Illustration: two finder tips touch in front of a globe

An Expanded Space for Communication

Sport is much more easily and naturally "borderless" than other social activities. Major events in international football, basketball, tennis, golf and triathlon are excellent illustrations of the phenomenon of the dissolution of borders.

The current refugee crisis may be manifesting the opposite trend, but over recent decades national borders have lost their significance, or to be more precise, they have changed in nature. The dissolution of borders throws into question the use of the nation state as the ultimate unit of analysis for modern political thought and action.

We are now in need of additional global governance mechanisms. Even people who never travel to far-flung destinations for business or pleasure still have an unprecedented connection to the rest of the world: via their televisions – perhaps by watching a major sporting event – the internet or in the workplace. A consequence of the dissolution of borders is that national cultures no longer provide the undisputed foundation and substance of the political feelings of ‘us’ that are at the root of most nations’ collective identity. 

A young man holds a sign reading "Black Lives Matter" during the annual CSD Pride Parade in Cologne, Germany, July 20, 2022, attended by one million people this year.
Cultural communities also span the globe, as decentralised movements, as an unofficial, heterodox, self-justifying civil society, picture: Nur Photo / Ying Tang, picture alliance.

Culturally mixed or hybrid entities are gaining significance in a global context and new, unexpected phenomena are springing up in transnational interstices. Businesses have also lost their distinct borders; with their blurred, shifting edges they are now more like magnetic fields or clouds. Transnational corporations have emerged – conglomerates that are simultaneously active in many countries and that go far beyond the traditional dealings between parent companies and foreign subsidiaries. The transnational nature of such relationships does not revolve around the bilateral or international trading that has been the norm for so long.

Now a space for business and culture has emerged that is free from national considerations and where nationality in terms of citizenship is losing significance. Today, the reference system for such operations is most definitely global society, even if mobility in today’s global market is still less widespread than is theoretically possible. So globalisation is not restricted to corporate mergers, internet communications and financial transactions. Cultural communities also span the globe, not only in the way it is done by large companies within large organisational frameworks, but more particularly as decentralised movements, as an unofficial, heterodox, self-justifying civil society. Cultures create borders that other systems – such as economic systems – ignore or tear down; at the same time they enable the kind of communication that does not exist between economic and ethical systems.

Intercultural communication unlocks new spaces for communication that allow the development of new culture.

The public sphere is also experiencing a dissolution of borders: its experience of the world is opening up and its self-awareness is becoming ‘globalised’. By ‘public sphere’ we mean everything that is not confidential or private, more specifically an actual or imagined place that is basically open to all and where the res publica, affairs that concern everyone, can be debated and potentially decided. For a long time – and still today – political public spheres have often been limited to national or regional communication, although news from far-off countries and corners of the earth has for centuries been afforded a particular significance. So transnational media events have existed for many years, as was demonstrated by the earth-shattering news of the earthquakes that destroyed Lisbon in 1755 and San Francisco in 1906. However, the creation of nation states was the result of successfully pooling and focusing communication in a particular entity based on language and culture, which produced an effective distance and hierarchy between one’s own nation and other nations.


Transnational Media Events

In this sense we can describe global society as an expanded space for communication and the dissolution of borders with regard to nations, the environment, politics and business is a consequence of the expansion in information and communication.

The different regions and peoples that make up global society have really ‘discovered’ each other through communication and today – not only in the rich countries – they are more connected than ever before via post, telephone, satellite TV and the internet.

Major transnational media events include the World Cup; live concerts; televised conflicts such as the Gulf War in 1991 and later wars in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan; and ceremonies such as the funerals of Princess Diana and Pope John Paul II. These events have given a more precise shape to the previously rather hazy phenomenon of a ‘global public’, namely as a ‘community of peoples’, a virtual ‘global conscience’ and also as a global playing field and entertainment arena. The universalism of human rights has been joined by the post-colonial need to respect different cultural mores and indeed to ensure that this right to be different is universally accepted, eading to today’s global society recognising that diversity is a universality. Such demands are advanced and at times manipulated by an electronic media audience that has expanded globally in terms of topics and reach. Electronic and digital media allow viewers and listeners to travel through time and space without having to get up from the couch. This is not mainly about reports on events that metaphorically interest ‘the whole world’; specialist channels such as CNN can literally capture the attention of the whole world by screening major events, and viewer figures are the global indicator of media attention.

