What Paul the Octopus tells us about the World Cup….or why globalisation spells the slow death of FIFA’s treasured tournament.

July 15, 2010
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Global sports tournaments such as the Olympic Games and the football World Cup like to foster narratives of the meteoric rise of someone hitherto little known to global stardom. Yet, while footballers are occasionally known for their limited intellectual range and – when it comes to the moral conduct of their own private lives – occasional spinelessness, it would have taken some prophetic powers to foresee that the star of the World Cup was to be an invertebrate, one with as many, if better organised, legs as England’s back four– or to be precise not legs, but eight tentacles: Paul, the Weymouth-born octopus living in an aquarium in the German City of Oberhausen predicted the outcome of all eight World Cup games he was consulted on correctly.

Those with an inclination to stochastic will know that the chance of him predicting these eight games in a row correctly was 1 in 256 – a likelihood that does not require us to resort to the paranormal in the search for explanations of the accuracy of his predictions, considering we easily started off the World Cup with hundreds of animals (the homo sapiens kind included) being called upon to make such predictions. And if the proud parading of a rubber model of an octopus by the scorer of the only and decisive goal in the final, Andres Iniesta is anything to go by, Paul’s prediction had become somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy, too, further boosting the confidence of players having been predicted to be on the winning side.

What is more remarkable than the accuracy of Paul’s predictions, was the absence of compelling onfield stories and game play that allowed for Paul to become the major story of the World Cup. Paul is thus a fitting metaphor for the World Cup in the global television era in two senses: firstly, they are both kept in an artificial environment detached from their original context. For all the self-congratulation by FIFA officials of having hosted a World Cup in Africa for the first time, to most viewers, the only invasion of a sense of place and culture on the bland televisual stage of interchangeable football stadia was the Vuvuzela – one much maligned by television audiences outside South Africa – and the ever clichéd representations of local culture by media correspondents whose knowledge of South Africa perfectly resembled the tourist gaze in having arrived in the country only days, if at all weeks, before the tournament. FIFA itself kept the event in much of a vacuum from the local economy too, by making host countries’ acceptance of a tax bubble that exempts FIFA’s commercial activities from VAT and other taxes a precondition of awarding the tournament – leaving FIFA with a profit of more than a billion US Dollars and South Africa and its people with a deficit no smaller.

Secondly, Paul’s existence, like that of the World Cup, is grounded in spectacle, their apparent purpose being to be looked upon. Their attractiveness as an object is thus rooted in their extraordinariness. Yet is it’s the latter that seemed sorely missing from this year’s World Cup. Few will doubt that pre-tournament favourites Spain were deserving winners, yet scoring a meagre eight goals in seven games, Spain’s performance was tactically apt, yet anything but rousing. Indeed, the fact that the World Cup had to rely on a German team that had hardly been accused of providing particular flair to past tournaments for some of its most convincing attacking football reflects that, beyond all the hype, the 2010 World Cup delivered mostly football of a distinctly ordinary quality.

None of this is surprising. As football has entered a global era, the international structure of national teams no longer reflects the global spread of talent. The Bosman ruling by the European Court of Justice in 1995, the global televisual circulation of domestic leagues and continental club competitions and the emergence of a truly global labor market for professional footballers (and indeed other athletes) have transformed global professional football dramatically. Many of the world’s best footballers never make it to the World Cup finales, because they represent nations in which their talents are not matched by their fellow countrymen. Conversely, given the now global competition for places in the starting line ups of teams in Europe’s top leagues, almost every national team included players from lower divisions or players struggling to hold down a regular first team place at their respective clubs. A leading European clubs side, one suspects, would have easily marched through the competition – and indeed Spain’s success has been in many ways an extension of FC Barcelona’s recent successes.

