Indubitably, the face of football is changing — dramatically. I use the last word well aware that many of you might prefer another adverb of choice, but I find emphasis to be expedient. Verily, it cannot be denied that every weekend while we sit and swear, cry and laugh, scream and cheer, we are simultaneously watching the homogenization of football.
Whether we are watching the dazzling starlets of La Liga or Serie A, the in-your-face action of the Premier League, or even the more pedestrian, yet subtly poignant splendors or our respective domestic leagues, we are all watching an international game that has now come to share more mutual commonalities than ever before. It would be abhorrent of me to opine that football is the exact same everywhere and that all leagues are commensurate in their level of play, because frankly that’s just a load of hogwash.
However, in putting my realizations and extrapolations to paper, I aim to suggest that football has lost much of its former individualistic aspects and has come to embody a gargantuan set of shared ideals, customs, and styles the world-over. This can be viewed through the lens of sundry windows.
The crucial cause of this homogenization can be found in the rapid, incessant influx of global players into Europe’s leagues, which are now saturated with foreign talent. It’s been said in hundreds of different languages, “Europe is my dream”, and so it seems. Thousands want to come, only a sliver of that amount actually get that opportunity, but when they do the signs of assimilation are all too apparent. The adoption and fervent use of the English language, neoteric clothing and hair styles, new views on the way the game should be played, and countless other adoptions are vivid signs of the increasing globalization of football.
The ubiquity of the English language cannot be directly associated with modern football, for globalization has surely done its part, however the result is the same. Football stars all over Europe now speak fluent English, in addition to their native language and/or the language of their new host country. As a languavore myself and thus an ardent support of polygloterry, it is not jealousy that fuels my discussion of this phenomenon, but rather an intense intrigue.
As remarked by Zlatan IbrahimoviÄ‡’in his Swedish documentary Cirkus Zlatan “we [the Inter Milan squad] try to speak English as much as possible”. Football’s apparent adoption of English as its official language is contagious, as it has now spread to the game’s fans as well. Interviews are conducted across Europe in English, a bounty of the sport’s most prestigious global publications are in English, and perhaps the greatest bastion of English resides in the channels of the internet, where chat, discussion, and message boards everywhere can be found in English. I’ve seen the current state of the Albanian national team discussed online, and oddly enough, I understood every word of it.
The fact is that English allows for a bridge to be constructed for players and supporters across the world, subsequently facilitating their communication. Fifty years ago, this simply did not occur. As communication through the English language continues to increase with great celerity, the game is at risk of becoming even more uniform. Several complexities that are built into languages, such as the existence in Italian of seven different words meaning “goal”, will vanish. Discussion of the game will be done through the same format and copious variability and personality of football-discourse once available to us will be gone.
An additional, slightly risible anecdote of English’s conquering of the sport is to be found in non-native speakers flawless usage of the games terms in British English over American English, despite the fact that the American dialect has had a greater influence to many around the world (due to the internet, cinema, music, et al.). “Pitch” over “field”, “boots” over “cleats”, and “match” over “game”, are just a few of the surfeit. Contemporaneously, off the pitch, Americanisms such as “cookies” over “biscuits” and “garbage” over “rubbish”, continue to reign supreme.
Moreover, a general homogenization of attitudes can be found. As remarked by Tim Vickery in regards to the dissent evident between the Argentine squad and their failed former manager Basile, “Today’s stars have gone to Europe early. They have had little contact with the mystique and superstition of Argentine football that Basile is steeped in. They are used to a relationship with their club coaches which is less paternal, more professional, with greater attention to detail.” The entire weltanschauung of the game is becoming ever-increasingly conglomerated and players are abandoning their national football cultures. It is a sad day indeed when players are unable to succeed under a manager from their nation because they have seemingly “lost the tradition”. The only more infamous step would be to allow the game’s tactics to melt into one common breed in which the idiosyncrasies of each nations playing styles are eradicated.
