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Jacques Attali Headshot

The Geopolitics of Soccer

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US WORLD CUP
RAPHAEL ALVES via Getty Images
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In this troubled world, the 20th FIFA World Cup final tournament could make some forget the massacres (in Iraq, in Syria, in Afghanistan and in Ukraine), unemployment (in France and many other countries around the world), hunger (with more than one billion men, women and children going to bed hungry), the climate crisis happening around the world, and the loss of the meaning of life for nearly all human beings.

Indeed, its staging full of surprises (particularly for those who confuse forecasting the future with the extrapolation of past trends) says a lot about the current state of our world, and provides lessons on what one can expect from it and how to move about it.

First, on soccer itself it reminds us that no national team can ever be in irreversible decline (as in the case of France with respect to the French national soccer team); that no other team is an eternal power either (as in the case of Spain and England); that a youthful line-up is always in a better position than another, that would place excessive reliance on former soccer glories (as the case of Ghana has shown in contrast with Spain); that creating a good environment, comprising charismatic pedagogues, is an important element of a successful team (as the Germans are showing); and that fans are an essential ingredient of a team's success, through the energy they bring, like the Argentinians and the Brazilians; that a team able to attract and retain, top-level players coming from the poorest neighborhoods, or from other countries, is more promising than another as exemplified by France; that no totalitarian regime can durably keep a top-class soccer team, as evidenced by the absence in Brazil of most of the world's dictatorships, while those that qualified, by the FIFA's diplomatic mysteries, such as Iran, are performing poorly; that dazzling teams are springing up from neglected regions of the world, with their vitality all the more assured for the ones that have become democracies, and the ones enjoying a civil society and admiration with a good level. (This is perfectly clear here in the case of Latin America and for one of the only democratic countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Ghana); finally, that new technologies, particularly cloud computing and big data, are changing the face of soccer, allowing for hyper-surveillance of opposing teams, in order to know everything about their likely behaviors, player by player, and develop strategies, as the German team is currently experimenting with these.

If these conclusions prove to be accurate, France and the United States should be, in time, and for a long time to come, the world's greatest soccer nations.

And if one wishes to extrapolate, the lessons learnt have been clearly identified: No nation can ever be in irreversible decline. It will be enough in order to get a country back on its feet to give their rightful place to young people, not hesitate to entrust them with responsibilities, ensure equal opportunities for different social groups; attract top international talent; use new technologies, without fear of turning people's habits, that go back many generations, upside down. Finally, entrust the most capable and charismatic elders with the creation of social ties, confidence, enthusiasm, will to vanquish and a project for the country.

According to those criteria, France is the most promising country in Europe, if it is ready to dare new ways, entrust action plans and decision-making to young people, reshape its political class, remain more welcoming to foreigners than its neighbors.

Unless one day, in keeping with the logic of market globalization, nations become meaningless and that no longer compete, in a sport reduced to a pure spectacle and business, brand teams, with no relationship with a city or a country; forgetting the values of sport.

In the face of such promises and threats, it makes no sense to be optimistic or pessimistic: We are not spectators of the world in motion, but players. Only spectators may be content with being optimistic or pessimistic. As for players, they are neither the one nor the other at all times. They play.

j@attali.com