Media with a global reach are not the guardians of our universal morals, but they do integrate global society by highlighting cultural differences and standards. Through this stimulus they lay the foundation for an understated, still fragile cosmopolitanism that allows an unprecedented sense of solidarity with strangers.

A soccer ball flies into the lower left part of a soccer goal. The ball is blurred because of the movement.
Sport is much simpler and has fewer boundaries than many other social activities, picture: Aflo, picture alliance.

Against this general backdrop we can now take a look at the specific contribution of sport to the process of breaking down borders. Sport is much simpler and of course has fewer boundaries than many other social activities. Matches between the world’s top 20 teams in football and basketball, major events in tennis, golf, ice hockey and baseball, sailing, rugby and triathlon – all these beautifully illustrate the phenomenon of the dissolution of borders. In Germany, for example, on the one hand people identify with the national team, and on the other with club teams that include players of many different nationalities. Free movement in the player market means that top European teams have long been dominated by foreign, often black, players from ‘third world’ countries.

And now this trend is making itself felt among managers and trainers: top European managers are taking non-European national teams to the top, while foreign managers are being appointed to run league clubs. It’s not only the world’s top 20 teams that are active in the transfer market. A few examples from the German league over recent years include the ‘cross-border traffic’ that brings Belgian and Dutch players to Schalke in Gelsenkirchen and Slovakian players to FC Nuremberg; Rostock’s links to Swedish teams; and Bayern Munich’s ties with the Red Bulls in Salzburg. 

Another example is the way stars who are reaching the end of their careers help to develop the game, as happened in the USA in the late 1970s, Japan in the 1990s and is currently the case in Qatar. Spectacular transfer deals involving top players preoccupy the world’s media for weeks on end, and the centrifugal effect of this rotation has an effect as far down as the third divisions.


Creolisation of National Teams

But there’s one snag: national teams are not in a position to recruit talented young players unless foreign players gain citizenship and are eligible to play for them. This is known as ‘creolisation’, but it does not generally affect local patriotic support for football clubs. However, some fans have been heard complaining about a 'squadra globalizzata'. This is the name that was given by the Italian newspaper La Repubblica to the elite Inter Milan team when none of its squad came from the Lombardy region.

Some years ago, football’s dominant Real Madrid came up with the Zidanes Y Pavones solution. This aimed to keep its fans happy by providing a mix of world travellers (such as Zinedine Zidane) and locally grown talent (such as Francisco Pavon). Rivals Manchester United followed a similar route, while Borussia Dortmund had to bow to financial pressures and focus on developing young local talent – much to the delight of the fans at the Rote Erde stadium, which has since then also seen it change its name. Teams studded with international stars give the impression of being global corporations. Of course the performance and reputation of clubs (which no longer make the bulk of their income from the playing side) still leave much to be desired. Many professional clubs in Italy and Spain have lost control of their finances. But this also happens in Germany, for example when the Berlin club Hertha BSC asked the city authorities for financial and moral support (despite the fact that the city was also in dire financial straits).

This recourse to public money is interesting because the system does not allow companies to pursue American-style mergers, where for example a powerful top team such as Bayern Munich could afford to run a second team in the capital, or AC Milan could consider a hostile takeover of local rivals Internazionale. The guiding principle behind European sports policy is still to maintain competition between existing teams and to shift the overall picture through the promotion and relegation of teams. In this respect, in Europe it is also possible to identify an anti-globalisation movement. In 2003 Manchester United was taken over by Malcolm Glazer, an American businessman with no links to football. The fans protested angrily, stayed away from games and some were involved in setting up a new club, which now plays in the seventh tier.

A similar thing happened a few years ago when FC Wimbledon left its home ground and attempted to uproot its supporters. Although nationality is clearly a relative concept when it comes to sport, the national teams have lost none of their fascination. It comes to the fore every time there are major world or continental competitions that reveal the close ties between sport, politics and the media. These tournaments provide a prime example of transnational media events that, despite all the standardisation imposed by the rules of the game, the duration of competitions and particular types of sport, create a setting that stands out from the routine of everyday life and the expectations of the actors.


