Which 08 Candidate Gets the Power of Soccer?

No, this isn’t a pop quiz. It’s the second in my rather faltering series of thoughts on “globalization from the road,” this time from Kerala, in South India. As you know, NDN is keen on soccer, having run some tremendous campaigns using the sport to connect with the hispanic committee. But, that isn't all that the beautiful game has to teach the Democratic presidential hopefuls.

I haven’t actually read Frank Foer’s book on soccer and globalization. I should have, but there you go. Everyone says it is very good, and I apologise in advance if I’m making the same points he does. But I have been ceaselessly struck on my travels by the power of soccer. And not just any type of soccer, neither. It doesn’t matter if it is Malaysian billboard or Thailand metro adverts; Singaporean cable or New Zealand radio; or even the sports pages of cricket crazy India. The world is watching not any old soccer; the world is watching English Soccer. If I were to guesstimate, I would say that the English Premiership has roughly 90% market share in these fast-growing Asian markets, with Spain somewhere around 10%, and the rest absolutely nowhere. That isn't just a result. Its a drubbing.

Now, before you think “smarmy brit bragging about his country’s only half decent export”, there is a political point to this. And it is wonderfully encapsulated in this quote found in Niall Fergusons book Empire, about the decline of British imperial power. Ferguson quotes Sir Richard Turnbull, the penultimate governor of the British protectorate of Aden (now Yemen, who said, rather perceptively, that:

“When the British Empire finally sinks beneath the waves it will leave only two monuments: the game of Association Football, and the expression “f*ck off.”

Turnbull didn’t know how right he was. Soccer is now a non-trivial source of Britain’s soft power infrastructure. People pay attention to the UK, visit the UK, send money to the UK, and even like the UK because of soccer.  And it seems to me that the Democratic candidate who can best articulate similar ways in which America can once again use its considerable cultural, artistic and even sporting arsenal to win friends in Asia, will really be onto a trick.

Sure: there are many, many hard aspects of geo-politics that can’t be solved by a decent PR campaign, a charm offensive or a baseball tour. But while travelling through Asia I have been very struck that while people – “the man on the street” - admires America, and wants to live in America, no one actually likes America. Machiavelli said words to the effect it was better to be feared than to be liked. But for America, it would be nice to be both. And in achieving that there is much the three major candidates can learn about America's potential place in the world from the success of an English game with 22 men on a grass field, being watched by billions around the world.