Thoughts: The Mishandled Beauty

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After the past month, there shouldn’t be any uncertainty left about what is the lingua franca in the field of sports. For over thirty days, sports fans from all over the world have gathered together to celebrate and support their national football teams to win the FIFA World Cup that is getting closer to its end in Russia.

And what could be better than knowing that by watching a match, you’ve suddenly become part of a bigger community? The broadcasting rights for the 2018 World Cup were sold to well over than one hundred countries, and along with the Summer Olympic Games, it is the most internationally attractive live event on television. It has been almost impossible to avoid pictures where the supporters of different teams pose to the camera together in a friendly way, wearing anything they can find with their national flag colors or extra-large sombreros (I am pointing at you, Mexicans!) in order to express their support to their country. These photos taken on the spot and spread by international newsrooms have been ideal to strengthen the image of global sports events bringing people together.

There is naturally nothing wrong with this image, quite the opposite. It has been refreshing to see pictures of funnily dressed fans filled with true joy, while it tends to be the fact that the majority of media coverage is dedicated to less cheerful topics such as political scheming and international human rights violations. However, it would be wrong to close one’s eyes from the fact that these two worlds are tied together more closely than it would be pleasant to admit.

Russia was appointed to host the 2018 World Cup in 2010 by a decision made by the FIFA organizing committee. The years that followed the host nomination have, unfortunately, left room for doubts on whether the hosts are receiving some undeservedly positive power due to the tournament. We’ve heard the list several times; the annexation of Crimea as well as military intervention in Syria make it self-evident that Moscow is getting more positive attention during the tournament than it has received in many years. It is appropriate and necessary to ask whether it is acceptable that the time when the whole world is, for once, peacefully united under a single event, the spotlight is growingly focused on geopolitical interests that are urged forward by using hard power. Even if the sport itself is disconnected from daily politics – and that is the way it should be -, it would be desirable to leave more room to the event rather than to the host.

We can find even more sources of insecurity that threaten the ideal where nations are given opportunities to gather together peacefully without accidentally having to take a stand on political issues, let alone quietly support corruption. Football is the most popular sport in the world, and the most profitable leagues around the sport make revenues that correspond to billions of US dollars per year. It is therefore not a surprise that the international governing body of this worldwide sport,  the FIFA, holds significant powers. Strong authority should always be accompanied with a careful sense of responsibility, yet the organization has had some trouble with living up to these expectations in recent years due to serious corruption scandals. One of them, just to mention one example, is connected to the 2022 World Cup tournament that was given to Qatar. In addition to possible bribes involved, the organizing team of the country has been accused of mishandling migrant labour that works on the construction sites of the future World Cup venues. Something is not quite right when a regular football fan is forced to balance between buying a ticket to a sports game he or she has been waiting for a lifetime and pondering on whether seeing that match supports actions that should not be encouraged.

 

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The good thing is that FIFA has a role model when it comes to organizing a meaningful tournament that can be looked back with satisfaction afterwards. The International Olympic Committee definitely doesn’t have a clean track record for corruption either, yet the latest Winter Olympic Games is a good example of how to steer the publicity brought by the international event to a direction that benefits more people than just the elite of the hosting country. Pyeongchang 2018 was branded as ’the Peace Olympics’. Even if the games were accused of hypocrisy and giving a free propaganda platform to North Korea, the idea that such multinational events should serve the common international good is the right path to follow. And ultimately the world got a good piece of news when it was announced that the US president Donald Trump and the leader of North Korea, Mr Kim Jong-un, would meet each other peacefully in the speculated aftermath of the Olympic games. Even if it is too early to draw far-fetched conclusions from the discussions that took place between these two heads-of-state in mid-June, in the best-case scenario the future history tellers can link the 2018 Olympics as part of a bigger continuum of increasing dialog between former hostiles. We can hope that similar improvement of worldwide good will be achieved between Mr Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin during talks that are scheduled to take place in Helsinki a day after the World Cup final.

 

Football is an irreplaceable asset to mankind. It is one of the rare things that connect people with drastically different backgrounds; children in poor developing countries and wealthy professional players, as well as nearly everyone in between, know how to kick a ball. It is a universal language than can have a stronger unifying effect than any citizenship or common tradition. Above all, it is far more than just a token in the game of those in power.