Combining the Expected and Unexpected

Clearly, a special feature of sports broadcasts is that they are particularly adept at combining the expected and the unexpected. Sports events are also perfectly suited to collective discourse, so to communicative actions in which the actors and viewers first agree on the criteria for recognising the happening as an event.

What constitutes a good or bad game is of course only decided after much debate on the stands and afterwards when it is picked apart on the radio, TV, in the major newspapers and online – and even after many years these assessments can change. The debates and controversies voiced in the electronic media present events in a dual way: they describe the events but are also events in themselves. In this way, sports events trigger changes in the media: on the part of producers, who work to ensure their technical systems reach more people, provide better quality, improved animation and so on; and on the part of the audience, who are encouraged by these media events to buy new equipment with more features for improved reception and entertainment. Sport and media are linked together in a very special way. They need or generate technology for mass dissemination, which increasingly intensifies social communication.


We have mentioned that in modern times the original ‘communication space’ was the nation or nation state; today socialisation is no longer solely linked to this historical form. To a certain extent, the readers of reformatory or revolutionary pamphlets founded a nation almost in passing. In the same way, people who watch the first moon landing, a Rolling Stones concert or the World Cup form a (fleeting) transnational community. What borders can be drawn, and where, is not determined by the event or the medium, but by the act of communication itself. Communication itself is constantly creating borders that go beyond borders, a kind of ‘virtual geography’. So sport as a transnational media event boosts globalisation. Spatial distance is overcome and relativised in a ‘playful’ way, and at the same time the audience displays a particularly high level of receptiveness, which also shows their openness to temporary socialisation.

World Cup Studio for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar on the ZDF site on Mainz's Lerchenberg.
World Cup Studio for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar on the ZDF site on Mainz's Lerchenberg, picture: Arne Dedert, picture alliance.

This is how the social memory of the emerging global society is constructed. In terms of a sociology of the extraordinary, media events respond to the question: how is it possible to keep people’s attention in an era when they are bombarded with information? Television in particular is able to combine events and their media staging via live broadcasts. For example, during a global sports broadcast media artefacts are created that also turn the medium and the type of media presentation into an event.

Major sporting events become drivers of cultural change and catalysts for building knowledge that transcend borders and are no longer aimed at the people of a single nation.

This is because sport has long moved from being simply ‘The Beautiful Game’ to being the focus of political decisions involving national prestige and economic success. In Europe, politics is clearly having a growing influence in and on sport, despite the fact that its autonomy is still emphasised. Unlike in the USA, sport is an area that involves government intervention and the welfare state, and it is most decidedly viewed as a social and cultural activity. Its commercial dimension has also become increasingly recognised and encouraged in the Old World, with public investment being designed to produce a ‘sports dividend’. This involves a nation increasing its prestige through excellent performances in international competitions, as reflected in Olympic medal tables or preeminent athletes and teams who make the finals of tournaments. Despite the way that the sports business now goes beyond national borders, it is still a characteristic of transnational sports policy that it symbolically always reverts to a sense of local or national patriotism. So sport is displaying a certain degree of resistance to the egalitarianism and the loss of a sense of homeland that is entailed by the ‘one world’ approach, and it is probably the task of sport to tap into these reserves of patriotism in transnational interactions. 

However, the ‘transnational society of sport’ does not only have a compensatory function, but it is also a driving force behind the dissolution of borders in the above-mentioned media/business complex. National sports and business organisations, known as SINGOs and BINGOs, are the key stakeholders involved in preparing for and hosting the Olympic Games and the World Cup. They work with leading companies and associations and a plethora of firms in the fields of travel, merchandising, insurance, law, PR and so on. There is constant friction between traditional, bureaucratic interest groups such as the National Olympic Committee and, in Germany, the Deutsche Sportbund (DSB) on the one hand and the management culture of transnational corporations on the other. This power struggle is illustrated by arguments about ticket sales, the list of speakers at the World Cup opening ceremony and countless protocol issues.


