Would a basketball World Cup expose an ugly America?

Internationalizing basketball could inject soccer-style hooliganism into the sport

By David Goldblatt

In the build-up to the London Olympics, NBA commissioner David Stern has been floating the idea that next time around, in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, every player on the United States’ basketball team should be under the age of 23.

Some of the NBA’s owners, perpetually concerned about their stars getting injured, are sympathetic. But that doesn’t seem to be at the heart of Stern’s thinking. More likely, a younger U.S. Olympic squad composed of lesser-known players would help advance another NBA plan: creating a standalone global basketball tournament akin to soccer’s World Cup. [Editor’s note: there is a basketball World Championship that rebranded itself the Basketball World Cup in 2010, but it has not had the same prominence for the U.S. as the Olympics.]

Stern may be on to something. There is a global audience for basketball that includes North America, Brazil, China and Southern Europe. Separated from the Olympics, a basketball World Cup could keep all the money it generated for itself.

Dwight Howard, left, and Kobe Bryant of the U.S. basketball team test the authenticity of their gold medals in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. (Reuters/Sergio Perez)

On the other hand, there is such a huge imbalance in the quality of international basketball, a global tournament might backfire and diminish fans’ interest. At the London Olympics, only Spain and perhaps Argentina and Brazil are plausible competitors to the U.S. That kind of hegemony has never been achieved in another sport – even Brazil’s mighty soccer squad.

However, if there were a broader spread of global talent and a prospect of more competitive matches at a basketball world cup, I wonder whether it could ever acquire the status, intensity and income of its equivalent in soccer. I’m doubtful not because soccer is in any sense a better or more exciting game, but because soccer has become tightly and consistently bound to the way nations see themselves and others in a way that has never occurred in basketball.

Sporting nationalism

Of course, on a number of notable occasions, the Olympic basketball tournament has provided stirring moments in America’s national narrative. The controversial last-second loss to the Soviets in 1972 confirmed the communist threat. The all-conquering Dream Team of Barcelona in 1992 was an athletic footnote to America and a triumph for global capitalism in the recently concluded Cold War.

But, for the most part, the thirteen Olympic gold medals that Team USA has won in men’s basketball have been simple sporting triumphs and pleasures rather than grand historical milestones or lightning rods for wider debates about the health of the nation.

If Stern and the NBA would like more basketball-inspired patriotism, then they should take a long, hard look at Euro 2012 — the European soccer championships being held in Ukraine and Poland. They’ll find that the connections between sport and national identity are not always comfortable.

For both of the hosts, Euro 2012 has been a key moment in their post-communist histories.  As the first nations from Eastern Europe to stage the competition, the event is like a coming-out parade. But, for both, it has been a mixed experience. Ukrainian national politics, in particular, has been revealed as corrupt and authoritarian, and Ukrainia’s racism and ultra-nationalism have been on very public display, as has Poland’s racism.

Croatia’s football association has been fined for their supporters’ racist chants. Russia certainly has its share of ultra-nationalists who made their violent presence felt in Warsaw on Russian Independence Day, which coincidentally was the day their team played Poland.

State of the nation

The idea that the state of the national team and the state of the nation were linked was firmly established in Greek popular culture back in 2004. At the very peak of Greece’s illusory debt-fueled boom, the team sneaked through and, against all the odds, won the championships.

This time around, Euro 2012 has proved an alluring distraction from the unwavering misery of Greece’s economic and social crisis. Once again, the country crept through to the quarter-finals, only to face their nemesis.  Germany’s 4-2 comprehensive victory meant that, for Greece, football depressingly confirmed, rather than overturned, the real balance of power.

The German dilemma

At the 2006 World Cup, Germans went public with their nationalism in a way that until then had been deemed politically impermissible, because of their Nazi past. The Germans, signaling a new era, welcomed foreigners as they waved flags and beamed with national pride in a genuine party atmosphere that pervaded the country throughout the event. Six years on, Germans seem to be even bigger football patriots as millions take to the streets in German cities to watch the games on big screens.

Yet Germany is still not a nation at ease with itself. In response to the huge crowds of Euro 2012, the German newspaper Die Zeit ran a headline, “My dangerous love for Germany,” on a story that warned about the pitfalls of national pride. In a country that is wrestling with ambivalence over its inevitable responsibilities as Europe’s leading power, the championship has exposed the continuing ambiguities of German nationalism.

Maybe Stern and the NBA would like to initiate more national soul-searching in America? Maybe they would like a more global stage for basketball to tell national and political stories? Either way, they should be careful what they wish for.