The World Cup, an exhibition of the highest standards in football is underway, and Neymar is surging ahead with a standardised Adidas Telstar ball.
Performing the standard role of a football defender, Belgian Vincent Kompany launches a sliding tackle.
The Brazilian lands with a thud and the referee, following standard procedure, whips out a yellow card at the defender – a standard practice of cautioning footballers since the 1970 edition of the Cup.
Football, like everything else in life, must adhere to and be guided by a variety of standards.
They are the invisible Oompa Loompas that work to make football the most popular sport and the FIFA World Cup the most watched sporting spectacle in the world.
The United Nations has a total membership of 193 nations while FIFA, the international governing body of football, boasts of 211 member states.
It wouldn’t be hyperbolic to assert that football is a shared language that binds the otherwise disparate countries of the world into a singular network. In other words, football is a common standard that the world seems to have agreed upon.
We use the word “standards” in various contexts every day. The first paragraph itself uses the word to refer to dimensions, established norms, practices, quality and comparisons.
But What Are Standards?
“Standards are fundamental building blocks of society”, says Linda Garcia, a standards scholar at Georgetown University. In her paper, titled ‘Public and Private Interests in Standards Setting: Conflict or Convergence’, she writes: “in any given context, they constitute an agreed upon set of meanings, scripts, and rules for guiding behaviors and governing relations”.
The standardisation of measurement, language, laws, currency, education reduced massive coordination failures by facilitating common and shared meanings.
Simply put, standards are the rules of the game, claims David Grewal in his book Network Power.
An organisation (in this case FIFA) that succeeds in setting the standard for a technology, product or service, can accrue massive social and financial benefits from having its standard dominate the market. This is where the phrase “industry standard” comes from. Being accepted as the common standard across an industry may be the single most important component of a product’s success.
Football, FIFA & Standards
Any coordination on a worldwide scale faces the herculean task of efficiently facilitating cooperation among all the countries. This is where standards play the vital role of binding the disconnected world together as one network. Consider, for example, the network of English speakers worldwide, the network of Facebook users or the network of football players. In every case, a standard is central to the existence of the network, serving as a common denominator to all its members.
FIFA too then, is a network of 211 countries connected by the common standard of FIFA’s rules.
Therefore, if football had to spread seamlessly worldwide, it had to be played exactly the same way in Ludhiana as it is in London, and its rules must mean the same in Colombia and Kolkata.
It is precisely this standardisation that enables Egyptian Mohamed Salah to secure a job in England, and Japanese Katsumi Yusa to score goals freely for East Bengal.
The Rise of FIFA World Cup
When FIFA was born in 1904, international football matches were organised within the Olympic games and were meant for amateurs. The seven influential European countries – Italy, France, Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, Sweden and Spain used their collective clout to form FIFA, an international governing body of football with the sole authority to organise international matches.
Through its power to frame rules, FIFA could determine how the game should be played.
In other words, it enjoyed a monopoly in setting the standards of the game. This monopoly made its standards attractive because any country wishing to play international football had no option but to adopt FIFA’s standards. No surprise then that its membership rose from 51 in the 1930s, and to 211, by the time the World Cup in Russia kicked-off.
As membership rose, so did participation in the World Cup. While the first edition in 1930 had only 13 countries, it rose to 24 in 1982, and since the 1998 World Cup, FIFA has standardised participation to 32 countries. The World Cup eventually eclipsed the Olympic football tournament by winning a crucial standards battle. They achieved this by allowing professionals to play in the FIFA World Cup while Olympics allowed only amateurs.
Later, when the Olympics also opened its doors for professionals to compete, FIFA ensured its dominance by ensuring the best footballers play only in FIFA’s World Cups. Since FIFA sets the rules of the game, it stipulated (since the 1996 Olympics), that only under-23 professionals can compete at the Olympics with only three players allowed over the age of 23.
The Most Played, the Most Watched
As Grewal puts it, the most interesting property of standards is that it can spread.
The greater the number of people who use a particular standard, the more valuable it is for others to adopt the same. For example, the worth of a telephone is derived from how many people it can connect us to. If there was only a single telephone on this earth, it would be of no value. Now, if the network of telephone users grows to a million, it is suddenly very valuable because of the network of telephone owners it connects us to.
Extend this logic to young athletes on the threshold of choosing a sport and it suddenly becomes clear why football seems like a more attractive proposition in comparison to other sports.
A footballer can practically play in any country in the world and find employment in one of the hundreds of domestic football leagues by virtue of adopting FIFA’s football standards and gaining access to its vast network. Not to mention, football is an easier standard to adopt, for it costs almost nothing to start playing it.
While the cost of adopting football’s standard hovers in the region of zilch, the returns could potentially be in millions of dollars.
Football’s rise to global domination, then, is a shrewd manipulation and manoeuvring of standards. As you watch the World Cup unfold, keep an eye out for different standards – the goalpost, the jerseys, referee signals, the size of the pitch as well as the 3-points for the winner.
What is not standardised, however, is the reaction when our hero scores a stunner.