As the tournament is steadily coming to an end, it is more than important to switch on the TV and enjoy the final match before waiting for another four years for the next World Cup. Still, it is necessary to avoid closing our eyes from the faults that lie behind the glamorous surface; football and millions of its fans worldwide deserve ethically sustainable conditions to their favorite event. This beautiful sport is worth it.

 

Credits: Pixabay, the Epoch Time

Thoughts: Understanding the World through… the Football World Cup!

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If any faithful follower of the 2018 Football World Cup in Russia had to define the contest in one word, it would probably be ‘unexpected’. Ever since its start on Friday, June 15th, by an overwhelming victory of the host country against Saudi Arabia (5-0), favorites have had a hard time playing against teams they were supposed to crush. France only won 2 to 1 against Australia, that, to quote an Australian friend, ‘is bad enough at this to have invented its own football to be sure to win at least somewhere’; and Germany, reigning winner of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, was recently eliminated by South Korea.

I usually never watch football – I’m more into acrobatic gymnastics. The World Cup is the only exception, because I love everything that looks international from close or far. And as my parents just said, seated next to me to watch the current Russia vs Egypt game, ‘it’s such a symbol: the US are not even in the first 32 selected teams, Mexico defeats Germany; and now people who usually fight against each other are playing together’.

Beautiful.

But is that really true?

Because there actually are countries that refuse to play against each other, due to their conflicts outside of the stadium. Some countries cannot even be in the same qualification group. For instance, Spain and Gibraltar cannot play against each other – Gibraltar is not a country but a British enclave that has nevertheless been allowed to play. The same applies to Armenia and Azerbaijan, to Kosovo and Serbia, to Kosovo and Bosnia… this is also the reason why Israel often plays in the European championship and not against some other Middle-Eastern countries. Indeed, how can one expect a team to play a team from another land, that its country does not even recognize – and spend most of its time trying to wreak havoc?

Football is very much more linked to geopolitics than it appears at first. And as I wanted to learn more about that, I went to attend a conference held at school Sciences Po Reims, a few days before the start of the World Cup. It was delivered by Olivier Corbobesse, a former student of social sciences university Sciences Po Toulouse, fond of football, amateur player and writer, who recently published a book on how to get a general culture through… football.

The room was full as I entered. I was pretty much the only person younger than 30 in the public, which meant that most of the people there have lived the incredible French victory of 1998, twenty years ago. Talking about it always brings a glimpse of nostalgia to French fans and not only. But despite this pride, the sport does not have such a great reputation in France. We have this big cliché of football players who cannot answer questions properly during interviews, and struggle into their studies. We can also hear saying that whereas sports such as tennis are more played by the nation’s ‘elite’ (whatever this may mean), football is more associated to low classes. Lecturer Corbobesse even confirmed that people would look upon him whenever he says he wrote a book about football – but what interests him, he added quickly, ‘is the idea of the sport, what lies behind’. And if his conference proved something to me, beyond the traditional ‘yes, but football is an instrument of soft power’, it is that as its title clearly stated, we can indeed understand the world through football.

Understanding history through football

062c5Who remembers today that part of Italy was once governed by the Maison de Savoy, a family from the nobility? Its last heir, Victor-Emmanuel, would still be legitimate to rise to power and become Italy’s new king, would the monarchy be re-established. But I bet this is most widely known amongst football supporters than other people; because the Italian soccer jersey is usually blue, whereas this color is not even on their flag. It was indeed the official color of the Maison the Savoy – this explains that!

Besides the color of the jersey, history can also be taught by the name of the football clubs. Those organizations were usually closely associated to professions; there was a club put in place by the rail-workers, another one by the police… The Dynamos, that currently exist in towns such as Kiev, Moscow or Tbilissi (Georgia), was for instance the club of the police.

Understanding art through football

joan-miro-d-apres-affiche-coupe-du-monde-de-football-espagne-1982-1_800x430.jpgYou’re a soccer fan? Well, you can probably expatiate on artists such as French writer Albert Camus – who used to be a goal keeper – or Spanish painter Salvador Dali, or Miro who painted the official display for the 1982 World Cup in Spain. The Spanish Tourist Office’s display is even closely inspired from this one!

Understanding identity through football

Football can also help people feel happier with their own identity. The best proof of this could be the World Cup in Germany, that they hosted in 2006. For quite the first time since the two World Wars that left the country ashamed, Germans would sing their anthem and wave their flag with pride and unity.

news-conifa.jpgEven more interesting could be, in 2013, the creation of another international football organization, the CONIFA, for sovereign-states that are not recognized internationally and for ethnic minorities. On June the 9th, their final was held in England, opposing Northern Cyprus to the Hungarian minority of Ukraine. Other nations or communities, such as Tibet, Québec, or the European Occitan, that are not part of the 211 nations recognized by the FIFA, also play in that championship.

