Sunday, July 19, 2009

Let’s talk soccer: A new Union, striking workers and the World Cup

There are only four sporting events I will watch without coercion: the World Series, the summer and winter Olympics, and the World Cup.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not about expertise in any of the sports involved. I haven’t engaged in many summer or winter Olympic sports – only cross country skiing, swimming and equitation – and never at a level that would approach competitive (or in the case of skiing, even proficient). And while I know the rudiments of baseball and soccer, I’m blind to the finer points of both games. In the latter case, I can’t even credibly speak about the sport in English because all the terminology resides in my memory banks in Spanish….

So it takes some nerve on my part to be writing this post at all.

But there can be something really compelling about sporting events of this magnitude – and that’s what gets me every time.

So, let’s talk fútbol.

The World Cup will take place in June 2010 in South Africa – with inaugural games slated for stadiums in Johannesburg and Cape Town – and most of the world will be watching. Netherlands is in, as are Australia, Japan, the two Koreas, and, of course, the host site, South Africa. Other berths are still up in the air, with teams at different stages of the qualifiers according to region.

Like all host sites in advance of World Cup stints, South Africa is in the throes of nationwide stadium and transportation infrastructure building. Not without hitch. The photos that accompany this post are by Catholic Standard & Times freelancer Kevin Cook, who is currently in South Africa. They were taken July 8 in Soweto’s Soccer City, one of 35 major sites that saw 70,000 construction workers go on strike that day. (Click here to see more photos and to read about Cook’s experiences in South Africa.)

According to media reports, the construction workers’ demands include higher minimum wage, maternity leave, and annual bonuses (Read news report here).

It is interesting to me (I am an editor of a Catholic newspaper, after all) that one day before the workers went on strike, Pope Benedict XVI’s social justice encyclical “Charity in Truth” was released. In it, the pontiff reaffirms the role of labor unions in the pursuit of economic justice for their communities. According to Cook’s blog, the striking workers are asking for a 10-15 percent raise in their current wages, “2,000 Rand a month – roughly 250 US dollars.” Which seems shockingly low to me from a U.S. wage perspective. (I hope any of my readers who know more about the wage structure in South Africa will comment, or send me an e-mail.)

In any case, South African officials are worried that if the strike continues, the venues in South Africa will not be ready in time for World Cup play.

Not that any of this is generating much press here. Despite our obsession with sports and the fact that the U.S. national soccer team is consistently a contender within its North, Central America and Caribbean group, by some inexplicable quirk soccer has never become the phenomenon here that it is in the rest of the world.

Still, in May it was announced that Philadelphia will have a new professional soccer team – the Philadelphia Union – starting in 2010. The team will play its home matches at a new 18,000+ seat stadium in Chester, Pa. – approximately 13 miles from downtown Philadelphia.

A brave proposition. Attendance was good the year the U.S. hosted the World Cup – but our professional soccer franchises don’t draw great crowds. Not even after importing megastar David Beckham.

Perhaps the timing of the Union’s first season will help – particularly if the U.S. national team qualifies and performs well during the World Cup.

It is fitting that the Union’s stadium will be in Chester rather than some swankier location. Soccer is, at its foundation, an incredibly egalitarian sport – stripped down to a ball and skill and no more. You can play it as spectacularly on the streets of a shantytown as you can on a groomed pitch. As a sport, it is beloved equally by the most educated and the least; those with enough money to own teams and those with barely enough to pay for the batteries in the radios on which they listen to the matches. I hope the Union’s stadium ticket prices reflect that reality. I hope, too, that many of our region’s new immigrants come to feel that the Union is their hometown team.

It’s all about connection. The possibility of connection, anyway, and soccer comes as close to being a global conductor as anything in our fractured world.

Okay, that might be a little exaggerated – but only a little.

Mention Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Mueller, Jairzinho, Rivelino or Giorgio Chinaglia to almost anyone of a certain generation – outside of the U.S. – and you’ll have instant conversation. Mention Bebeto or Zinedine Zidane and you’ll have the younger generation chiming in. Talk about Italy’s reemergence at the last World Cup, or the year Turkey and Korea placed third and fourth, or the year Cameroon’s made its historic run ….

It can turn ugly, of course – there have been riots at soccer matches, nasty jingoism, and even a fútbol-instigated war – but at its best, the sport is a language spoken readily by most of the world, no translators needed.

Commonality of experience. A common narrative. The evolution of personalities and Cinderella stories watched from every corner of the earth at once.
Pretty amazing.

(Okay, I’m stopping now. Before I get too terrified at the fact I just wrote over 900 words about a sport …).

Click here to go to the World Cup web site; here to read about the Philadelphia Union, and here to link to the Pope's social justice encyclical.

Photos of Soweto Soccer City workers striking ©Kevin Cook. Used by permission.


  1. Links are fixed on this post now.

  2. And in those over nine hundred words you mentioned like nine hundred topics that have to do with the way futbol affects millions of people's lives. I love this sport, so I could talk about many things, but I will just comment on some...
    1- Futbol as a sport is all the nice things you say, when business starts to play it turns nasty.
    2- I am concerned about one thing about South Africa: security. I've been there and I fell in love with the country and the people... but it's just way too dangerous. I can't imagine foreigners walking down the streets of Johannesburg or Cape Town at night after a match... So I wonder whose interest is being taken into account here to have the World Cup there? This makes me think of point #1.
    3- You forgot to mention Maradona and Pele! :)
    4- Don't even go to the first match of the year Cameroon made its historic run...Cant' take it!;)


Comment on this post: