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Football and 'reservations'

By Rajeev Srinivasan
July 10, 2006 17:12 IST
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The biggest spectacle in sports is over and Italy has won the World Cup. Even though I prefer American 'football', I do enjoy the fluid, unbroken movements and the glorious uncertainty of 'soccer', and I too was heartbroken at the early exit of my sentimental favourites, Brazil. I would have preferred Germany or France, not Italy.

But I found something quite curious in this year's World Cup: if you look at the semi-finalists, you could quite fairly call it, instead, the Imperialists' Cup. For the warring teams were from Germany, Italy, France and Portugal, all keen colonialists.

Portuguese depredations are legendary -- their Inquisition in Goa was grossly inhuman; the Italians were no slouches in Abyssinia; the Germans were a little late to the game, but had no problem oppressing 'inferior' non-whites; and France was brutal in Algeria and in its Pacific islands.

Normally there would be a couple of Latin American teams late in the fray that one could consider colonised rather than colonisers, although it is true that in Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Uruguay, etc the invading whites have certainly massacred their share of the natives, and in all of those countries, the more white blood you have, the better off you are, economically, socially, etc.

So why do you always find the same usual suspects in the late stages of the World Cup? Why is it so dominated by rich Western European nations and Latin Americans? Even the formidable Eastern European teams of yore -- I remember the spectacular Lev Yashin of the Soviet Union -- are no longer so viable. As for a team from Asia or Africa ever reaching the finals, those days are far off, even though every Cup sees a flash in the pan from some African nation.

Incidentally, the players themselves are not necessarily natives of Western Europe, but are often gladiators -- or mercenaries -- from other places. The number of Latin American, African and Arab players in the European teams is high; clearly talented individuals are moving where there is money to be made. And obviously that is very big money.

That is the crux of the matter, too: apart from being a glorious spectator sport, there is also a lot of money in football. In a way, it is an example of globalised, unfettered capitalism. The money in football comes from Western European fans and firms, and so those teams win all the time. They even fix the rules to favour their own, as has happened in the case of field hockey. For instance, why are the rules such that there are a few 'reserved' slots for Asia and Africa, and many reserved slots for Europe?

Why this doesn't happen in cricket, I don't quite know. All the money in cricket comes from Indian fans and companies, so theoretically the best teams should always be from India. I have a general idea why this doesn't happen. In the best traditions of its dirigiste* economics, India 'enjoys' the worst aspects of both capitalism and socialism: Indians pay a lot for cricket, yet get a mediocre team. If the rules were amended to allow free movement of foreigners into the Indian cricket team, it may improve.

Nevertheless, it may well be that completely unfettered capitalism is not the right answer for football. Consider the various American sports empires: baseball, basketball, ice hockey and American 'football'. Of these, the best-run, the most profitable, and the one that has the most enthusiastic fans is the National Football League. It is consistently better-run, and you seldom have these crippling strikes that affect the other sports.

What is the secret of the NFL's success? Oddly enough, it is a little regulation and a determination to create a level playing field. If the league were strictly laissez-faire**, the chances are that the major media markets of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Seattle, etc will always have the best teams, because a large fraction of the money comes from the sale of television rights, and besides, the larger metropolitan areas simply have more fans, so they can afford to pay their stars big money. This is roughly what happens in baseball, basketball, and ice hockey: there are 'dynasties' which seem impregnable. Which means a small-town fan can never hope for his team to be on top.

But the NFL is different: it distributes the television money among all its franchises, so that even a team in a smaller city shares in the largesse from New York and Los Angeles. It also deliberately handicaps today's best teams by giving them lower draft picks for future recruits; and there are strict salary caps that teams may not exceed. As a result, there is far more egalitarianism, and dynasties such as the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys can only dominate for short periods.

Thus even small-town fans, say in Green Bay, Wisconsin, know that there is a non-zero chance of their team making it to the Super Bowl, and that every team will eventually have a fair shot at being a powerhouse. Thus, in effect, the NFL has created a level playing field in football.

This is one of those remarkable exceptions to the rule: regulations are actually working to make the sport more efficient and equitable. In many ways, FIFA can learn quite a bit from the NFL's unmistakable success and maybe implement some of their policies.

It is also of interest to those in India to study how the NFL has created a 'reservation' mechanism of sorts; one that is reasonable and sensible. How this has led to the success of the league is an object lesson in how moderate levels of reservations can actually lead to overall efficiency and are in fact preferable to the no-holds-barred pursuit of an elusive quantity called 'merit'. Giving a helping hand to the disadvantaged is not obviously a losing strategy.

Comments welcome at my blog

*According to the Merriam Webster dictionary: Dirigiste: Economic planning and control by the State.

**According to the Merriam Webster dictionary: Laissez-faire: a doctrine opposing governmental interference in economic affairs beyond the minimum necessary for the maintenance of peace and property rights.

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Rajeev Srinivasan