Planet Football's alternative world order

'Planet Football' by Chris JohnstonFirst, a small but important heresy: It doesn't really matter if Australia gets knocked out of the World Cup in the first round. It won't matter because Australia is already addicted. The horse has bolted: it flew out of the gates in Germany 2006 and has been on the loose ever since.

The hype surrounding Australia's prospects in South Africa has camouflaged the wider importance of the event. For whatever reason, football has become the world's most popular game and the month-long fiesta that begins this week is the largest collective experience on earth.

That irks fans of other codes, especially Australian Rules, which inspires a devotion that almost eclipses the roundball game. In April I attended a sport and media conference at La Trobe University. Everyone who got up to speak at the last session declared, as a matter of course, which AFL club they supported. This identification would astonish even the most rusted-on Manchester United fan.

Yet for all that, Aussie Rules is local, proudly parochial. The global character and appeal of football endows the World Cup with three levels of significance that cannot be denied.

First, it brings out our collective inner child. Sport is ultimately about the spirit of play, one of our enduring links to childhood. Playing makes us feel young. Whether it's play-acting or playing cards or playing sport, it is a form of escape from reality and responsibility.

The World Cup demonstrates that given the right excuse or pretext, people from all walks of life will fork out lots of money to go out and forget about life, and pretend they are young again. In 2006, it felt like the whole world had descended on Germany to have fun, forget about the things that divide us and celebrate a way of feeling united with others. In an era when house prices are the currency of political debate, and community has been superseded by the individual, this is not to be under-rated.

Second, football presents us with an alternative world order. In the conventional scheme of things, the United States is the centre of the world, with Russia, the EU, China and Japan trying to keep it in check.

If someone dared suggest a scenario where the political and economic superpowers were minor players, not even second-rank nations, they would be laughed out of the room. Yet that is exactly the landscape of the 'football world'. Europe is the central nervous system, led by England, Spain, Italy and Germany, with South America (Brazil and Argentina) pulling the other main lever of power.

Contrast this pecking order with the other great global sporting event, the Olympic Games. The United States, the Soviet Union and more recently China have dominated the medal tallies. The Olympics have followed politics much more faithfully than has football.

The appeal of planet football is that culture has trumped geopolitics and demography. In the Olympics, the countries with the biggest populations win the most medals. Not in the World Cup. This perverse state of affairs has created some delicious ironies, most notably the United States being regularly seen as an underdog.

America's unusual status is one of the unifying pleasures of football fans around the world. It allows them to fantasise about how things could be different; it makes them feel more important. As a South American football official once told an English interviewer: 'you (Europeans) have history; all we have is football'.

Which brings me to the third point about this World Cup. Europe has history, South America has football, but South Africa — as yet — does not have either. The coming month is an opportunity for the new government to show the world that all the negative publicity about security and infrastructure is just that — hype. The World Cup confers on the host country, more so even than the Olympics (a one-city event), an opportunity to shine.

Irrespective of how the national team may fare, it is the nation that is really being tested. The world has flown in for a giant party. It's now up to the hosts to prove that they know how to give one.

As for the Socceroos, well, if they finish second in their group, it would set up a clash with England in the next round, a tall order but mouth-watering prospect. If that doesn't happen, we'll always have cricket and the Ashes.

Michael Visontay

 Michael Visontay lectures in sport and media at the UNSW and UTS.

Topic tags: Michael Visontay, Football World Cup, South Africa, FIFA, Aussie Rules



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Existing comments

South Africa has no history? Try telling that to my mate Lucques.

Patrick | 11 June 2010  

How about the fact that a 3 billion stadium was built, in a country where thousands , perhaps millions, live in the most abject poverty.

Will they see any of the money pouring into the country?

Will their standard of living be raised, or will it just be a 'party' as suggested?

Maybe there are plans to ease this suffering from the proceeds!!

I don't know this. Perhaps someone could enlightem me.

Bernue Introna | 12 June 2010  

I totally disagree. Soccer in Australia is still a fledgling sport and will not get much further above that status. While many Australians supported the Socceroos in Germany, South Africa showed that our Soceroos' win through to the second round in Germany was a flash in the pan. Australia does not have enough people playing soccer to get a half-decent team to play in the World Cup. Because of this Australia will continually fail to get through the first round in future World Cups and people will abandon soccer. Unfortunately for Lowy and his mates, soccer in Australia will go the same way as the Adelaide rugby league team went. That's just the hard facts of soccer life in Australia.

darryl handiman | 02 October 2011  

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