By Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim

The 21st instalment of the FIFA World Cup took place in Russia from 14 June to 15 July. As at every tournament since its inauguration in 1930, what makes it spectacular is the array of international talents it parades – from established superstars to stars unveiled as the tournament progresses.

Massive following

The World Cup has a massive following, second only to the Olympics. It is broadcasted to every continent and followed by millions across the globe. At the final whistle of the 2018 World Cup, there were 187 million viewers from across 21 territories who watched the match on television, according to Eurodata TV Worldwide. Apart from television, a record number of fans tuned in to the games via a variety of devices. Data published after the four quarterfinals by video analytics company Conviva found that, worldwide, there was an average of 64.6 minutes of viewing time streamed per unique viewer not watching on traditional television.

Ups and downs of Broadcasting in Singapore

In Singapore, there was public disquiet in 2014 when delays in securing a deal to broadcast World Cup 2014 in Brazil threatened a replay of the fiasco of the 2010 edition when a last-minute deal jacked up prices. Relief greeted Singaporeans as the 2018 version was spared such debacle.

In addition to the People’s Association (PA) screening all 64 matches live for free at community clubs (CCs) around Singapore, there were nine key matches on free-to-air television with Mediacorp, five more than in previous years. Local companies Singtel, StarHub and Mediacorp retained the same rates offered four years ago, the first time there is no price hike for World Cup subscription in Singapore.

However, these positive developments fell short of what is achieved in other countries, like neighbouring Malaysia, which screened 41 matches, 27 of them live and 14 delayed. It managed to secure sponsors to absorb part of the costs. In addition to this, Malaysia has the advantage of spreading taxpayers’ share of broadcast costs over a larger population, making per capita costs substantially lower than Singapore’s.

Given the high costs involved in securing the rights to broadcast World Cup matches, and considering that costs will continue to rise (it rose dramatically from S$6.3 million in 2006 to an estimated S$25 million in 2014), why should such costs be borne for what is essentially a game, let alone screen more games live on free-to-air television channels?

Entertainment quality

For football enthusiasts, the justification for broadcasting World Cup matches is patently obvious.

It is a tournament featured only once in four years, which showcases the finest players in the world from all continents. An international tournament like the World Cup is probably one of the few events when players, motivated by patriotism and cheered by compatriots who have made the long journey to World Cup venues, play above themselves for national and personal glory.

Even countries of lesser footballing stature are hardly there for a vacation. They have often risen to the occasion, some achieving stunning upsets against fancied teams. South Korea’s 2-0 defeat of then-defending champions Germany in the recent tournament is a case in point.

Given that the World Cup is a marketplace for top clubs, European ones in particular, it presents Asian, African and South American players with the opportunity to secure lucrative contracts.

 Hence, from an entertainment point of view, the quality inherent in the World Cup justifies the million-dollar expenditure by government in collaboration with broadcasters and sponsors.

World Cup in HDB heartlands

Perhaps, more compelling is the social aspect of the World Cup. While it is a game watched by people from across the social hierarchy, it has a special appeal to those from the lower strata, from which Singapore’s iconic footballers, the likes of the late Dollah Kassim and Fandi Ahmad, emerged. Dollah grew up in a kampung in Owen Road at Farrer Park, a humble locality which was once Singapore’s ‘football hub’. Fandi, Singapore’s “favourite football son”, once lived in the hospital attendant’s quarters at Woodbridge Hospital where his father worked.

Reminiscing Singapore’s yesteryears, many males would recall growing up playing football, not only at open grassy areas between HDB blocks and parks but also the unlikeliest of places: void decks, basketball and badminton courts and even lift landings long before futsal pitches were available.

While passion for playing the game may have somewhat waned among the younger generations in the gadget era, enthusiasm for it in the HDB heartlands is still evident, with authorities having to resort to various measures to prevent it from being played in certain areas, most notably the void decks. The Straits Times reported in 2016 that railings were erected to prevent “ball games”, very likely football.

A possible reason for its popularity among those of lower socioeconomic backgrounds is the less restrictive nature of playing the game: no costly equipment or facility is required. All it takes is an open space and for one among friends or acquaintances to have a ball or everyone chipping in to purchase one. Their affinity for football is thus developed. The ardency with which they follow football matches on television and football news extends well into adulthood and even advanced age. Football thus has a special place among them and an added reason for major tournaments like the World Cup to be made accessible to them.

The politics of World Cup

The World Cup has had its share of political and social issues, ranging from controversies to inspirations, thus dishing out many insights that serve as food for thought. The France-Croatia final of 2018 has plenty to offer.

France had 14 players of African ancestry in its 23-man squad in 2018. When it won the trophy, a flurry of comments linking Africa to the victory began circulating, one of which is by The Daily Show host, South African Trevor Noah, congratulating Africa, albeit jokingly, on winning the World Cup. It earned him a rebuke from France’s ambassador to the US, Gerard Araud.