When football brings people closer…

«  Often, football precedes geopolitics », said Olivier Corbobesse. We know about the « diplomacy of pingpong » that got the United States and the People’s Republic of China together, but what about the… diplomacy of football?

turquie-armenie_279-2dc40.jpgIn 2008 and 2009, matches were to be expected between Armenia and Turkey in order to qualify for the World Cup. As a reminder, Turkey does not recognize the 1910s historically-proven genocide on the Armenian people. Everyone expected this match to be terrible and plagued by hooliganism. But on the contrary! It paved the way for the very first Turkish president’s visit in independent Armenia, after he was invited by the Armenian government. The diplomatic relationship then started again, plans were made for a treaty, and the game went extremely well.

… even a bit too close!

guerradelfutbol.jpgBut on the other hand, football could also be the one drop of water that would make the glass spill. That happened in 1969 in Central America, with the start of a conflict between Honduras and El Salvador, and that we usually call… the Football War! Here was the situation: to make things simple, El Salvador has a lot of people and no land,  Honduras has more land and much less people. So many Salvadorans would move illegally to Honduras; that in 1961, decided on agrarian reforms that would make it more difficult for them to settle in Honduras. Eight years after, a football match played the role of the only necessary little glimpse to make it catch on fire.

Understanding religion through football

A few more anecdotes before I let you go to read Mr. Corbobesse’s book. In 2012, the FIFA officially stated that players were allowed to play with religious clothes, including Sikh men with a turban or Muslim women with a veil. The one and only country that refused to apply this rule, referring to laicity, was… France. That recently, after a veiled girl who was at the head of a  left-wing students’ union was harshly insulted for the very fact of wearing a veil, was heavily criticized for its ‘problem with Islam’.

And we can also talk about Iran; in this country, matches are re-broadcasted with a 3 minutes delay, for censorship to be applied in order to erase pictures that wouldn’t be coherent with the country law… such as women with ‘provocative’ clothes being shown on the screen.

After this one-hour-long conference, and as this article clearly shows, I pretty much feel like a football geopolitics expert now. And what better way to learn more about football as a first step of Turkey towards the European Union, about the symbol of the Russian towns chosen to host the World Cup, or about the reason of relative unpopularity of football in India, than by going back to the source?

So I warmly advise you, if you can read French, to go read the recently published book by Mr Corbobesse, « Culture générale football club », Editions Chistera. What better opportunity to learn more about this than this year’s Football World Cup?

Enjoy your reading, and I wish the best to your home country’s team in this competition!

 

Credits: terresacree, oldschoolpanini, turquieeuropeenne, lequipe, conifa.fr

 

This article is based on Mr Olivier Corbobesse’s conference. 

Thoughts: Flags that Turn Into Logos

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A few months backwards, I was returning back home from a ski holiday that I had spent in northern Finland. Knowing that I would have to sit several hours on our way back, I had grabbed the local newspaper in order to have something to read in the car. Mostly it was nothing very exciting; as one could guess, it was mainly about local events. However, as I continued glancing through the pages, my attention was caught by an article that made me write down some notes and, later, gave me inspiration to write this text.

It was about a tiny Finnish town called Ruka. One of the biggest ski resorts in Finland is located in this small town, and that is where I spent my holidays, too. It likes to brand itself as being part of Lapland, the northernmost region of Finland that tends to attract plenty of tourists in the wintertime. The only thing was that it wasn’t technically located in that particular region, but just in a neighbouring geographical district.

One could believe that this little detail would not really make a difference, but according to the writer, the business owners who actually reside in the district of Lapland weren’t pleased with the fact that someone was branding itself as a Lapland ski resort. The wish to use the word ‘Lapland’ when promoting tourist services is understandable, as this name is commonly used to describe the northern parts of Nordic countries. It is a strong brand when it comes to attracting tourists.

When I had returned home, I decided to learn more about this ‘brand value’ that is attained by geographical places. As we zoom out from the regional perspective, we can see that even entire countries want to be associated with good things – most often a country itself wants to be a strong brand beyond its borders. Tourist organizations are good examples of spreading a country’s recognition, yet a good reputation can be seen as an asset in almost every sector where a country promotes itself to other nations. As a consequence of this effect, we can assume that a French cook working abroad might want to highlight his nationality as his country of origin is traditionally associated with high-quality gastronomy.

