Football and soft power

In a world where attraction rather than coercion is key to power, how does football help?


In its first issue of 2014, Monocle dedicated a slice of the magazine to its Soft Power Survey, a run-down of countries and their ability to create and sustain influence in positive ways. For the first time in its four year history, Monocle accorded sport its own category in the metrics of the survey. Football took centre stage as perhaps the most pervasive and global of all sports. As such, Monocle stated:

“Footballers playing abroad in the top leagues, major events screened around the globe, the competitors and teams that stand out from the crowd — all these have an impact on the way a country is viewed”

Taking first place in the survey, Germany can boast a significant number of players contracted to clubs in the world’s top leagues (though what those leagues are, and the presumed Euro-centric definition of ‘top’ leave this metric open to debate), and four clubs in the ‘global rich list’. Other significant sporting achievements are also recognised, such as Olympic medals, but my focus here is football.

What is ‘soft power’? I would suggest that Monocle’s own definition, revolving around “attraction rather than coercion”, neatly summarises the concept. This, of course, includes deliberate attempts to flex such power as well as the benefits which derive coincidentally from being basically decent. This is why nations vie for the chance to host the Olympics or the World Cup; it is as much for the ‘feel-good factor’ as any tangible economic benefit or demonstration of infrastructure or clout. It is a ‘soft’ way of showing that a nation has not only arrived as a serious player on the global stage, but also that it has sufficient traction to persuade others to get behind its bid; it shows that a nation has friends as well as influence.

Is football really key to this demonstration of soft power then? And, if it is, is that a whole story? Arguably, the answer to the first question is pretty straightforward, and it is yes. Football at its best is vibrant, exciting, emotional, as much as it is a generator of capital and a means of exposure for a nation. It creates a sense of shared experience, of happiness, and, when it goes well, success. The image of a nation’s or a club’s fans dancing in the streets to celebrate a victory is not hard to summon. Collective experience is very powerful. The manner and style of victory are also crucial. The beauty of Spain’s first two international tournament victories lay more in the aesthetics of their football than any narrative of previous heroic failure. The arrival of Chile in the Monocle survey’s top thirty coincides with their team playing a swash-buckling, adventurous style of play based on Bielsa-influenced principles which stirs most impartial observers.

Football clubs can also embody values which are conducive to the growth of ‘soft power’. The ownership principles of Bundesliga clubs, which ensure that fans retain a controlling interest in the club, or the socis principle by which Barcelona, among other Spanish clubs, are run, speaks to a sense of egalitarianism and being rooted in the local. In an age of globalisation and aggressive capitalism, these models seem to stand for something fairer, more decent, and more located in the actual identity of the club than, say, the franchise system of many US sports. This is soft economic power, the engendering of positive values by association.

Footballers have also become brands in themselves, which can have soft power benefits for the nations they represent. Monocle cites the mercurial Zlatan Ibrahimovic as Sweden’s ‘soft-power superstar’, a poster boy for integration and achievement despite his self-professed humble origins. It is Zlatan’s unquestioned talent and drive that have elevated him to world-wide acclaim and financial success, and football is full of such rags-to-riches tales, often involving individuals from backgrounds whose overwhelming narrative, imposed externally by the traditional seats of power, is of social exclusion or failure. This is an attractive story, aspirational and inclusive.

However, to see football as an indicator of soft power without caveats is to engage in a certain amount of myopia. Football is a global business and dominated by brands. For every soci-run club there are countless others run by outside investors and it is hard to ignore the sense that clubs are increasingly vehicles for debt servicing or profit maximisation, run by businesspeople eager to exploit the positive associations of the sport. Government support for stadium development, or the taking-over of stadia constructed for other purposes, also allows investors to exploit a desire for soft power, benefiting from projects paid for by the nation and seeing their assets grow on the back of it.

Football also has a potential for corruption which many are quick to exploit. Whether it is scandals involving FIFA, match-fixing, or forms of exploitation of aspirant footballers such as fraudulent promises of trials or contracts, there is a very murky side to the beautiful game that speaks less of soft power than its more brutal, at times criminal, cousin.

Even the hosting of major sporting events is no guarantee of soft power. Russia, Qatar, and Poland and the Ukraine all suffered from substantiated or alleged accusations of corruption, racism, homophobia, and political violence or instability. It must be argued that shining a light on these issues is positive. However, it cannot be ignored that, in spite of these problems, the governing bodies of football saw fit to efface or downplay such negatives in order to sustain their decisions to host tournaments in those countries. Soft power gained despite such issues is merely a balm, or smoke and mirrors to hide what is really going on.

Perhaps, then, like anything, Monocle’s recognition of the soft power potential of sports such as football needs to be read against a wider narrative. There is no doubt that football does confer soft power and for many, very good reasons. To take that as a total and transparent reflection of the global game is, however, denying a very obvious reality.

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