Friday, June 25, 2010

Analyzing the World Cup Sweet 16

OK, so I've got a serious case of World Cup Fever--or I'm being brainwashed by the global civil religion of the World Cup (see my previous post here). I just can't help but watch as much of every game as possible.

For those who haven't been glued to the news, the first stage of the World Cup tournament is over, and now starts the Round of 16, which is a single-elimination tournament. If you like making predictions similar to those made during the NCAA men's basketball tourney, I put together a single page bracket in this document. Feel free to print this out and follow the tourney the next few weeks.

Apart from the sheer fun of guessing which team will win, I couldn't help but offer a quick analysis of the tournament so far. I think the results so far demonstrate that globalization is allowing non-traditional soccer powers to compete more effectively with the powers. While traditional powerhouses like France and Italy were ousted, some definitely non-traditional "minnows" were able to beat them. Among the non-elite teams that made it in, there are Uruguay, South Korea, Ghana, Slovakia, Chile, Paraguay, and Japan--and they make up nearly half the field. If we include the U.S.A. as a non-power, then that's exactly half the field.

Of course, that still leaves Argentina, Brazil, England, Germany, Mexico, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain--all of whom have made runs deep into the tournament or won it. The safe money is on one of these teams winning.

So far the big surprises have been the smaller South American sides and the two Asian teams, Japan and South Korea. They, along with the US, have benefited from the leveling effect of globalization. Competing with the top teams in the world, sending national team players to the top European leagues, hiring the best coaches in the world, building up national club systems, learning from the global leaders--all of these things have helped non-traditional soccer nations succeed through emulation.

The other major upsets during this tournament thus far--Uruguay holding France scoreless, Switzerland beating Spain, Serbia beating Germany, Slovakia beating Italy, or Algeria holding England scoreless--also suggest that traditionally weak teams have learned how to compete.

Despite all this leveling-through-globalization, however, I expect one of four teams to win: Spain, which has never reached the final game; the Netherlands, which made two finals but was runner-up both times; Brazil, which has won five times; or Argentina, which has won twice.

Still, my heart (if not my head) is with the USA. I would absolutely love to see the US national team make a run to the semifinals or finals. They'll have to beat Brazil or the Netherlands to get there, and then they will have proven that they have gone from being a soccer nobody to a soccer power. And then we can thank globalization for that, even if they don't win. But first they need to beat Ghana. Go Yanks!

Monday, June 14, 2010

The World Cup as Global Civil Religion

I'm having a blast right now! In case you haven't been watching ESPN or listening to the news, the World Cup soccer tournament is on every day--a feast of top-class matches every day. I've been tracking the progress of my favorite teams pretty closely (Go USA! Go Netherlands!), but that's gotten me thinking about how to link this crazy passion to the larger question of globalization.

And then, this morning, it hit me: The World Cup is a practice of a growing global civil religion. By "civil religion" I mean what Robert Bellah meant in his classic article of 1967, "Civil Religion in America": "a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity." While Bellah originally drew attention to beliefs, symbols, and rituals in the American political system, he ended this classic article by speculating about the possibility of a "world civil religion," which he thought might be institutionalized in something like the United Nations.

But, like sociologist Frank Lechner (in chapter 3 of his book Globalization), I'm convinced that world soccer tournaments like the World Cup, more than the United Nations, are helping to contribute to what Manfred Steger calls a "global imaginary."
What I mean is that the beliefs, symbols, and rituals of the World Cup contribute to our imagination of ourselves as global people. The every-four-year ritual of this soccer tournament, like the Olympics, helps to construct the image of the whole world assembled together. It enacts a series of liturgical practices that help to institutionalize a global consciousness.

Even as it does this, however, it also inscribes beliefs in nationalistic exclusion. National teams do battle on the field in their traditional colors and war-like pride inevitably accompanies the defeat of a bitter foe. Ask any serious U.S. national soccer team fan their opinions of Mexico or Italy, and you'll get a taste of this.

Even a serious globalist who tries to avoid obnoxious flag-waving, like me, will express distaste for these other teams. So I'm not sure that a global imaginary, with its own practices of civil religion legitimating it, automatically implies multinational harmony. It seems to thrive on nationalism, rather than eliminate it. It may create conflict, rather than reduce it.

While I'm not ready to abandon watching the Cup, I'm pondering how my participation in this civil religion could compromise my prior commitments to the Church's liturgy. Is it just a matter of "balance," or can participating in such practices get in the way of truer and deeper loyalties? Does God want me to turn off ESPN? Would Jesus watch the World Cup?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

China vs. Slovenia

As World Cup fever sets in for soccer fans like me, the contrast between China and Slovenia suggested itself. As the Washington Post reports today, China is the world's most populous country, but it doesn't have a national team at the 32-team World Cup tournament, which starts next Friday, June 11, in South Africa. Meanwhile, as ESPN reports, Slovenia (pop. 2 million) beat Russia (pop. 141 million), to qualify for the Cup. Clearly, population size is not destiny.

Which means that the U.S. (pop. 300 million) had better not overlook Slovenia when they play on June 18. The smallest country teams are often called minnows or giant-killers, and the U.S. whale/Goliath needs to play well -- or else it'll join China and Russia on the sidelines.