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