2014 World Cup as a Mirror of 2014 International Relations (A view from Israel)

Galia Press-Barnathan's picture

The world cup games that began this week in Brazil offer us a fascinating mirror of the complex nature of current international politics.

Many have been mourning for years the decline of the nation-state in a global world, emphasizing the rising importance of non-state actors, the decreasing capacity of the state to control its territory, and the weakening of national identity as a central reference point for individuals. These trends can be found in the world of soccer as well, for example in the dramatic internationalization of what used to be one national football teams. But then, once every four years, the state lifts its head high. Suddenly laymen become experts on identifying flags of states whose names we have not heard for four years. Indeed, national teams are no longer as prestigious as they used to be decades ago, yet, in the moment of truth, many of the cynical citizens of the global village find themselves preoccupied with their national team. It is only on the eve of the world cup, at least that was my impression, that you can wander the streets of Berlin and find stands selling German flags, signs and hats in the national colors.

The appearance on the center stage of the national teams also challenges the identity world of many soccer fans. Would the average English soccer fan of Manchester United, who admires Shinji Kagawa or Adnan Januzaj, find himself watching the games and cheering for the Japanese or Belgian teams? Luckily he still has a few "national" assets such as Wayne Rooney that allow full identification with the national team. Manchester United in itself is a team that embodies the wonders of the 21st C global world-  in its international cohort of players, its parallel role as a huge transnational corporation, and in the global span of its fandom networks. Indeed many of its players are national team players, but they are scattered across the globe (fourteen of its players are playing in nine different national teams!)

The world cup games indeed reflect and symbolize a sense of global fraternity and rejoicing in this popular and beautiful sport, and provide a stage for states to compete with each other and empower themselves by peaceful means. However, even there historical memories of  rivalries keep popping up. Rivalries that are supposedly long-gone, yet somehow remain engraved in the public-national consciousness/ sub-consciousness. A match between England and Germany, or between Germany and Poland, would never be an "ordinary" football match. Furthermore, the history of the games themselves has become intertwined in the history of relations between states and their struggles over status and prestige. This is a struggle in which both heads of state (like President Dilma) and the man on the street take part. Thus for example , the "Marakana Disaster" does not refer to, god forbid, an event in which fans were killed in an accident in the stadium, but rather to the defeat of Brazil to its small neighbor Uruguay in the last game of the finalists house in the 1950 games. The games then both reflect the state of international relations and influence it simultaneously, becoming part of both national and international history.

And of course, how can we not come across the plethora of discussions about Brazil as the host, about the demonstrations and public criticism regarding the high cost of hosting the game? Discussing the World Cup immediately becomes a discussion about the phenomenon of emerging markets and the future of the BRICs, suggesting that the greats hopes of eight years ago have not fully materialized, and that some of the basic dilemmas of third world states are still present.  Add to that the fact that Brazil is facing elections soon, and that the success of the games may actually impact the chances of various politicians to win, and you are faced with the full scale of the global politics of our time- which is local, national, international and global at the same time.

Somewhat ironically, it is the Israeli citizen, who compared to citizens of other (Western?) states may be presumed to be more "national(istic)", who can really celebrate the global world of the World Cup. Most of us would have been happy to skip Wayne Rooney and cheer whole heartedly the Israeli team in Brazil. But since this did not happen (yet again), we have the luxury of being" citizens of the world"- pick our private star and cheer for him (and his national team along the way), cheer England, and Belgium and Japan (or any team with a Manchester United player), switch loyalties or split them across different houses… it is all possible in the global world…

Finally, the games are all aired here on the public channel (free). TV stores, beer companies, pizza places, and others  (-no, no logical connection to soccer), like their peers in other parts of the global Capitalist world, know how to take advantage of this business opportunity and market their products around the games. So even if you really could not care less for soccer, Brazil is here!


Galia Press-Barnathan

A senior lecturer in the Department of International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Israel

Email: galiapress@gmail.com