I just returned from a week-long stay in London, where I was blissfully immune to news of US politics, television, and most important, sport. As most Americans know, the English have other passions. On our taxi ride to Victoria Station yesterday morning, the driver carried on a great length about the latest scandal involving Sarah Ferguson, Dutchess of York. More below the fold …
More important than the royal family and its former members is football, of course. I mean the real football, not the American sort. I had the fortune to be in London for the FA Cup final (Chelsea 1 – Portsmouth 0), the Football League Championship Play-Off Final (Blackpool 3 – Cardiff City 2), and the European Champions League final (Inter Milan 2 – Bayern Munich 0) — the last being perhaps the least interesting of the three to an English football fan, and the Blackpool – Cardiff match generating perhaps the most passion, judging from the amount of tangerine (Blackpool) and blue (Cardiff City) parading around London before Saturday’s match. On our flight home yesterday, I met one American who had flown to England primarily to attend that match. Fortunately for him, he’s a Blackpool supporter.
In London and in the counties nearby we also saw plenty of English flags, signs promoting cheap TVs, and advertisements for pubs that will be broadcasting the sport’s biggest event next month: The World Cup finals. England’s finals kick off in earnest on June 12 against the United States. Expectations are high on both sides: England features the world’s top player in Wayne Rooney; the U.S. is coming off of a strong Confederations Cup performance but, via injuries, has question marks at several positions. Conventional wisdom has it that both teams and one nation will be sorely disappointed by failure to make it out of group play, given that the other two teams in the group are Slovenia and Algeria. Neither is a traditional football power; neither has a strong recent record in international competition.
I am referring to the upcoming event by its proper name — the World Cup finals. The 32 teams competing in South Africa are the survivors of a grueling tournament that began in 2007, with 204 teams. The last match, to be played on July 11 in Jo’burg, is the final. As a traditionalist I don’t refer to the event as the “FIFA” World Cup. Although the tournament has always been organized by FIFA (the international association for world football), so far as I can tell the “FIFA” branding is a product of the 1990s.Â When I was first paying attention to the World Cup, in 1970 and 1974, it was simply the “World Cup.” And so it remains, to me, though “FIFA World Cup” seems to have become a single, unitary phrase.
Trademark law and World Cup soccer is a subject for another post, and there are more football-law-tech posts to come over the next six weeks.
Today’s New York Times suggests one: the Digital Divide in South Africa has severely limited South Africans’ access to tickets to finals matches. FIFA controls marketing for the event, and for all intents and purposes FIFA authorized ticket sales only online. (Plus, of course, tickets themselves are quite expensive.)Â Surprisingly to no one, the vast majority of South African football fans are black, poor, and without access to the Internet. Only recently did FIFA move to respond. According to the Times:
FIFA ultimately recognized the problems, and tickets finally went on sale here over the counter on April 15. Lines were so long that some likened them to those for South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994. Since then, 230,000 tickets have been sold over the counter — pushing total sales here to over a million, more than in any other country. The United States is second, at 130,000 tickets sold.
Invictus, the recent Clint Eastwood movie starring Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman, is largely the story of Nelson Mandela reaching out to South Africa’s white minority. Will these World Cup finals push the country in the other direction? This is the first World Cup finals held in Africa, but it has been far from clear that the finals actually belong to Africa. Yet for all of its effort to upscale international football in the last two decades — “FIFA” branding and the online ticket strategy are only two pieces of that effort — the ticketing reversal suggests FIFA may at last find itself (involuntarily, perhaps) presenting an event that belongs to the majority of the people of the host nation. Football began as a people’s sport, a working class sport, more like baseball in its early days than American football, which began on university campuses. It would be deeply interesting and ironic if this 21st century event returned the sport to those roots, even if only partially, and for a moment.