The crux of the matter is identity. Noah subscribes to the idea of an individual having multiple identities, which people indeed have: national, ethnic, community, religious faith, class, country of origin etc. He saw nothing wrong in including the players’ African identity but it was rebutted by Araud, arguing that France does not recognise hyphenated identities. Contrary to what it may seem, his stance was just as inclusive. He asserted that calling the French team African, even in jest, legitimises the ideology that whiteness is the only definition of being French and is akin to denying the “Frenchness” of the Africans in the team.

As was apparent, which of one’s identities should be thrust to the forefront and celebrated, given the context, is a delicate question. If the China-born players and coaching staff of Singapore’s national table tennis team were to celebrate their Chinese roots after a major victory or if a commentator says it is a win for China too, this is likely to touch a raw nerve.

Overcoming adversity

If one was to strip the French and Croatian line-ups in the 2018 final of their nationalities and ethnicity and place them in juxtaposition, two factors that will stand out immediately are class and adversity.

Many of the French players have humble beginnings, hailing from poorer suburbs and satellite towns around Paris, which constituted a talent pool for French football. Bondy is one such commune from which Kylian Mbappe, the 19-year old sensation who won the best young player award, hails from. It is located in the north-eastern suburbs of Paris, home to large, working-class, non-white communities often fraught with riots and social strife and associated with being a breeding ground for crime and terrorism.

Croatia was embroiled in a war for independence between 1991 and 1995, which killed 20,000 and caused about 500,000 refugees and displaced persons. Most of the Croatian players grew up in this environment of tension and conflict during and in the immediate aftermath of the war. Golden Ball winner Luka Modrić is one of those whose family had to live through periods of displacement and poverty.

Both finalists share stories of triumph against adversity, perhaps more so in the case of the Croatians.

Talent development

Croatia’s accomplishment in 2018 provides an interesting perspective. Its case is not one of an underdog pulling off a gigantic feat as Denmark and Greece did in UEFA Euro 1992 and 2004 respectively. Croatia outplayed major opponents along the way, including thrashing Lionel Messi-led Argentina 3-0, and arguably did so too against France, dominating the game but conceding an own goal and a disputed penalty.

It was long believed that, to groom players who can compete on the global stage, there needs to be a robust development programme and infrastructure that nurture the young from school to feeder teams for top clubs and country. France has a comprehensive one but Croatia does not.

With a population of a mere four million, even smaller than Singapore’s, and few competition-standard stadiums, Croatia still managed to produce players among the 23 in its 2018 World Cup squad who play for top clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Liverpool, Juventus and Inter Milan, let alone feature in the final.

It brings to mind Singapore’s Goal 2010: to be in the 2010 World Cup tournament. It was mooted by then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in 1998, inspired by France’s first World Cup victory that year. The approach, in his view, was to review the immigration criteria, bring in top football talent and make them citizens. During his National Day Rally Speech 1998, he cited man of the match and two-goal hero Zinedine Zidane’s Algerian descent and the rest of the French team, more than half of whom he said “did not look French”, to justify his belief.

Twenty years later, the goal remains an elusive dream as Singapore’s FIFA rankings slipped 88 places from 81 in 1998 to 169 in 2018, hitting its lowest the year before at 172. Apparently, the Foreign Talent Scheme failed to work its magic on Singapore football as it did for table tennis.

As Araud in his dispute with Noah pointed out, the French African legion, except for two, were born, educated and taught football in France and so was Marseille-born Zidane, a point Mr Goh might have missed.  Hence, a good system to nurture talent remains essential and local hopefuls be factored in ambitious goals like Goal 2010, as opposed to merely recruiting foreign talents as Mr Goh believed.

Croatia’s achievement suggests that other factors are important too. It is hard to make out what the x-factor in Croatia’s success is but the harsh childhood that many of its players went through points to strength of character and a will to succeed.

Singapore may wish to try a combination of both – a good system and character building – to revive its World Cup dream.

Worthwhile investment

The World Cup is not about spending millions to watch 22 men chasing after a ball. It is special not only in terms of entertainment but also the life it brings to people – breaking down of social barriers, taking a breather from a stressful lifestyle and bringing families and friends together. It holds lessons on inclusivity amid diversity and resilience in the face of adversity. In fact, there are even episodes in the World Cup that are intellectually stimulating, such as debate on identity that Noah and Araud were embroiled in.

Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim is a Researcher / Projects Coordinator with the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA), the research subsidiary of the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP). The views expressed in the article are his own.

This commentary was also published in The Karyawan, October 2018, Volume 13, Issue 4.

Photo Source: The Karyawan