All Bets are Off in a Multipolar World Cup!

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The unceremonious (and richly deserved) dumping of Italy and France out of World Cup 2010, and the travails of England, Germany and Spain — and arguably even Serbia and Denmark — are a sign that world soccer has gone multipolar. “Multipolarity” was a term coined by French foreign policy wonks fretting over the Bush Administration’s brash unilateralism (“unipolarity”) following the bipolar days of the Cold War when, if you were not in Washington’s camp, you tended to be viewed as if you were in Moscow’s. The French resented the Bush Administration’s “for us or against us” approach, and posited a geopolitical order (that has, indeed, emerged in recent years) where U.S. influence is in relative decline, while power is increasingly diffuse and new centers of influence such as China, India, Brazil and Turkey have emerged. World Cup 2010 seems to have announced the end of world soccer’s established order, too. (Not that multipolarity in either realm has done much for the French.)

Les Bleus were trounced by Uruguay and South Africa, and plunged into a national crisis that required presidential intervention by their own implosion. Uruguay, refusing to accept the also-ran status accorded them in the established order went on to impudently win the group, and look destined for a quarterfinal spot after facing South Korea (another arriviste happy to claim the knockout round spot that most had assumed would go to Nigeria) The USA — very much the soccer equivalent of a BRIC country in the world economy — cheekily finished above England (kind of like the equivalent in world soccer of France in world politics, a country whose mantle of imagined greatness is decidedly shabby, if not a garment in the tradition of the emperor’s new clothes). That, of course, condemned England to face its nemesis, Germany, in a match that the smart money says England are unlikely to win.

Serbia were many pundits “dark horse” for the tournament, but neither Ghana nor Australia got that email, and both beat the Balkan favorites, Ghana going through to the group stage where they have an even chance against fellow arrivistes, the USA — one of those two will get to the last eight. Others who forgot to check their emails were Paraguay and Slovakia, both shutting Italy out of a place in the knockout stages they seem to regard as their due, simply for showing up. Even lowly New Zealand refused to succumb to the Azzuri, and would have beaten them were it not for a dodgy penalty. An international tournament in which the Kiwis return home unbeaten is, indeed, a world turned on its head.

Then there was Japan, having the temerity to not only beat Cameroon but to outplay one-time European champions Denmark with three goals that included an elegant, two-part tutorial for the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Didier Drogba on how to score from free kicks with this Jabulani ball — and in the process, earn second place in the group and a ticket to the last 16 that the Danes had pretty much assumed was waiting for them at the will-call window.

Chile, too, long-since a major player in Latin America, could deal Spain a horrible blow in their showdown tomorrow. Already, the unfancied Swiss showed the versatility in attack and defense of their army knives to inflict a shock 1-0 defeat over the Spanish team many had regarded as favorites.

So what do we learn from all of this?

The established teams that have fared best are those, like Brazil, Germany, Argentina and Holland that have embraced innovation and diversity, and a willingness to reinvent themselves and play in a style that can hardly be termed stereotypical of their game: For Brazil and Holland, that’s meant dispensing with a cavalier attacking flair that wins fans but rarely trophies, and organizing themselves around a solid defensive core that allows them to dominate the game and win it with a few flourishes of breathtaking skill and vision. For Argentina (and I’ll admit to remaining a little skeptical) it’s been almost the reverse, dispensing with caution and almost recklessly front-loading the team with a glittering array of talented strikers. Germany have eased off on the almost military style of unsmiling physical domination and athletic attacking of a generation ago, to incorporate a lot more flair and guile. A team whose stars have included the sublime midfielders Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira and Brazilian striker Cacau is remarkable not only for its diversity, but also because the players seem to actually enjoy themselves on the field.

These are teams that have embraced globalization both in their composition and style, adapting to best practices learned elsewhere. Germany and Switzerland are teams full of immigrants; the ethnically homogenous Italians have struggled. (Then again, France’s squad was predominantly of immigrant stock, and that didn’t help them.) Success may have more to do with embracing innovation and applying skills and organizational principles learned in the global soccer “economy” — the success of Uruguay and Mexico, even Ghana, can be partly attributed to the large number of their players now based at European clubs.

The point becomes more clear in reverse: The teams that performed below expectations are those most stuck in old ways; there was a staleness and familiarity to the styles of play and even the personnel of Italy and even England. France appeared hamstrung first and foremost by a sclerotic bureaucracy unable to effectively harness the abundance of resources at its disposal. Nigeria — let’s not even go there, beyond to observe that the malaise of a country that isn’t really sure if it’s a nation is well reflected in a chaotic soccer system.

But enough with the generalities — there is no general theory of football and globalization, just in case you thought I was suggesting one. I’m simply marveling at the fact that as things stand, the last eight teams at World Cup 2010 will include Uruguay (or, less likely, South Korea); either the USA or Ghana; Paraguay or Japan; and possibly Chile — but will not see Italy, France, and either England or Germany, and could possibly even lose Spain or Brazil. At least half of the quarter finalists are likely to be teams deemed outsiders. And that’s a sure sign that the wry quip by former England striker Gary Lineker — “Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win” — is unlikely to make any sense to fans who’ve begun to follow the game in the current century.