11 December 2015

COUNTRIES AND CORPORATIONS: THE BLURRED LINES OF NATIONALISM

Daniel Gallan

As we head into 2016, the world has never been more connected. With high speed internet, affordable air travel, and satellite TV, there world is literally a global village, one that is shrinking everyday. The sports world, like business or entertainment, has cottoned on to this new way of thinking and more and more, athletes are representing domestic and national teams in countries they were not born in. So what place does patriotism and national pride have in all this? If we are all united by a love for sport, and ideologies such as nationalism are outdated, is there any point in international competition? CONQA Sport explores. 

Indian Aces' Ana Ivanovic of Serbia hits a return UAE Royals' Kristina Mladenovic of France during their match at the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) in Dubai December 13, 2014. Image supplied by Action Images / Ahmed Jadallah

Indian Aces' Ana Ivanovic of Serbia hits a return UAE Royals' Kristina Mladenovic of France during their match at the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) in Dubai December 13, 2014. Image supplied by Action Images / Ahmed Jadallah

Football terraces around the world are breeding grounds for cynical quips and chastising chants. “Who ate all the pies?” ask the travelling away fans to the slightly overweight home captain. “You’re getting sacked in the morning!” declare thousands of pundits to the struggling opposition’s manager.

Whenever a London club visits Old Trafford, home to Manchester United, the corner reserved for away fans roar an old favourite:

“We’ll race you back to London! We’ll race you back to London”

For many football fans, the team they support is an extension of their identity and the city or town they live in. Manchester United fans living outside of Manchester have often been labelled as plastic supporters or bandwagon jumpers, choosing titles over loyalty.

When the English Premier League (EPL) established itself as one of the most popular and entertaining leagues in the early 1990s, Manchester United rose to power and their timing couldn’t have been better. Under the guidance of Sir Alex Ferguson, and playing a helter-skelter attacking game, Manchester United bagged title after title.

Fans swelled globally, aided by the international language of English and a highly competitive league. Soon people around the world were wearing the shirts of Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool with Owen, Beckham, Henry and Shearer becoming household names.

As the league flourished, foreign players and managers flocked to England chasing their share of the influx of resources. These talented foreigners often left their indigenous contemporaries in their shade. An English manager has never won the EPL (Howard Wilkinson led Leeds United to the First Division title in 1992, a year before the EPL was formed) and every team in the league has since relied heavily on foreign imports. Wayne Rooney was the last Englishman to win the Player of the Season award in 2010 and you have to go back to 2000 for the last local to top the goal scorers’ list – Sunderland’s Kevin Phillips with 30 goals.

The EPL is a league dominated by global franchises marketing themselves as local clubs. Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United are all massively financed by foreign companies, managed by foreign managers, field mostly foreign teams, and rely heavily on foreign support. “Race you back to London?”, as long as you stop by Lagos, Tokyo and New York first.

Modern sport grew in conjunction with national identity in the 18th century. The dividing lines that sport created reinforced powerful emotions and helped fuel rivalries between countries and cities. Before high speed communication and travel, people were mostly confined (both physically and cognitively) to the town of their birth. It is understandable why pride in one’s city has always been so heavily linked with a particular sports team.

But we now live in a global village, always connected with the rest of the world. The increasing amalgamation of cultures and identities has spilled out onto the field. It is not uncommon to find a young boy in Johannesburg who identifies more with a footballer in Spain than in Soweto.

Today, notions such as pride and patriotism are nothing more than the gloss added to the spectacle, especially in club or franchise sport. Ideologies are no longer strictly separated by lines on a map. Choosing one team over another, particularly if that team markets itself as a global brand, is more akin to choosing a favourite character in a soap opera than aligning with a unique ethos.

Players utilising their skills in foreign lands is not a phenomenon restricted to clubs and franchises. Many athletes are born in one country but have cultivated their abilities in another, like British distance runner, Mo Farah. These athletes are, for all intents and purposes, locals; their birthplace is purely coincidental.

The Indian Premier League (IPL) brought together the world's best cricketers in a glitzt tournament where money trumps national and domestic pride for international stars. The Indian Premier Tennis League (IPTL) has taken a leaf out of the IPL's book and secured the signatures of the best tennis players in the world. Image supplied by Action Images / Mike Hutchings. 

The Indian Premier League (IPL) brought together the world's best cricketers in a glitzt tournament where money trumps national and domestic pride for international stars. The Indian Premier Tennis League (IPTL) has taken a leaf out of the IPL's book and secured the signatures of the best tennis players in the world. Image supplied by Action Images / Mike Hutchings. 

Others, like English cricketer, Kevin Pietersen, leave their country of birth in adulthood, after accents and skillsets have been developed. These athletes often draw criticism from opposing fans. When footballer Diego Costa chose to represent Spain over his native Brazil ahead of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, he was labelled a turncoat and a traitor by many Brazilians. These athletes constantly have their loyalty questioned and are always having to prove themselves with their performances. Unfortunately, as Pietersen’s exile from the English cricket team proves, this is not always enough.

The recent Rugby World Cup shows how integrated the sports world has become on an international level. 135 of the tournament’s players were not born in the country they played for. That is a staggering 22%. Samoa selected 13 foreign born players (all from New Zealand) out of a squad of 31. Argentina was the only nation out of 20 to field an entirely home grown team.

If those 13 New Zealanders representing Samoa had stayed where they were born they would likely have never played a World Cup game. Likewise, Samoa would have been that much worse without them. All foreign born players were selected for their adopted countries on merit and improved those teams, the World Cup, and rugby as a sport and spectacle. Critics point out that foreign players fill positions that should be reserved exclusively for locals, but that argument belongs in a Donald Trump campaign speech.

That being said, there is a danger that comes with this fluidity. Countries are neither clubs nor franchises and should be treated as separate entities. This is why the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) should be a source of concern for any true sports fan.

Currently in its second year, the IPTL is a schizophrenic tennis league that can’t decide if it is a competition between nations or franchises. This five team tournament sees the Micromax Indian Aces, the Legendari Japan Warriors, the Philippine Mavericks, the OUE Singapore Slammers and the OBI UAE Royals battle it out for a lot of money and personal pride.

By attracting some of the world’s top players like Maria Sharapova (Japan), Andy Murray (Singapore), Rafael Nadal (India), Serena Williams (Philippines) and Roger Federer (UAE), the IPTL has made a bold statement of intent: it is here to stay and is changing the way international tournaments are perceived.

The IPTL blurs the lines between country and club by using the country’s name alongside that of a sponsor, something that has been done for decades with clubs and franchises. This could simply be an inevitable next step in sports marketing and branding or it could be a sign of things to come: an unavoidable progression to a true global village run by corporations.

Change is often met with resistance from those who feel an affiliation to the past. There was once a time when many prominent voices objected to World Cups, professional sport and women participation. But this is different as it diminishes the competitive desire and pride that supplements international events. These are not countries and should not be labelled as such.  

As the lines that separate us continue to fade, and concepts like nationalism diminish, the world will continue to move towards an incorporated and amalgamated body. But world sport would be remiss to allow business to get in the way of true international rivalries and what they represent. It would be a sad day if World Cups or Olympic Games are reduced to domestic competitions contested by conglomerates with deep enough pockets to lure the best athletes. A bidding war should never be involved when deciding which nation to represent. That bleak dawn is nowhere near rising, but change is happening, and we’d be foolish not to pay attention.

CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town on 5 & 6 October 2016.

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