European game puts South America in shade
I have the impression I was part of a very small TV audience last Tuesday watching the South American Cup tie between Sport Ancash of Peru and Nublense of Chile.
It was afternoon local time, which meant that it coincided with the opening day of Europe's Champions League. Barcelona were in action, Chelsea were playing - and I suspect that all over South America, and perhaps even in Peru and Chile, more fans were interested in the progress of Messi and Lampard than anything Ancash and Nublense were getting up to.
Since I moved to Rio just over 14 years ago the relationship between South American supporters and European clubs has undergone a big change. In 1994 there were plenty of Deportivo La Coruna shirts around - it was a gesture of support for Bebeto, Brazil's World Cup winning striker, who was playing for the club.
There were lots of Barcelona shirts, paying tribute to his strike partner Romario. And it was common to see the red and black of Milan - because these are also the colours of local heroes Flamengo. Back then, wearing a European shirt was just another way that the fan identified himself with domestic matters, with his own club or national team idol.
That has all changed. Now the streets of Rio are full of Chelsea shirts, Manchester United shirts, Real Madrid shirts, and so on. I was in Armenia, small town Colombia, a few years back when I was astonished to see a huge Arsenal poster for sale in the street.
Over the last few years we have reached the point where many South American fans have built up a bond of affection for certain high profile European clubs - regardless of who plays for them. They once wore Barcelona shirts because of Romario, or Ronaldo, or Rivaldo or Ronaldinho.
They now wear Barcelona shirts because they follow the club's fortunes. This process has gone so far that a bond can develop without any local connection. Even before Scolari took over I have seen many Chelsea shirts wandering around - nothing to do with Beletti or Alex, everything to do with the fan associating himself with a big, successful team.
This, of course, is a consequence of the globalisation of football. And here, as in most areas, globalisation means concentration. With the field opened up for all-comers you get fewer, bigger banks using their economies of scale and expertise to get their hands on the world's capital. In the same way you get a restricted number of rich European clubs snapping up the most talented footballers from the four corners of the globe and competing for the major titles. It's the inevitable dynamic of football globalisation.
For the good of the game, it's probably just as well that football has also produced a counter-dynamic. Because if at club level the process of globalisation opens up the gaps between the giants and the rest, in the international game the reverse is true.
Take Paraguay, for example. Last week I wrote about their remarkable progress. An impoverished country with a small population, they are well on course to make it to their fourth consecutive World Cup. After eight rounds of the current qualification campaign, they are four points clear of Brazil and Argentina.
Their squad of 25 for the recent matches contained just four players still based in Paraguay, only one of whom made the starting line up. Of the rest, seven are in major European leagues, nine are in Mexico, and the others are elsewhere in South America, especially Argentina.
The global market in footballers has enabled Paraguayans to go abroad to bigger, more competitive leagues, pick up confidence and experience and then bring all of that back to be used in the service of the national team.
Last week one of the comments left on my blog was a complaint about the subject matter. I was accused of "scraping the barrel" because "who cares about Paraguay?"
We could simply dismiss the thoughts of such a blinkered soul. Or we could decide that it is sadly inevitable that some people will think like this in the era of football globalisation.
Given the attention afforded to the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United, it is hardly surprising that the less imaginative might feel that an article on any other subject is a waste of their time.
International football is here to show that it is not so. Because what is true of Paraguay also applies to plenty of other nations - especially in Africa.
The continent prepares to stage its first World Cup with a number of countries entitled to think they can do well on home soil - in part because of the experience their players have acquired in Europe. South Africa 2010 promises to be a truly fascinating World Cup - one that might remind some people that football does not only belong to a handful of giant clubs in Europe's Champions League.
PS If anyone's interested, Sport Ancash beat Nublense 4-0 to qualify for the next round, their veteran playmaker 'Kukin' Flores gave a reminder that he has the talent to have achieved much more in the game, and the Ancash players have had to threaten strike action in protest at not being paid for a couple of months. It's a long way from the Champions League.
I've rambled on this week and left no space for it, but after the campaign on last week's blog we'll bring the questions back. So we'll try it as follows; for reactions to this article and any relating debate, please use the comments space below - that, after all, is the point of a blog. Questions on other topics to email@example.com, and I'll pick out a couple per week.