The crowd shots at the World Cup are fantastic; they allow us to take an often needed breather from the action on the field, and instead focus on the startling array of supporter garb represented at the crowd (bikinis being the favorite, or course). But is this accurate? I think not. The World Cup has become a wee bit ritualistic and is a stage of sorts, allowing footy supports to overdue their clothing in order to make clear their national or ethnic backgrounds. Let’s be honest, Swedish men do not walk around the streets of Stockholm with gaudy Viking helmets adorning their craniums. Outside of quad-annual event, football supporters, and the players themselves, fashion themselves very similarly.
As Simon Kuper observed in his travels to the Ukraine and Russia, the football-mad supporters there have adopted the classic English-style track outfits, white Addidas kicks, and kitsch jewelry as their own. The amalgamation of the growth of internet sales and the insatiable hunger of merchandise companies has resulted in the availability of identical football-related merch, from Somalia to Bolivia Croatia. As a result, men, women, and children everywhere can proudly wear the same exact Inter Milan tracksuit (not to mention the 30 year old Milanese man who was brought up on a diet of pasta and Nerrazurri sauce).
Furthermore, it can be said that football players are fairly recognizable. Aside from their assiduously aerobicized bodies, there exists myriad other tell-tale signs: hairstyle, clothing, and accessories. As more and more foreign-born players begin to ply their trade in Europe, they begin to adapt the fashion styles of their new countries. In turn, the youth generations of their homelands are as eager to copy them as Ronaldo was to abscond from Manchester. Football players are role models, and as they do their legions will do. This is especially true in the case of players from underdeveloped or war-torn nations such as Drogba or Behrami. Players of this ilk often develop cult-like followings as they come to represent so much more than “a favorite footy player”; they epitomize the hopes and dreams of a nation’s hoi polloi and act as messages to the world proponing their nation’s capability of success and achievement.
A final effect globalization has had on the game is the mass immigration it has engendered; the results of this have been multifarious. For Example, countless players have been torn, not knowing whether to play for their parents’ home nation vs their nation of birth (the Yakin brothers), their nation of birth vs their newly adopted nation (Camoranesi), or in some eccentric cases their nation of birth vs one of their parent’s home nation (Acquafresca). In cases such as Philippe Senderos, this can be convoluted even further when one’s parents hail from two different nations, neither of which are the one the player was born and raised in (in his case, Serbia, Spain, and Switzerland respectively). Another extreme example of this can be found in IbrahimoviÄ‡ who, through connections with Sweden, Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia, was eligible to play for nearly half of Europe.
When the demanded footballer finally makes his choice, all parties will not be pleased.. We’ve all seen the Youtube comments under an IbrahimoviÄ‡’ or Behrami highlight reel bemoaning the fact that a player has chosen the wrong national team. Some fans have even gone through the painstaking effort to compile videos of these players with ethnic ambient music or elaborate introductions bearing ethnic flags and phrases. The truth of the matter is that these players make choices out of their own volition, as proclaimed by Behrami, “I feel Swiss”. IbrahimoviÄ‡’s connections to the land of his parents have been so dilapidated that he even remarked, “I don’t know what I speak” in response to an inquiry into the bizarre Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian hybrid he was raised on, the final product speckled with a thick Swedish accent. Player’s choices ultimately spark bellicose blogging wars as fans dispute the true “heart”, “soul”, or “talent” or the player. This situation in its entirety is all too common, and has been going on for quite some time.
Additionally, there is now the availability for players to gain citizenship in a new nation and then represent that nation on the global stage. For many, this is viewed with the utmost animosity and found to be disgusting treason on one’s national identity. Brazilian players now adorn themselves in Japan, Poland, and Spain shirts. The Japanese, Qatari, and Singaporean squads now boast an excess of 10 foreign players apiece. Even the football-crazed nation of Mexico has given in to temptation and enlisted Argentine and Brazilian-born players (Caballero and Sinha respectively). Will the time come when a national squad is in reality just 11 naturalized citizens? Globalization seems to think so.
As the famous saying goes, “the ball is round”, but circumference hasn’t stopped globalization in the past. Just go to your local McDonald’s to see for yourself, and don’t forget to sport your Real Madrid shirt; I promise you’ll fit in…
Written by Mickey Hennessey
This article is a submission for the Soccerlens 2008 Writing Competition; to participate, please read the details here. The competition is sponsored by Subside Sports (premier online store for football shirts) and Icons (official signed football jerseys).