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Sport and politics

Let the games begin, I
Jun 8th 2006
From The Economist print edition


Why the World Cup is better than the Olympics

SEVENTY years after Jesse Owens sprinted to victory in the 1936 Olympic Games, the Berlin Olympic stadium is once again at the centre of the sporting world. Football's World Cup, which starts this week, will come to a climax with a final in the refurbished Olympic stadium in Berlin next month.

Fortunately, the political overtones that made the Berlin Olympics such a sinister event are completely absent. This is not just because Germany is now a democratic country. It is also because the World Cup, unlike the Olympics, is wonderfully difficult to manipulate for political purposes. Over its long history, success at the Olympics has usually been a fairly accurate measure of global political power. Although the world now remembers the snub that Jesse Owens delivered to Nazi theories of racial superiority, the Germans came top of the Olympic medal table in 1936, reflecting the Nazi regime's growing power. During the cold war, the United States and the Soviet Union repeatedly struggled to gain a symbolic victory, by winning the most medals at the Olympics. Already a similar, politically charged battle for supremacy between America and China looks likely in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

By contrast, the World Cup has its own hierarchy, which is pleasingly divorced from the global pecking order. There is a sole superpower—Brazil. The Italians and French, apparently doomed to gentle decline in the real world, remain formidable competitors on the football field. And then there are the rising powers—which are more likely to hail from Africa than Asia. America will field a serious team at the World Cup, but nobody expects it to win. The Chinese, who have discovered a passion for football, failed to qualify for the tournament.

Football's power structure reflects a satisfying characteristic of the global game. Despite the undoubted prestige to be had by becoming champions of the world, it is extremely hard—if not impossible—for a determined and well-resourced government to create a World Cup-winning team. Arguably, the Italians managed it in the 1930s; and Argentina's World Cup winners in 1978 received plenty of backing from the ruling military junta. But a modern-day dictator who ordered his minions to create a team that could beat Brazil—or even play in their style—would be swiftly disappointed.

How to run rings around the Olympics

Again, the comparison with the Olympics is striking. Think of all those robotic East German sprinters, Romanian gymnasts and Chinese swimmers churned out by state-backed programmes. By contrast, a winning football team needs not just athleticism but also a spark of creativity and style that cannot be manufactured by sport's central planners. Even taking drugs does not appear to be much help for footballers.

As a result, every World Cup seems to throw up a team that suddenly clicks at the right time and beats a much-fancied opponent. Think of North Korea vanquishing Italy in 1966 or Senegal turning over France, the reigning champions, in 2002. It is this capacity to surprise that helps make the World Cup such a gripping event. And it is why in the endless competition between the Olympics and the World Cup for the title of “the world's greatest sporting event” we vote for the World Cup.

Let the games begin, II

Jun 9th 2006
From The Economist

The greatest show on earth kicks off in Germany. For the host country, at least, there is more riding on the tournament than mere sporting success


FOOTBALL’S World Cup kicked off in Germany on Friday June 9th, unleashing a month-long tournament that will attract hundreds of millions of television viewers. Only 32 teams have made it to the finals, but the audience for football is now truly global. The tournament attracts huge interest, even in countries that are not taking part. When Diego Maradona, a charismatic player from Argentina, was banned from the 1994 World Cup because of a drugs offence, riots broke out in Bangladesh in protest. Broadcasters in India—where interest is traditionally in cricket, not soccer—reckon they will pull in perhaps 200m viewers.

FIFA, world football’s governing body, likes to claim that billions watch the World Cup. In truth, all statistics for global television audiences are a bit spurious. Such things are hard to measure, and figures can be inflated by including everyone who has seen a clip of soccer on the news. The viewing figures are handy propaganda, however, in the struggle with the Olympics for the title of “world’s greatest sporting event”.

Which of the two events is the greater is, of course, a matter of taste. Some prefer the World Cup on the grounds that it is not a competition in which the world’s biggest powers generally prevail. It is already predictable that the 2008 Beijing Olympics will be marked by a grim struggle between the United States and China to come top of the medal table. But planet football offers an alternative order: Brazil is the sole superpower. The reigning champion and again hot favourite, Brazil is the only team to have won the competition five times.

The second most successful team in World Cup history is Germany. In theory, the Germans should have a good chance. They got to the final last time (in 2002 in Japan and South Korea), and the host traditionally gains a lot from home advantage. They won the last time the competition was staged on German soil, in 1974. But football pundits say the team is pretty weak this time around.

European and Latin American teams almost always dominate. Italy, which is usually expected to do well, starts under a cloud because of a growing corruption scandal in its domestic league. But it would give world football a real boost if a champion emerged from another part of the world. Many of the leading African players now play in Europe’s top leagues, and the emergence of an African champion has long been predicted. But it will probably not happen this year. Ivory Coast and Ghana, the two strongest African teams in Germany, face powerful opponents in the early rounds. The Asians cannot be discounted. South Korea reached the semi-finals in 2002, but the team is unlikely to repeat the feat without its fanatical home support. The United States team is generally regarded with condescension by those most passionate about football. But the Americans made it to the last eight in 2002, and were unlucky to be eliminated.

For the German government there is more riding on the tournament than sporting success. The country is slightly demoralised: unemployment is high; growth is slow; the re-unification of east and west is now generally regarded as having been botched; and racist violence is on the rise in the depressed eastern half of Germany. The last is a big worry for the government, as hundreds of thousands of foreign fans, of all hues and colours, arrive in Germany.

The coalition government of Angela Merkel is hoping that the tournament will let Germany show itself in a more positive and optimistic light. Stadiums have been refurbished; a splendid new central station has opened in Berlin; and even fans without tickets are being welcomed to watch the games on big screens, scattered throughout big cities. In one respect at least, the competition is off to an auspicious start. After weeks of gloomy weather the first games are due to take place under glorious, sunny skies.

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