Thursday, June 24, 2010

How to Feel Slightly Less Guilty about Watching This Year's World Cup--Some Global Learning Opportunities

It is hard to avoid the World Cup—now building quite nicely to its inevitable climax. We are now looking at many more days when people in every (at least of the last 16 countries) sit and more often stand around large TV screens and yell like mad. Unlike the Olympics there is no pretense about the World Cup that this is anything but international warfare—a match of nations against one another to see who is really top. Nor is the world cup script subtle--the national anthems of the two teams play at the beginning of the match and the players make efforts to mouth the words as if they are the embodiment of the national spirit and then there are the fans who have made the often thousands of mile journey and sport their teams' national colors as if they were going into battle themselves. Despite this excess of nationalism there are some ways that with each World Cup that goes by we learn some new positive things about other cultures even if trivial such as admiring the way a country plays, the way various supporters dress and the passion they show for the game. This year perhaps because there has been so much coverage, television viewers have been treated to some serious documentaries concerning the role of soccer in various countries’ histories, a focus on South African’s love for soccer throughout the struggle against the Apartheid regime or a focus on some of the leading international players.

Another international focal point this year has been the buzz –the vuvuzela. Anne Applebaum writing for the Washington Post wrote an interesting column the other day when she described the different reactions around the world to this loud and for most people annoying sound.

“..for the Germans, the vuvuzela creates a moral problem. Some angrily demand a ban. Others call the plastic horns "traditional instruments of South African football," and oppose a ban, on the grounds that this would demonstrate unacceptably Eurocentric disdain for other cultures. The center-right Die Welt denounced "the intolerance of those who are annoyed by the vuvuzela" and instructed its readers to accept that "vuvuzelas belong to South African football like battle songs belong to German games." The center-left Die Tageszeitung bluntly told its readers to "turn the sound down" on their televisions if they can't accept this foreign custom. ..In France, by contrast, the vuvuzela presents an aesthetic problem: If you can't ban them, then integrate them into the artistic canon. Le Monde suggests treating this plastic horn as a genuine instrument, even providing its online readers with links to vuvuzela works composed by one Pedro Espi-Sanchis ("Pedro the Musicman"), a musicologist, musician and Spanish teacher resident in Cape Town. The newspaper Liberation last week absorbed the term into its art criticism, too, condemning a particularly noisy set of installations as "vuvuzelas de l'art contemporain" ("vuvuzelas of contemporary art"). For the South Koreans, the vuvuzela presents complex issues of etiquette. One Korean columnist feared an outright ban would be rude to the host country. But perhaps other "traditional" instruments might be substituted? "Sometimes when percussionists in the stadium are flashed up on the television screen, I ardently wish to hear the sound they make," he wrote, and then made an attempt at gentle persuasion: "I sincerely hope our African friends will put down the horns and take up other instruments." If persuasion should fail, however, "one can find solace in the fact that the games will be adjourned in three weeks."

What Applebaum describes here is the way cultures work---they basically thrive and grow as a result of unplanned cultural contact –this dynamic was as true in Elizabethan England as it came into contact with the New world as it was in the US’s melding of African and European cultural traditions. In today’s Internet fueled world the reaction and response to other cultures is much accelerated and when global events such as the World Cup take place we can expect more unpredictable cultural and as Appelbaum smartly notes, economic changes.

“the Chinese have been manufacturing the noise-makers like crazy. A million vuvuzelas have already been shipped from Zhejiang and Guangdong to South Africa, and more are on their way to the rest of the world. The Guangda Toy Factory in Yiwu has already raised its production to 20,000 per day, according to one report, and the owner says she will continue to produce them "as long as there is market demand."

Today everyone is interested in building global brands with products--that have appeal in every market --not just a domestic one. As soccer continues its relentless march to becoming a world sport--(the US one of the last bastions of resistance) it is likely to be the vehicle for more globalizing trends. Something to think about as you watch the remainder of the matches left in this enthralling World Cup tournament.