Friday, June 16, 2006

Buying the football dream

As the soccer World Cup invades our TV screens, there is only one topic worth discussing at this moment in time, and that is, of course, football.

Over a billion people will tune into the tournament, driving nonfootball fans crazy as the worldwide soccer fiesta sucks up airtime and drives people, well, largely men, to levels of hysteria. The International Association of Football Federations, or FIFA, estimates that there are over 200-million active soccer players in the world. The World Cup will reveal that there are even more football aficionados keen to bellow their advice at television sets whenever the opportunity arises.

Experts, however, believe it is not advice, whether ill-informed or fuelled by alcohol, or even raw talent, that determines your nation’s chance of success in the World Cup but, rather, economics. The World Cup and Economics Report 2006, compiled by Goldman Sachs, argues that wealthier nations are generally better footballing nations. Six of the G7 countries are now ranked in the FIFA Top 20. The US and Japan are now both in the Top 20, despite being slow off the mark when it comes to football. That said, the report does make some caveats, noting that, globally, a pure economic analysis does not always hold true. Factors such as the number of males between 16 and 35 and the size of a country might be equally good predictors. Brazil shows that size does matter. Nigeria shows that a little cash might help. The report notes, however, that, regionally, economics certainly does seem to be linked with more successful footballing nations. In Europe, the largest economies have continually spawned more victorious teams.

A broad economic analysis might help explain South Africa’s rather dismal rating of 53rd in the world, but it fails to explain how it is only ranked tenth in Africa, despite being one of the richest countries on the continent. I do not wish to get into the intricacies of football politics in South Africa, as I value my limbs but, clearly, the country is not reaching its potential.

So is money the problem? If the economy soared, would South Africa’s footballing prowess increase? When the World Cup comes to South Africa in 2010, the country would have spent about R15- billion fixing up stadiums, roads and airports. But an estimated R21-billion will come back into the economy. Some R13-billion will be generated in direct spending and approximately 159 000 new jobs will be created, says consulting firm Grant Thornton. If there is any truth in correlation between economics and footballing success, then this should give some, albeit short-term, impetus to South Africa’s 2010 prospects. But, of course, life is not like that and football, like most things, is not science. When I was six years old, I had my greatest football triumph. As I attempted a blistering kick towards the goal, my boot managed to loosen itself from my foot and take off aimlessly through the air. The ball went nowhere, but a gaggle of boys rushed enthusiastically after my boot, none- theless. Needless to say, it was a great disappointment for them to discover my scuffed boot rather than a ball when the dust had cleared. Strangely, however, when the boys ran off to chase my boot, I was left alone with the ball. If I had been less concerned about dirtying my sock, I probably could have scored. So I see two options. Either you place a bet on one of the wealthy nations this year, win and then invest that in a developing nation to make soccer more interesting. Or take a flutter on Ghana or maybe Iran because unlike money that can trap people behind impenetrable class barriers or condemn countries to the bottom of the football barrel, you never can rule out luck, or at very least the hand of God.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, February 2006. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 9 June 2006.

Monday, June 5, 2006

Are you calling me chicken?

A dead swan was recently found about a mile from our house in a nearby lake. The poor creature had the misfortune, first, of dying and, second, of dying at the same time as another swan in Fife, in Scotland, several hundred miles away. The swan in Fife died of bird flu. So, suddenly, the swan down the road from our house found itself the posthumous centre of attention as tests ensued. The situation, however, proved an anticlimax when the swan was found to have died of natural causes. This was cold comfort to the swan and, no doubt, bad news for media people, who were getting excited about the furore. Needless to say, it was a relief for people across the island of Ireland.

But what was interesting about this incident was its ability to conjure up fear in an instant. If I am honest, I was also alarmed at my own rather selfish and out-of-proportion reaction. Firstly, I had concerns about whether our child would be safe if we went for a walk down by the river. Secondly, I envisaged another foot-and-mouth-style slaughter of all local birds and felt for the poor creatures, which would, surely, meet their end if bird flu was confirmed. And, finally, I found some space to spare a thought for the poultry farmers and the potential impact on their livelihood. Sadly, I think my reaction is not too dissimilar to many. It seems as if each new global fear is immediately internalised and individualised. In short, can I get it? Am I and my family safe? Immediately after the discovery of the dead swan in Fife, I heard people saying that they would no longer eat poultry, despite the media making it unequivocally clear that you cannot get bird flu this way, not to mention the fact that swan is hardly a staple food. This points to a paradox. There is increasing information from the media about issues such as bird flu, yet, at the same time, individuals continue to have unfounded fears. Why is this the case? One way to look at this is from the perspective of the information that is imparted. To be fair to the media in the UK and Ireland, both have attempted to run with the ‘don’t panic’ story about bird flu. Tony Blair and various scientists have been liberally quoted as saying the disease is not a threat to humans. Yet, at the same time, the media cannot resist highlighting the 100 human fatalities across the globe with as much of sensationalism as possible. They also take any opportunity to show photos of crowded chicken coops in Asian and African markets. Such images shown in a largely Western society invariably evoke stereotypical perceptions of foreigners as somehow dirty and primitive, feeding fears of ‘the other’ as the source of infectious disease. Another way to look at unrealistic fears like contracting bird flu in leafy suburbia, which you are as unlikely as getting as winning the lottery twice in one weekend, is that such fears are the luxury of those who are comfortable and do not have that much to worry about. Clearly, the starving villagers from Jos, in Nigeria, who were recently arrested for exhuming flu-infected and culled birds to eat had a very different hierarchy of concern.

In the final instance, the whole bird-flu issue probably teaches us more about ourselves than about risk. We cannot resist seeing the world from our own tiny vantage point. Those who are safest in the world continue to thrive on myths of external threats, such as criminals, foreigners, terrorists, strangers and disease, while the poor rifle through a pile of dead poultry looking for food, infected or not. So, why did the chicken cross the road? Hopefully, to help us open our eyes.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, February 2006. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 28 April 2006.