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Odhiambo, Peter --- "Sport and the Law: The Rules of Football and Its Place in International Relations" [2006] AltLawJl 42; (2006) 31(3) Alternative Law Journal 173

The rules of football and its place
in international relations

‘We all speak one language: Football.’

Emirates, official airline FIFA 2006 World Cup

The high level of national passion the game raises reverses the harmony incidental in the universal language of football (or ‘soccer’ to some neophyte Australians). At the international level, football does not unite; it divides nations. National rivalries are raised a notch higher, and international matches provide the stage for battle. Boniface likens football to a ‘type of war that stokes the basest sort of nationalist emotions’.[1]The local football team and the national team become armies without arms, conquerors without gaining territory. The World Cup becomes the ultimate battle. Nations have looked to football as a way of projecting their national and cultural identities.

The universal appeal of football is indisputable. The Federation of International Football Associations (FIFA) has a membership of 204, more than the membership of the United Nations. An estimated global audience of 45 billion people watched 64 live games of the 2006 FIFA World Cup. It is ironical that a game so divisive, and which arouses national passions, can conversely have such a universal appeal that brings people together as nothing else does. New countries apply for membership to FIFA as a way to gain international recognition and acceptance. Christian Bromberger[2] provides a two pronged approach to understanding the game’s appeal:

• It expresses what it takes to succeed in the modern world: a combination of individual merit and teamwork, luck, some bending of the rules, and the favour of referees (who represent justice).

• Entire communities, cities, and nations can identify with their favourite team and football player.

The inconsistency in football is that a game that commands such a universal appeal can stir up national passions. States seek their autonomy and turn to FIFA for acceptance. Yet FIFA is a controlling supra-national body. It makes the rules, and the member associations accept, or risk expulsion. In this way, it has kept rules universal, not allowing individual associations to evolve their own sets of rules. FIFA does not have any sticks. The carrot it dangles is international football recognition. Suspension or expulsion from FIFA means football isolation. The aspiration to compete in the World Cup is FIFA’s ultimate carrot. Only 32 teams participate in the World. However, the perception that any state can qualify for the World Cup is enough to keep associations interested. Most countries have never qualified for the World Cup. Only seven countries have had the honour of being crowned World Champions. Most countries are only able to compete at regional tournaments. Conversely, through FIFA’s distribution system, every region is guaranteed representation. By competing at the regional level, every country has a realistic belief they have a chance of qualification.

Giulianotti and Robertson argued that football ‘constitutes one of the most dynamic, sociologically illuminating domains of globalisation’.[3] The globalisation of the game is manifested in its global appeal as well as the relative ease with which football players can switch clubs even across national boundaries. The top national football leagues in Europe as well as the European Champions league enjoy a global audience. The best footballers ply their trade in Europe, and they come from all over the world. Of the 736 players at the 2006 World Cup, 343 (46.6%) played in the top five national leagues in Europe. Most football fans around the world identify with the leading European clubs. In these teams, they find their heroes. The 2002 English FA cup final was a contest between Arsenal and Chelsea, two English clubs, played in Wales, and with just four English players starting. Arsenal has 16 non-English players from 10 countries. The mobility of footballers creates national heroes in foreign clubs and foreign fans for local clubs. Even when a country does not qualify for the World Cup, there is support of the exploits of their (club) heroes in other national teams.

Significantly, football’s global attraction has at times provided strength where diplomacy and domestic policy have come short. Football has been a uniting force where there have been tensions and conflicts. Ivory Coast’s qualification for the 2006 World Cup united a nation that had experienced deep schism between the north and south. On the eve of the 2006 Africa Cup of Nations, the BBC reported that ‘Soccer unites Ivory Coast’ as the fighting in the country stopped and everyone united to cheer the national team.[4] The US–Iran World Cup match in 1998 was the first formal contact between the two countries in nearly two decades. The British city of Bradford experienced race riots in 2001. Just a year later, all the races in Bradford joined together to support England in the World Cup, waving the English flag with pride.

The granting of the 2002 World Cup to Japan and South Korea was certainly one of the most complex matters of football international relations. With tensions between the two countries already high during the bid campaigns, FIFA declined to decide on a single host. This was less a football decision and more a diplomatic and political decision. By announcing the two countries would co-host the World Cup, FIFA avoided being drawn into the historic rivalries. It is an example of a diplomatic approach by FIFA supporting transnational cooperation. The privilege of hosting the World Cup compelled the two nations to work together in organising what turned out to be a very successful tournament.

Football has a uniting effect within countries and a strong element of divisiveness internationally. Its universalising role in international relations is embodied in the perception of an evenly competitive field. The rules of the game do not discriminate. It can be played even by the most impoverished societies. This has allowed talent to develop anywhere, and the ease of movement of players provides the opportunity to perform at the highest levels.

Football has the special honour of being a universal reference for a global culture — a lingua franca. It is a language that goes beyond the diversity of regions, nation–states, and even generations. One does not have to be of a certain age, from a certain region, or speak a certain language to understand football. The universal language of football is the rules of the game. FIFA was founded on the principle of developing universally applicable rules for every game. National associations administer football by the rules set out by FIFA. Today, literally every football game, from the local little leagues to the World Cup final are played, more or less, under the same rules.

PETER ODHIAMBO is undertaking a PhD in trans-national law and relations at Griffith Law School, and was previously employed by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Peter has lived and travelled in numerous countries, is fascinated by how sports influence perceptions of other countries and waited 24 years for Italy to win its fourth World Cup.

[1] Pascal Boniface, The Subtle Geopolitics of Football, Institute for International and Strategic Relations Paris (2006).

[2] C Bormberger, Football as Barometer of International Relations, National Centre for Scientific Research, Paris (2002).

[3] R. Giulianotti and R Robertson, The Globalisation of Football: A Study in the ‘Glocalisation of the Serious Life,’ (2004) 55 British Journal of Sociology 545.

[4] <> at 7 August 2006

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