June. The grip of football fever will soon engulf the globe as all eyes turn to South Africa, the host nation of one of the biggest events on the planet: FIFA’s World Cup 2010.
Whether one supports the mighty Spanish, the spectacular Brazilians, the creative Dutch or the resilient Germans, emotions always run high; the results can make or break a country’s morale.
The popularity of the game is such that it transcends borders, language barriers and social classes. What was once regarded as the common man’s sport of choice has become a multi-billion dollar business controlled by a few men (it is still largely a man’s world) who yield the power to assign lucrative broadcasting rights and grant countries the privilege to host an event capable of attracting hundreds of thousands of spectators and scores of companies vying for a piece of the pie.
The popularity of football and its mass appeal means that it often draws public figures and politicians, eager to be associated with a game steeped in nationalistic fervor, competitiveness and outright machismo.
Ratings by association
While politicians such as Henry Kissinger and Silvio Berlusconi are known to be genuine fans of the game, most others are often advised by their communication consultants to attend key matches, on the proven premise that the jubilation that accompanies a national team’s win will translate into higher approval ratings for the politician, while turning him into some sort of lucky charm for fans (especially when considering the level of superstition in the game).
The power of football is undeniable. It can lift a nation’s spirit, unite people from diverse backgrounds and even help overcome racism and social prejudice. When the French won the World Cup in 1998, one poll showed that more people would have voted for Zinedine Zidane for the presidency than they would have for any other political candidate, despite his origins and background. While this might have been somewhat influenced by the euphoria that surrounded the win, it nevertheless shows the potential gains that could be achieved by leveraging the cult status of the sport.
The universal language of football, and its ability to surpass differences, was probably best illustrated on Christmas Eve 1915, when German and British soldiers came out of their trenches, after weeks of fierce fighting, for one improvised game of football, which, while it may not have influenced the course of the war, showed how the love of the game can bring down barriers.
Closer to home, the game on April 13th that brought politicians representing both sides of Lebanon’s political divide together for a symbolic football match, illustrated – besides the less than perfect physical fitness of our representatives – the ability of football to serve as a common denominator and a medium to communicate key messages away from rhetorical discourse or political debates, which often fail to reach their intended audience.
Historically, football, and sport in general, has always been used as a means for political showboating and to rally constituents on nationalistic grounds. In 1980, the “Miracle on Ice” victory by the American Hockey team over the Russians became a symbol of American triumph and superiority at the height of the cold war, thanks to a well-crafted communication strategy. The event galvanized Americans and lifted their spirits and feelings of national pride following the debacles of Vietnam and the takeover of the American embassy in Tehran.
The dark side
That said, despite all the good that it can bring, football can sometimes be a source of division and an excuse to fuel sectarian and sometimes racial prejudice for pure political gain.
A few years back, France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen criticized the French national team for fielding an entire squad featuring “non-native” Frenchmen, in an attempt to solidify his role as the protector of “French Identity.” In 2002, Le Pen was a runner-up to elected President Jacques Chirac, with 18 percent of the total popular vote.
Similarly, the much publicized World Cup qualifying game between Egypt and Algeria was a chance for the leadership in both countries to show restraint and call for calm, but instead they took the opportunity to play on the heightened emotions of football fans to bolster their own domestic credibility and nationalist credentials.
Talking the talk
At the end of the day, what seals the sometimes-unnatural bond between football and politics is communication, and politicians’ desire to project a certain image of themselves to voters and opinion leaders.
In that sense, football becomes a communication channel and its lingo part of politicians’ lexicon, adding to the military jargon of speeches and discourse to portray leadership attributes and unflinching confidence.
Incidentally, a close look at the industry terminology reveals the similarities between the worlds of football and communication; target, audience, defensive, offensive, goals, and strategy are terms used regularly in both fields.
Whoever wins the World Cup, we can be sure that the game will continue to grow and expand its reach and popularity, provided that we do not turn it into a sport that is within the reach of only a fortunate few who can afford entrance fees to the stadiums or subscriptions to cable channels.
Football, the most democratic sport in the larger sense of the term, is the game of the masses, which is arguably its forte.
For this reason, the role of professional soccer’s governing bodies and the political establishment should be, first and foremost, to ensure that the sport remains accessible to everyone, and to leverage and channel its popularity in the right direction.