Three elderly people stand in front of posters of Ronaldo, Neymar and Messi.
In transnational sports politics, sport, politics and economics are all focused on competition, on staging and on profitability, picture: Philippe Leone, unsplash.

The key interactions of transnational sports policy can be outlined as follows: there is a synchronous but not identical ‘'logic’ in the sub-systems of sport, politics and business, which all together are directed towards competition, staging and profitability. Here the media system plays an intermediary role by elevating a star or prominent personality to a symbolic figurehead, which – even in the case of active athletes – focuses less on their sporting performance than on the part they play in the discourse as part of the struggle to capture the public’s attention. As far as the viewers are concerned, they are also less interested in getting involved than in passive attendance at the ‘real virtuality’ of broadcast sport, which evens out the normal differences relating to gender, education, income, place of residence and local sports tradition.

A striking example of this is the success of women’s soccer in the USA, which runs counter to the system. A common factor is the motif of the commercialisation of sport, which is served by sports policy and sets boundaries to ensure competition. This dovetails with the fixation on sports stars and idols, which we could call the culture of celebrity; in the past leading sports personalities such as Franz Beckenbauer and Michel Platini were able to play key roles in politics, the media and business (now they have been weakened by allegations of corruption); they could even display a certain autonomy in the face of senior ministers such as Wolfgang Schäuble, administrators such as FIFA’s Sepp Blatter (who is suspended at the moment), and the DFB.

Between the sub-systems there is another distinction, as was shown by the 2006 World Cup: sports policy is privatised in the form of Public Private Partnerships, top-level sport adapts to the imperatives of media coverage, and this is no longer limited to the illustrative function of traditional sports reporting but, like leading corporations, it gets involved in the sports event itself as a sponsor and advertiser. This leads to the emergence of an industrial sports complex that is symbolically held together by media celebrities.


A Fatal Challenge

Whether it’s Vladimir Putin at the Olympic Games in Sochi or the Brazilians at the World Cup and Olympics: governments are constantly trying to benefit from the prestige of hosting major sporting events.

For interior and sports ministers, these events present a fatal challenge, as they could lead to promotion – or spectacular failure. This challenge, along with the performance of the national team, affects the mood and morale of the political and economic system, and finally a major sports event plays an important role in the host country’s global ranking.

So a major sporting event can never totally divest itself of patriotic and nationalistic connotations, which is why racist attacks against black athletes and multicultural teams are not uncommon, and why international competitions also regularly lead to so-called ‘substitute wars’. An example of this is the conflict that escalated between Honduras and El Salvador after the World Cup in July 1969, which caused the deaths of 3,000 people and injured another 6,000. There was also the time when the Swiss put the Turkish team out of the 2006 World Cup; and the threats arising from the proposed visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the Iranian team in Germany. A compromise between national/state forms of organisation and transnational sport business may lie in the ‘brand’. Host countries of the World Cup or Olympics are presented via extensive image campaigns run by PR agencies. Brand awareness and branding involve residual elements of national identity, but at the same time are compatible with the identity figures of a transnational society and economy. Germany as a sporting brand that regularly provides memories of the ‘great moments’ of 1954, 1990, 2006 and 2014 is a clever business and sports-related attempt to make cultural differences and economic standardisation mandatory in a form that is remote from politics. Whether sport is still suited to making this cultural differentiation depends essentially on its ability to perform. Or as footballers put it: it’s all decided on the pitch.

About the Author
Portrait of Claus Leggewie
Claus Leggewie
Political scientist

Claus Leggewie taught political science at Justus Liebig University in Giessen from 1989 to 2007. In 2001 he co-founded the Centre for Media and Interactivity (ZMI) , and since 2015 he has held the Ludwig Börne Professorship at ZMI. He was a visiting professor at the University of Paris-Nanterre and New York University, a fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, at the Remarque Institute of New York University and at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. From 2007 to 2015 Leggewie was director of the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities in Essen and the Centre for Global Cooperation Research in Duisburg. From 2008 to 2016, he was a member of the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU). Leggewie is co-editor of Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik.

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