Sports Nut


Feb. 7, 2001, is a day that will live in infamy, the day the Tokyo and Berlin of the sports world forged their evil axis. Under a new joint-marketing agreement, the New York Yankees and Manchester United will hawk one another’s jerseys in their team stores. And if all goes according to plan, they’ll broadcast one another’s games on their own cable networks. Put another way, the wealthiest, most winning franchises in all of sports will help each other become even wealthier and even more winning.

Where Ralph Nader speeches have failed, this alliance might succeed. It could spark a broad backlash against globalization, uniting SportsCenter beer guts with black-block anarchists. You can already read the critics in the British sports pages. But nothing would be more counterproductive. Soccer fans have already seen the future of the new global economy, and it works.

Soccer embodies the glories of the coming world order. Since the 1960s, Europe’s once-great national leagues have been fading in importance. It is, after all, hard to care about the outcome of the English Premiership or the German Bundesliga. Before the season starts, every fan knows that Man U or Bayern Munich will ultimately be the ones hoisting trophies. The best clubs in Europe have shifted their attention to competing against one another in transnational tournaments. Every year it seems there’s a new international cup to chase after—the Champions League, UEFA Cup, Super Cup, the Cup Winners Cup, the World Club Championship. It’s a fan’s sweet dream, the chance to watch the best in the world battle each other rather than their own inferior countrymen.

Critics carp that this globalization accentuates the gap between rich and poor, and it’s true. The wealthiest squads have grown even wealthier in the new economy. Teams like Manchester United and Real Madrid have become conglomerates or have been subsumed by conglomerates. They own cable stations and mega-stores that market their goods in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. But who cares? The money has helped them assemble rosters composed entirely of international all-stars. The London club Arsenal’s 17-man squad features five Frenchmen, a Latvian, a Cameroonian, a Swede, a Dutchman, two Brazilians, an Austrian, and a handful of Englishmen. To compete on this international level, even the fascist Roman club Lazio, whose fans famously boo black players, has recently recruited a striker from Cameroon.

Only a nostalgist could deny that the new economic order has improved the level of play in Europe. And the style is better, too. Thanks to globalization, European soccer has added not just Latin American players, but Latin American flair. (There are an estimated 10,000 Brazilians playing professional soccer abroad.) The ugly physicality of English soccer has given way to a more free-flowing game. Even the Italian Serie A—a league once characterized by its soporific emphasis on defense—now includes stylish runs by flanking midfielders, freakishly fast crossover steps, and occasional high-scoring games.

And as the globalist cliché goes, a rising tide lifts all boats. The smaller clubs have become essentially farm teams for the wealthiest ones. They recruit and develop young talent, which they then unload at obscene prices. So a team like Atalanta in Bergamo, Italy, which doesn’t have a large media market or fan base, can make millions of lira and use the proceeds to operate a competitive franchise.

Unfortunately, soccer also reveals globalization’s defects. For example, undemocratic multinational institutions have a tendency to mess up good things. Since 1995, the European Union has insisted that soccer adhere to its goofy labor code. If soccer were to follow Brussels’ dictate—and it might—then players would be allowed to break their contracts whenever they pleased. Then there’s the fate of Third World soccer, now suffering through the initial phases of globalization. Nike has poured $200 million into Brazil that has allegedly landed in the hands of corrupt officials. Yet even rampant venality and the flight of its players haven’t ruined Brazil’s game. In January, the Rio club Vasco da Gama clobbered Manchester United in a World Club Championship game.

It’s possible to overstate the gloriousness of the new soccer order, to be sure. Early this month a Swedish parliamentarian named Lars Gustafson nominated soccer for the Nobel Peace Prize, unleashing a fury of ridicule. And his critics have a point. Soccer doesn’t deserve a prize for peace. It deserves one for economics.