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The beautiful game versus global superpowers: A tale of two worlds

Wednesday August 10 2011



I don’t know whether I was seeing things, or if the Community Shield clash between Manchester United and Manchester City was actually an exciting game — especially the last 50 minutes.

The clever passes that ended in Manchester United’s second goal were a classic, uncommon in English football. In the end, Manchester United won 3-2.

While I am a great fan of football, I am quite promiscuous when it comes to supporting particular clubs.

I am one of those opportunistic fans who tend to go with the winning team.

So, for me, the importance of the match was that it suggested that this season of the Premier League would be “sweeter”.

And it will be sweeter because the world is going through some tough times: earthquakes in Japan and other parts of Asia; broke or nearly-bankrupt governments in Greece, Spain, Italy, Ireland, and the US.


In Syria we have a dictator who will not bow to protesters and is killing them by the dozen daily.

And in Eastern Africa, the worst drought and famine in a generation that, according to estimates, has killed more than 10,000 Somalis. This misery list is long.

Football, therefore, functions as both a much-needed diversion and a great balm in these troubled times.

And this is because football fetes like the English Premier League and the Spanish La Liga are among the most successful examples of globalisation of our times.

So why does the globalisation of sport bring greater joy than the globalisation of the world economy?

My felt sense is that it is partly because nearly all the world’s leading and currently or recently troubled economies share a history of conquering, colonising, imperialist, slaving, nations.

The UK and Spain made a fortune as colonising nations. The US was partly built on slave labour and captive post-World War II West European markets.

In Latin America, the US was an imposing imperialist power, and had that market locked down for itself for decades.

In fact, since Ancient Rome, it seems there is no rich economy that also enjoyed global diplomatic clout without plunder.

Yes, you can have a Sweden or Finland which becomes rich without enslaving other nations, but these kinds of countries have rarely been global — or even regional — political and military powers.

This is leading to a strange place. Several African countries are finally beginning to grow rich.

For example, island states Cape Verde and Mauritius are, to all intents and purposes, middle-income countries, as is Ghana.

It would seem then that Africa might be the first collective economy to seek great wealth without plunder (but that is a subject for another day).

There are those who argue that booming China doesn’t fit this pattern, that it represents a “new way”.

However, even ignoring the history of the China of earlier centuries, the hot red dragon kingdom is not exactly a velvet-gloved economic power.

While the lucrative raw materials-for-infrastructure deals that it is striking all over Africa have brought quite some good to the continent, they are still priced below market.

Chinese companies are also bribing African officials, and part of its export boom is driven by near-slave wages at home.

So China, at the end of the day, is little different from colonial Britain or imperialistic America when it comes to the fundamentals. The difference is mainly in appearances.

All this tells us a few things about the global economy.

First, since horses, gun-powder, drawn carriages, ships, and lately air travel enabled the rise of global dominion, most global economic and political powers rose, not because they were competitive, but because they were masterful at wielding these tools to extract knock-down labour and raw material prices, and to ring-fence the markets they were exporting into.

The growth of education, science, and liberal values has put those predatory practices out of fashion.

Now most trade and transactions between states are negotiated in civil ways.

Most economies are in trouble probably because very few rich nations understand how to be successful without exploitative relationships and slave labour.

Fine, you might have the occasional biased and corrupt referee, but the victorious teams in the Premier League and La Liga are almost always the ones that play best.

And therein might lay the greatest seduction of international football.