In a global world, transnational club teams play football of a quality unmatched in international sides. The World Cup in turn has to rely on its nature as a media event, on hype and nationalistic hyperbole to attract its audiences. For now, it no doubt still succeeds in doing so – but the speed with which, for instance, the St. George’s crosses disappeared from cars on English roads following England’s second round exit, illustrates the inherently ephemeral nature of such spectacle as an increasingly hyperreal focal point of temporary jingoism– of an event as Jean Baudrillard (1993: 79-80) remarked two decades ago “so minimal” it “might well not need to take place at all – along with [its] maximal enlargement on screens”. As the row between fans in Germany and their national team in which some fans criticised the team for not holding another parade and street party in Berlin following their third place finish – whereas players felt they had little to celebrate – illustrates, audiences’ determination to celebrate (and drink) is now only loosely related to the competition: many German fans seem to feel that they did not want a lost football game to get in the way of a big street party.

In its ephemerality, the World Cup might still prosper long enough to support FIFA’s current leadership regime. Yet it has begun to become increasingly interchangeable with other forms of spectacle. With the end of the World Cup most professional football leagues around the world now embark on a six to eight week hiatus from the game; time to find different sources of entertainment – and to make that trip to the local sea life centre to visit the World Cup’s biggest star and his relatives.

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3 Responses to “ What Paul the Octopus tells us about the World Cup….or why globalisation spells the slow death of FIFA’s treasured tournament. ”

  1. Jonathan Gray on July 15, 2010 at 1:38 PM

    As you note, Cornel, it’s the oddity of a tournament which provides something less than the “dream teams” we expect (and get) from many other team sports. But here, I sense Chelsea, Man U, Barcelona, or Inter could have slaughtered and embarrassed most of the teams, posing the question, in crude economic terms, of where the “value added” in the arrangement was. I therefore found myself thinking up other, more interesting ways to make teams (what if historic rivals had to form teams together — Germany AND England form one team, Japan AND Korea? Or what if nationality was determined by where one played one’s club football [England might stand a chance this way!]? etc.). Maybe this is the masterful move of the European clubs’ marketing, making us all wish that the Premiership and so forth would start again quickly so we can see a better quality of game?

  2. Christopher Cwynar on July 15, 2010 at 5:34 PM

    This post makes a number of incisive points. From my perspective, the key one pertains to the quality of the action itself. With a few notable exceptions (Uruguay vs. Ghana comes to mind), the games never came close to meeting expectations that had been raised by months of excessive media coverage. Instead, the same media actors that had initially inflated the event were forced to turn to various diversions in order to keep the conversation going, hence the vuvuzela controversy and now Paul the Octopus. In my earlier Antenna post, I contended that the games would improve and that this would push all of the superficial ancillary stuff into the background. It was an optimistic assessment, and one that was not entirely warranted.

    With the emergence of the sports spectacle during this post-network era of non-stop sports coverage via the television and Internet, I have to think that the answer for sports fans lies with participation on a local level. The ephemerality and superficiality of this World Cup reminded me that I should be playing football, not watching it. In my case, this might mean finding a rec team to play on or a children’s team with which I might volunteer. As much as I loved the media spectacle of the World Cup during the moment, it left me feeling empty at its conclusion. That hollow feeling tells me that I need to re-consider the way that I relate to ‘sport’, and consider turning away from the sports spectacle.

  3. Michael Dwyer on July 17, 2010 at 10:21 AM

    I think there is some mythmaking going on regarding the superior quality of World Cup matches in days of yore. Total Football aside, the World Cup has always been more a celebration/spectacle than exhibition of exemplary performances of jogo bonito–let’s not forget that yawn-inducing Italy has won as many tournaments as the Samba Kings. The strain of travel made early World Cups often dour affairs, the amount of time Cruyff’s Barca spent together would have trumped the team cohesion of the vintage Dutch teams. So I don’t think the fact that Inter may have won the World Cup is anything new, nor is it a sign of the World Cup’s impending demise. I also don’t think there was an absence of compelling stories at the world cup–the re-emergence of Uruguay, the German youth movement, even the compelling implosion of the Bleus–there may have been an absence of compelling anglophile stories, but that’s another issue altogether.

    Was Spain boring? Hardly, and arguments based on their low number of goals miss the point of their impressive play–but if we take goals as the standard Inter would have been much much much worse, and your average Stoke-Bolton prem fixture would have been twice as bad. What sets the world cup apart is in its ubiquity (everybody watches, everybody cheers, everybody’s involved) and the participation (fans singing, meeting other fans, exchanging scarves, showcasing their soccer cultures to the world).