I am definitely not the first and only one who has been reflecting on brand image on a national level. We can see it as a phenomenon, where branding strategies that are typical for companies are applied to individual nations. For example Diplomacy in a Globalizing World: Theories and Practices is a book authored by Pauline Kerr and Geoffrey Wiseman. The authors help us see the bigger picture of nation branding; they state that the phenomenon of countries branding themselves is one of the plenty consequences of globalisation. The distances between nations are made shorter than they have ever been before. As countries are getting more and more connected to each other through international trade and tourism, it is expected that they increasingly share common characteristics. At the same time however, there is a counter-reaction. The nations still share, a little bit paradoxically, the need to be distinguished from each other in order to be successful in international competition. That is where the local specialties play a major role – they can be used as branding tools which help a nation to stand out from the crowd.

What we need to understand from today’s countries is that each of them needs publicity for the purpose of attracting tourists or gathering investments. A good origin of a brand may as well be helpful for companies that operate internationally. It should be no surprise that IKEA has the colours of the Swedish flag, or that iPhone’s virtual assistant Siri prefers telling you that it is designed in California whose reputation is closely linked to that of highly technological Silicon Valley, rather than mentioning the fact that it was originally made in China.

And it is not just that companies take an advantage of the positive image of their origin. The relationship is closest to a symbiosis where both parties benefit from each other’s existence. It is common that a country boosts its own prestige by organizations that aim at creating and maintaining a good country reputation, others being more successful than others. A good example of this is Sweden’s branding organization called Brand Sweden. On its website (1) it has gathered material that a Swedish enterprise can use in its work, that aims at making the Scandinavian country better known in the world. You can even find strict rules on how to use the stylised version of the Swedish flag, in order to make the country brand more recognizable. It is almost as if nations would have turned into companies that aim at keeping themselves alive in the global market, the only exception being that the players of this game are states rather than private units.

Whether this trend where nation states are put in a competitive position and that is further pushed forward by increasing globalisation is desirable, is difficult to answer. Realising that unique characteristics of a nation are harnessed to serve a marketing image, in order to let the country be successful in the global competition, has a somehow grim tone. It should be questioned if countries really have to adopt procedures that are typical for international companies rather than for sovereign nations.

However, we must bear in mind that nation branding can be regarded as a harmless, even desirable consequence when it is compared to other side effects of globalisation. The Guardian published an interesting article (2) where nation branding is compared with constantly growing right-wing populism. These two phenomena are similar in the sense that they both can be seen to some extent as results of globalisation. In addition to this, it is quite startling to notice that both of them are willing to emphasize the abilities and identity of one nation over others.

However, the major factor that clearly takes these two phenomena apart from each other, is that they follow completely different rules. Whereas right-wing populist movements have quite clearly underlined their anti-globalist nature in different Western countries in the 2000s by attacking institutions that promote international cooperation, nation branding actually follows the general principles of globalism. Nation-branding is actually part of a bigger continuum in the history of international trade; it has transformed from the status of 18th century where mercantilist ideology was the dominant way to define successful trade policy into a state of affairs where nations are part of one global marketplace. While national populism is quite introverted in the sense that outside world is regarded mostly as a threat, the motivation for branding nations and emphasizing their greatness is solely premised on making a country more attractive in the eyes of other nations and increasing collaboration between them.

Nation branding doesn’t necessarily mean that the cultural heritage which nations have fostered through centuries is completely productized for commercial purposes. On the contrary, branding can actually be seen as a useful way to spread information of different nations worldwide. This may play a major role in increasing global understanding between different cultures. Tourists probably wouldn’t very easily find their way to learn more about the way of life of the people living in the cold and remote Lapland if it wasn’t for its strong brand image of being a winter wonderland. Still, I believe that what must be done in the near future is to define what kind of nation-branding can be considered as harmless and when it is essential to separate the role of a nation from the work done by a marketing firm. As long as flags are not replaced by logos, we should be fine.

 

Photo: The writer enjoying the views regardless of whether Ruka is part of Lapland or not.

[1] Identitytool for Sweden: https://identity.sweden.se/   

[2] The Guardian: How to sell a country: the booming business of nation branding (https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/nov/07/nation-branding-industry-how-to-sell-a-country)