Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Globalization Works! On The Soccer Field...Andres Oppenheimer

Andres Oppenheimer in the Miami Herald.

Critics of globalization should take a close look at the World Cup soccer games in Germany: They may be the best example of how an increasingly open world economy is helping emerging countries become stronger and more competitive.
Up-and-coming countries are doing reasonably well in the World Cup. While they are most often not beating the best in the world, they are making them sweat like crazy.


Indeed, soccer may be one of the most globalized industries. Until the early '90s, soccer was one of the most protected industries in the world. European soccer clubs could only hire a limited number of foreign players -- most often two -- per team. But in 1995, a Belgian player named Jean-Marc Bosman sued the French soccer federation, demanding to be allowed to play in France. The case went to the European Court of Justice, and he won.

Branko Milanovic, a World Bank poverty expert and author of the recent essay ''Globalization and Goals: Does Soccer Show the Way?'' in the Review of International Political Economy, said that lawsuit changed the history of soccer. After the European court ruled Bosman's club had violated the Treaty of Rome's protection of free movement of labor within the European Union, soccer clubs throughout Europe began hiring foreigners at full steam.

I would also point out that before the Bosman ruling, there was another critical year. In 1982 for the World Cup held in Spain, the number of teams playing in the cup went up from 16 to 24, adding spots for Central America and the Caribbean, Asia and Africa. First round play produced a series of shocking results, including host Spain almost losing to Honduras - escaping with a tie, powerful Germany losing to Argelia, and Camerun shocking eventual champion Italy. European clubs saw the quality of players from Africa and smaller countries ,and signed several, that in turn spurred players worldwide to aspire to play in Europe. The economic crisis in Latin America,weakened soccer clubs, and top players of the wonderful Brazilian and good Argentinian side went to Spain and Italy. Barcelona had started it by paying a record transfer fee for Maradona. Within Europe, top players like Platini, Rummenigge, Mattheus migrated to Italy and Spain. Even Iron Curtain Poland got into the act, allowing players in their peak like Boniek to leave, no doubt happy about receiving hard currency.

There was space available for many of these top Latin American and European players in clubs - as well as African and Latin American players, due to clever ways around restrictions. Argentinians and Uruguayans with Italian surnames were eligible for Italian passports, falling outside of foreign player cap. Africans from ex-French and Portuguese colonies found a similar avenue. If you also signed a player early, at a point where he could not expect to reasonably get first team action, he could expect to reside long enough in the country to get residence or a passport, making him eligible to play as a national.


Traditionally, European and Latin American soccer players, sign professionaly as teenagers with a club, play in youth and reserve teams with the goal of reaching the first team. With the economic crisis in South America, Argentinian and Brazilian teams, found it increasingly profitable to sell younger players, as well as established stars to European clubs. And one of the best showcases to advertise younger players was in junior team World Cups, or U-17, where the Africans also shone. And by getting them young, European clubs developed them according to their training methods and were able to skirt foreign player restrictions.

When Bosman finally arrived, what was already more than a trickle became a floodgate. Players with European passports could now move freely and not fall under restrictions. Scouts go worldwide, and a country's best players know they have a chance to sign with a European club, whether the person is from Honduras, Bolivia, Cameroon, Togo, Tunisia, or South Korea. The best football is played in professional leagues in Spain, Italy, Holland, Germany, France and England. When you have players who start in even the less prestigious clubs at the top in those leagues, they routinely play against the likes of Ronaldinho, Del Piero, Beckham, Crespo, et al. They lose that fear of country X, because they play against that player. They bring that back to them, when they join their national side.


Mexico's soccer clubs are the richest, and arguably the best run in Latin America. South American players can expect to make more than in their home countries - and catch European clubs attention. But, these same clubs will not sell promising young Mexican players to European teams, the way they do so is setting artificially high transfer fees, making them more expensive than an equally qualified South American player. They are able to do this across the board, because many of the biggest and most popular clubs are owned by one Media conglomerate. That way they keep star Mexican players in the country to produce the results which sells game tickets, keeps ratings high, and pushes sales of merchandise in Mexico and in the lucrative U.S. market. When players at finally allowed to go, it is at a point where they are older and more set in their ways, well after the critical adolescent years where a club can fully develop players. Rafa Marquez of Barcelona is a brilliant exception to that rule, and if Mexico truly aspires to become a world power it needs to export its players to Europe.

The U.S. faces similar problems, compounded by the spotty history of the U.S. profesional leagues. Organized American Soccer traditionally has been an amateur, upper middle class enclave, shaped by US sports culture -- what little "soccer culture" came from British expats, long removed from the UK. The furthest a high school kid with talent could get was a few big college teams. So in the name of NCAA eligibility rules, kids from middle school to college played a short regular season (+ whatever post-season) and amateur leagues in the off season, unlike Latin Americans and Europeans who were already professionals by then. Some U.S. players after college tried Europe, with a few notable exceptions, most were so far behind the curve at their age that they did not do well. The ones who did better, usually left college earlier, like Claudio Reyna.

There were drastic changes after the 1994 World Cup, finally caused a change of attitude in Soccer leadership. A national team was patched together containing actual professionals, and a professional league was started after the Cup. But MLS also had its problems from the get go. Conceived as a single ownership structure it micro-managed team decisions. The league basically tried reinvinting the wheel, by "Americanizing" the game through such buffoonery as "Shoot-Outs" and reversing the clocks. But, finally the league managed to break the stranghold of the college game, and began signing kids while still in high school. But, like their Mexican counterparts the league still holds on to too many players instead of sending them to Europe.
FAILINGS: Through artifically restrictions designed to keep domestic players at home, both Mexico and U.S. soccer league ownership is depriving the country of the potential of its local pool of talent. Americans in particular, are also lagging further through their failure to adapt to global realities of the game, and also through not tapping a substantial source of both talent and soccer knowledge in its immigrant communities.