Football, globalization, and the Dutchman from Japan


Elko Born explores some recent trends in the globalization of football, including the interesting case of Mike Havenaar…

Some scholars argue that the process of ‘globalization’ (broadly defined as the global integration of various aspects of culture) started in the 16th Century, when maritime empires such as Portugal and the Dutch Republic started colonizing parts of Asia and the Americas, setting up trade routes and kickstarting modern capitalism along the way.

Others argue that it wasn’t Columbus who ‘discovered’ the Americas, that the ancient Greeks and the Romans used the so-called ‘Silk Route’ to trade with China, and that the process of ‘globalization’ started when humans first started interacting with others of their kind.

Nonetheless, it’s fair to state that in recent decades, the process of globalization – whenever it may have started – reached a new phase: the phase of automatization and the gradual diminishing of the relevance of national borders. Just think of the Internet, the EU, and of eating Kettle crisps whilst crossing the border between France and Belgium without showing anyone your passport.

The birth of modern football, of course, largely coincided with this new phase in globalization. During the 1960s, when politicians were negotiating the supranational perimeters of the European Union (dubbed by some as the modern day Habsburg Empire), football produced its first superstars.

The fame of footballers like Pelé reached far beyond Brazil, and across the world, people took time off to sit in front of their black and white television sets to watch the South American legend play. Indeed, when Pelé jokingly put himself ahead of Jesus Christ by telling a reporter that “there are parts of the world where Jesus Christ is not so well known”, he wasn’t even being absurd.

In modern day football, we see different manifestations of the ongoing process of globalization. National leagues filled with foreign players provide the obvious example: so far in 2013/2014, only 32.26% of minutes in the Premier League – an ‘English’ league, but followed intensely by people from all over the world – were completed by English players, with a remarkable 8.1% completed by players from France.

Another obvious example of globalization in football is the Champions League: an international competition, deemed as one of the most important and prestigious in the world. And it’s not just international competitions that make football fans and stadium-goers travel outside the borders of their countries. To name just one example: this season Championship-side Leicester City was pleasantly surprised by a large contingent of R.S.C. Anderlecht fans showing up at the King Power Stadium to sing songs in praise of their former player Marcin Wasilewski – a Polish player – on multiple occasions. Unconstrained international travel and the internet make it all possible.

Leicester's Polish star Marcin Wasilewski

Leicester’s Polish star Marcin Wasilewski

Of course, the ongoing process of globalization that affects football has its downsides as well. In the past, clubs were limited to their urban base and immediate geographical surroundings when it came to scouting for their academies.

These days, youth academies operate on an almost global scale. While no one would argue that young talents should not be allowed to move abroad or that clubs focusing on foreign youth are bad, a side effect of this trend in modern football is that it might deprive certain national leagues of  very exciting footballers.

Clubs like Ajax, for example, signed players like Christian Eriksen and Viktor Fischer when they were mere teenagers. Undoubtedly, these players would have demonstrated some excellent football to spectators of the Danish Superliga even in their younger years.

Similarly, movement in the opposite direction can be harmful as well. When football clubs buy or loan too many players from other nations while simultaneously employing squad circulation – for example by buying a load of players from one nation in one season and selling them the next – they risk alienating their fans.

We might be able to discern such a development at Dutch club Vitesse, an Arnhem based side with obvious but opaque connections to Chelsea’s owner Roman Abramovich. Vitesse, typified by some as ‘Chelsea’s reserve team’, have numerous Chelsea youngsters on loan, including Lucas Piazón, Patrick van Aanholt and Bertrand Traoré.

But while these talented players allow Vitesse to genuinely challenge for the Eredivisie title, Vitesse’s stadium, with a capacity of 25,000, remains relatively empty: only 17,000 supporters show up most home games. Amused, the Dutch satirical magazine De Speld recently published an article with the following headline: ‘Chelsea-supporters heading to Vitesse on loan’.

Back in the early-modern period, trading diasporas functioned as communities of merchants living in foreign lands. They were semi-permanent residents. Not quite Dutch, English or Portuguese, but not quite native either. Often, these diasporas would be linked: with the mother-country, but with other diasporas as well.

Diasporas, and the people living in them, were ‘stateless’: they lived in the world’s twilight-zone, more or less unconfined by regionalism or primitive nationalism. In many ways, football clubs are today’s world’s trading diasporas, employing footballers as merchants. They travel around, performing their profession.

But while we might be able to typify some of Vitesse’s players as ‘merchants’, we would do well to rid the term of some of its negative connotations. The Arnhemmers’ flirt with globalization has manifested itself in wonderful things as well. Take Mike Havenaar, a 6 foot 4 striker who looks Dutch, sounds Dutch, plays in the Dutch league…but is Japanese.

Mike Havenaar - the Dutchman from Japan

Mike Havenaar – the Dutchman from Japan

Mike was born in 1987 in Hiroshima, where his father, the Dutch goalkeeper Dido Havenaar, played for Mazda FC (now called Sanfrecce Hiroshima). Dido had initially planned to only stay in Japan for a short while, but the months became years and the years became a decade, until finally, the family decided to stay forever: “When I was little, I spoke Dutch with my parents but Japanese with all of my friends. Initially I felt somewhat torn between the two countries but as I got older, my love for the country where I was born grew. When I had to make a decision about my nationality, there was never any doubt”, Havenaar told in an interview in 2013.

Havenaar, who conducts his interviews in English rather than Dutch, has a Japanese passport, and as such, he plays for the Japanese national team, making his debut in 2011 and scoring 3 goals in 16 matches.

Besides his name and his appearance, there’s little to reveal his Dutch roots. Indeed, when Havenaar first moved to The Netherlands, he felt like a foreigner. ‘At first I had trouble  acclimatising,’ he told, ‘but since then the Dutch in me – which I had kind of forgotten – has really come to the fore. Today I feel great, just like at home actually.’

In this regard, the humility he displayed after injuring Stijn Schaars in Vitesse’s 6-2 defeat of PSV in December 2013 spoke volumes. Havenaar visibly apoligized about ten times, and his whole demeanour contrasted starkly with the reaction of the Dutch on and off the pitch.

Indeed, while merchants travel around and perform their profession, they not only take things, they leave things behind as well. Wonderful things, in the case of Mike Havenaar. The ongoing process of globalization, driving people as well as culture to travel from The Netherlands to Japan and back again, allows for the birth of the hybrid and unique.

Who knows, maybe one day Havenaar will move on to yet another league, and maybe he’ll decide to stay there for a long time. Maybe he and his kids will stay there forever.


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