me’ (4).

South Korea’s two key players play their football in Europe: Seol Ki-Hyeon, who scored the equaliser against Italy with two minutes left to play, and Ahn Jung-Hwan, who has been on loan from Perugia until they sacked him last week for putting the Italians out of the competition with a golden goal, only to change their minds a week later with an offer to buy him.

Some argue that many of these players develop their talents at home before being snapped up by European clubs. This might be true for the likes of Brazil’s Ronaldo and Rivaldo, but even they would not be the players they are today without weekly matches in a highly competitive environment. The Premiership, Serie A, the Bundesliga and the French and Spanish leagues provide such an environment, and have the money to pay players’ wages. This is also why it has become increasingly important to clubs and players to be compete in the Champions’ League, which is where the best football in the world is currently played.

So why has football become centred around Europe? I would like to think that it’s a result of Europe’s long history of footballing traditions – but in reality, the determining factor is money. Playing for your country might get you out of military service (the South Koreans’ reward), but for most teams in the emerging footballing nations it doesn’t pay your wages.

Deloitte and Touche have produced a Top 20 list of the world’s richest clubs (from 1999/2000) (5). Top of the pile is Manchester United with a turnover of £117million. Seven of the Top 20 are Premiership clubs, seven from Serie A, two from the Bundesliga, two from Spain and one from each of France and Scotland. The richest non-European club is Boca Juniors from Argentina in thirty-first place.

This makes the English Premiership the most wealthy league in the world today. Its turnover for 1999/2000 was £1078 million, an increase of 313 percent in the past 10 years (6).

A large part of this money comes from TV revenues. During the 1990s the sport and leisure industry boomed. Interest in football has grown and clubs have responded with increased commercialisation. The latest deal between Sky and the Premiership is said to be worth £1billion, with much of this money being passed on to the players. In 1999/2000 Premiership players earned £319million, up 190 percent from 1995/96 (7). Little wonder that foreign players are eager to play in Britain. English clubs have been spending 53 percent of transfer fees on non-English players (8).

While the emerging nations of Africa, Asia and North America might be able to produce credible national sides, they do so with talent that has been developed in Europe. Their own domestic leagues are way behind Europe’s.

Given that money, sports facilities and fanatical fans are all necessary ingredients for a world-class football league, it is entirely feasible that East Asia could develop such a league in the future. Rather than losing footballers to Europe, Asia could soon hold on to its own and even attract some foreign talent. But right now, Europe is the capital of first-class football.

(With additional research by Jassim Al-Thani.)

Alex Standish was formerly a teacher in the south east of England, and is currently carrying out postgraduate research at Rutgers University, New Jersey.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

World Cup – the new political football, by Mick Hume

A blame of two halves, by Dominic Standish

(1) ‘Next shock will be no surprise’, Ray Collins, Guardian, 19 June 2002; ‘World’s most popular game testimony to globalisation’, Mark Pougatch, The Times, 19 June 2002; ‘Why are world will never be the same again’, Richard Williams, Guardian, 21 June 2002

(2) ‘Why are world will never be the same again’, Richard Williams, Guardian, 21 June 2002

(3) Using Observer Soccer Monthly’s strongest 11 for each team (‘The Teams’, Observer, 26 May 2002)

(4) Simon Kuper, Observer, 16 June 2002

(5) Sport Business Rich List for 1999/00 Season, Deloitte and Touche

(6) Annual Review of Football Finance, Deloitte and Touche, 14 August 2001

(7) ‘Factsheet 10: The “New” Football Economics’, Sir Norman Chester Centre for Football Research (University of Leicester)

(8) Annual Review of Football Finance, Deloitte and Touche, 14 August 2001

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