Friday, April 1, 2022

Borders and soccer

In the last five centuries, the nation-state has become the most important form of political organization in the world, with important implications for economic and industrial organization (including the sports industries, where national teams, national federations and national tournaments play a key role). Since the end of the nineteenth century, empires and colonialism collapsed and resulted into many newly independent states, while at the same time there were attempts at political integration (the re-unified Germany, the European Union). One problem with the nation-state form of political organization is the constant and often violent questioning of borders. Today, small ethnically homogeneous countries coexist with muti-ethnic and diverse countries (as it could be seen in the final between Croatia –a former Yugoslav Republic- and France in the last World Cup). World Cups and other tournaments exhibit both national pride and global integration, sometimes with internationally mobile players on the pitch having difficulties to understand the (not always peaceful) feelings of the crowds.

Some examples of these border tensions are the US Civil War in the nineteenth century, which started with the secession attempts of Southern states, or the partition between India and Pakistan in the 1960s following the Independence of India from the British empire, which was accompanied by thousands of deaths and the forced displacement of millions of people, or the Independence of Ireland in the 1920’s, which was accompanied by the partition of the island of Ireland between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland (with the latter belonging to the UK, and suffering violence between the Catholic and Protestant communities until the Good Friday Agreement of the late 1990s). A recent speech by the Kenyan ambassador to the UN warned about the risks of questioning existing borders, even acknowledging their unavoidable imperfection.

Since the end of the twentieth century, border disputes and re-drawing have not stopped. The Balkan wars in the 1990’s transformed the federal nation-state of Yugoslavia into a collection of republics, after a war with more than 100.000 deaths and millions of refugees. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe was accompanied by the creation of new republics (such as Ukraine, the Baltic countries, Central Asian republics and others) that were previously integrated into the Soviet Union, or the partition of a previously communist country, Czechoslovakia, into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. All these movements have changed the organization of sports and soccer in particular, with the creation of new national teams and new leagues. The recent invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s Russia shows that the current status-quo is far from stable. According to American historian Timothy Snyder (in his book “The Road to Unfreedom”), many of these secession movements are not unrelated and reports about a policy (by the current regime in Russia) of advocating separatism in all countries except Russia itself (the South from the US, Scotland from Britain, Catalonia from Spain, Crimea and the Donbas region from Ukraine, any member-state from the EU…).

The European Union is the result of an integration project that started after the Second World War, to bring peace to Europe through economic integration. Although the UK was not among the founding members, it joined in the 1970s, but decided to leave (in the so-called Brexit) the club in a referendum in 2016, to become the first country to exit, with the Republic of Ireland remaining one of the current 27 member-states. The internationalization of the English soccer Premier League is difficult to understand without the free movement of workers and capital in the EU Single Market. Exiting this single market implies that now players joining a British club must do so under a “points system,” by which only top players over 18 years old can join. Some commentators have predicted that this will make the Premier League weaker. In any event, Brexit does not imply English teams leaving the Champions League (which is open to European teams out of the EU). 

The campaign for Catalonia to secede from Spain accelerated in 2012, after the main (until then) dominant moderate nationalist party joined the pro-independence forces. In 2017, an illegal secession referendum was called by the regional government on the basis of a set of decisions by the nationalist dominated regional Parliament which declared the rejection of the Spanish Constitution. After this, a dozen pro-independence leaders were arrested and judged, and six left the country. The Spanish government temporarirly suspended regional self-rule for some months, to be restored in the spring of 2018 with a newly elected regional government also led by pro-independence forces. Those that went to jail were pardoned by the Spanish government in 2021. The prospect of a Catalan national team or a Catalan league was not strong enough to culminate this now decaying campaign.

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