Successful symposium in review
© Foto-net

Academic experts from around the world descended on the Home of FIFA last week for a symposium designed to look at the social and political impacts of a FIFA World Cup on the host nation and beyond.

Each of the 19 FIFA World Cups were discussed from a different academic viewpoint as the impact of each tournament on the host country was examined, as well as the wider social and political implications for staging such an event.

There were also a series of panel discussions, with topics ranging from the pre-war FIFA World Cups, dictatorships’ and democracies’ role in past tournaments and the multiculturalism and commercialisation that has defined the past two decades.

The keynote speech was given by David Goldblatt, author of the acclaimed ‘The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football’. His address explored the FIFA World Cup through the ages and its impact on global history and culture, from 1930 through to 2022.

Writing for FIFA.com, Goldblatt reviews the symposium, which was co-convened by Professor Stefan Rinke and Professor Kay Schiller.

Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan writer, took the historical profession to task in his great mythic history of football Futbol a Sol y Sombra: “An astonishing void: official history ignores football. Contemporary history texts fail to mention it”. Since he wrote those words in the early 1990s, progress has been made, and the last decade has seen a real flowering of richly detailed historical work on football on every continent. Yet despite this there remained a glaring absence – a history of the most important football tournament of all – The World Cup. This conference on the social and political impacts of the tournament has gone a long way towards filling the gap.

On the one hand, the history of the World Cup suggests it has been an elite project, orchestrated from above. Stefan Rinke’s account of Uruguay 1930, Marco Impiglia’s on Italy 1934 and Bernado Hollanda’s on Brazil 1950 all made clear the links between domestic political power and the staging of the World Cup; though Paul Dietschy’s scrupulous work on France 1938 and Kay Schiller’s on West Germany 1974 remind us that , relative to today, hosts and organisers could once manage a high degree of autonomy from the state and from FIFA. One suspects that this is no longer possible.

Keith and Claire Brewster’s overview of Mexico 1970 and 1986 drew special attention to the complex interactions between Mexico’s ruling PRI, the Televisia media conglomerate and Mexican football. Nicola Porro’s work on Italia 1990 showed that European democracies can be every bit as intent on using the tournament for their own ends as his account of the relationship between Italia 90, the old political parties and the new creative industries showed.

On the other hand, this was also a history from below. Markwart Herzog detailed the extraordinary rituals of gift giving and exchanges between the inhabitants of small town southern Bavaria and the returning West German World Champions of the train from Berne to Munich in 1954. The role of local products and regional specialities, from cheese, to pickles to packaged spices, taking centre stage. Torbjörn Anderson’s account of Sweden 1958 featured the role of official Swedish cheerleaders in working an already raucous and nationalistic crowd in the semi-finals against West Germany 1958. Brenda Elsey’s talk on Chile 1962 highlighted the role of women in the tournaments ceremonies and their surprisingly visible presence in the crowds. Raanan Rein offered a detailed account of the international protests and boycott campaigns’ that surrounded the 1978 World Cup held under the military junta.

The enormous importance of public viewing space during the world cup, which has brought a new popular dimension to the tournament, was featured in Albrecht Sonntag’s paper on France 1998 and richly described by Thomas Raithel in his work on Germany 2006; an occasion where the fan miles became a crucible for a new take on German national identity.

The most recent wave of World Cups, held outside the tournament’s traditional European and Latin American heartlands have seen, perhaps, an even more complex and multifaceted interaction between the intentions of hosts and organisers and the reaction of the global public. Joshua Nadel explored the ways in which the tournament intersected with the enduring division of American soccer between its white and Latino communities; Christian Tagsold’s account of Korea Japan 2002 included a rye description of the micro-diplomacy required to get a representative of the Japanese Imperial house and a the South Korean head of state in the same executive box Sifiso Ndlovu on South Africa 2010 reiterated the immense symbolic dimension of the World Cup, by describing the real political and cultural weight that Africa’s first football World Cup carried.

This is just as well. In his magnificent dissection of the economics of sporting mega-events, Wolfgang Maenning demonstrated beyond any possible doubt that the conventional arguments for hosting – increased tourism, higher productivity, increased sporting participation – are without foundation. Why then is there no shortage of bidders to take on the World Cup?

As every single contribution to this conference made clear, a point underwritten by Alan Tomlinson in his summing up, it is because the game and the tournament have become something else; not simply the world‘s most popular sport, but a strange, unpredictable and wondrous avatar of humanity and its dilemmas; a cosmopolitan spectacular in a truly global era.

* The contents of the Symposium, including the essays and findings discussed, will be formally published with support from FIFA.