FIFA World Cup 2010: Media Conquering Planet Football!

Most Earthlings have just spent a month on this!

“If you’re an alien planning to invade the Earth, choose July 11. Chances are that our planet will offer little or no resistance.

“Today, most members of the Earth’s dominant species – the nearly 7 billion humans – will be preoccupied with 22 able-bodied men chasing a little hollow sphere. It’s only a game, really, but what a game: the whole world holds its breath as the ‘titans of kick’ clash in the FIFA World Cup Final.

“Played across 10 venues in South Africa, this was much more than a sporting tournament. It’s the ultimate celebration of the world’s most popular sport, held once every four years. More popular than the Olympics, it demonstrates the sheer power of sports and media to bring together – momentarily, at least – the usually fragmented and squabbling humanity.”

This is the opening of my latest op ed essay, which appears in several print and online outlets this weekend. It’s timed for the finals of the FIFA World Cup 2010 – the most widely followed sporting event in the world, which will be played in Soccer City, Johannesburg, South Africa today, 11 July 2010. The Netherlands will meet Spain in this culmination of international football that has been distracting a good part of humanity for a month.

This sporting event is tipped to be the most-watched television event in history. Hundreds of broadcasters are transmitting the World Cup to a cumulative TV audience that FIFA estimates to reach more than 26 billion people. Some TV channels offer high definition (HD) or 3-D quality images to enhance the mass viewing experience.

The essay was written a few days ago, after the FIFA World Cup 2010 had reached the semi-finals stage. To be honest, I’m not an ardent football fan. But as an observer of popular culture, I’ve gladly allowed myself to be caught up in the current football frenzy. I just love to watch people who watch the game…

It’s a light piece written to suit the current global mood, but I acknowledge that the World Cup is really more than just a ball game. The basic thrust of my essay is to comment on the powerful mix of fooball and live coverage: “For the past month, the winning formula for unifying the Global Family seemed to be: international football + live broadcasts + live coverage via the web and mobile phones.”

The Times of India, 11 July 2010: Planet Football: Sports unites a fragmented humanity

The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka, 11 July 2010: Conquering Planet Football Beam Me Up to Planet Football

United Colours of Football, courtesy FIFA

The essay builds on themes that I’ve already explored on this blog – for example, how President Nelson Mandela used the 1995 World Cup Rugby championship to unite his racially divided nation, as told in the movie Invictus.

I also touch on FIFA being a wielder of formidable soft power in the world today, arguably more influential than the United Nations.

Here’s my parting thought, on which I invite reader comment: “On second thoughts, those invading aliens don’t need to worry too much about the Earth’s political leaders or their armies. Without firing a single shot, the globalised media have quietly taken over our Global Village — and now it’s too late to resist! We can argue on its merits and demerits, but the facts are indisputable.”

FIFA: Empire of Football or a global super-soft power?

The Empire of kicking around

If one acronym has dominated the world’s media and public minds in the past month, it must be FIFA.

It stands for the International Federation of Association Football, and is derived from the original French name, Fédération Internationale de Football Association. It’s the global governing body of association football, founded in 1904 and with its headquarters in Zürich, Switzerland.

FIFA is responsible for the organisation and governance of football’s major international tournaments — most notably the FIFA World Cup, held once every four years since 1930. The current World Cup, being held in South Africa from 11 June to 11 July 2010, is the 19th edition. The next will be hosted by Brazil in 2014.

As a global body with substantial financial resources, FIFA has had its own share of controversies and been criticised for its lack of transparency and internal democracy. It’s true that FIFA controls the media rights to key international games with an iron fist (which inspired the above cartoon). They are not alone: the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has its own detractors and allegations on similar considerations.

Who's got the soft power?

But there is little argument on how far and wide the influence of these global sports bodies extend. In an op ed essay being published this weekend, I contend: “FIFA, with its 208 member associations, is probably more influential — and certainly better known — than the United Nations, with its 192 member states. The difference is in media outreach. It signifies the rise of soft power in our always-connected information society.”

Indeed, the UN itself is well aware of this. In one of the most memorable op ed essays he’s written, the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan acknowledged in 2006 (during the previous FIFA World Cup): “The World Cup makes us at the UN green with envy. As the pinnacle of the only truly global game, played in every country by every race and religion, it is one of the few phenomena as universal as the UN. But there are better reasons for our envy.”

He continued: “This is an event in which everybody knows where their team stands, and what it did to get there. They know who scored and how and in what minute of the game; they know who saved the penalty. I wish we had more of that sort of competition in the family of nations. Countries vying for the best standing in the table of respect for human rights, and trying to outdo one another in child survival rates or enrolment in secondary education. States parading their performance for all the world to see. Governments being held accountable.”

Of course, FIFA’s domination over the global public mind will wane after the FIFA World Cup 2010 ends. But how many other global bodies can claim to hold billions of people so engaged for a month? And in this era of 24/7 information society, that’s formidable soft power indeed.

What can we call the wielder of such soft power? How about Super-soft-power?

And can this kind of power also intoxicate and even corrupt its wielders? We’ve seen how power manipulations work in other centres of soft power, such as Hollywood and Bollywood. The challenge for FIFA — and all others who are connected to it through the love of football and/or media’s outreach — is to watch out that this concentration of soft power doesn’t corrupt.

The very same media that helps FIFA attain the status of a soft-super-power needs to keep an eye on how this power is being used. Perhaps that’s the ultimate game in the media-saturated 21st Century: Emperors of Eyeballs vs. Titans of Kick.

Remember, you read it here first.