Watching the World Cup, it is impossible to ignore the organizing logic: countries compete against other countries to be the winning nation for this cycle. On a global scale, this is a common logic in a number of sports, particularly those in the Olympics system. But, does it have to be this way?
The nation state is a relatively new development in human history. The idea of a centralized bureaucracy and a political entity spanning many square miles or millions of people is not necessarily new; empires and city-states had this. The modern nation-state is different in numerous ways and was firmly established by the twentieth century. The fervor for the nation-state and the geopolitics that go with it help animate the World Cup.
What other logics could organize a global sports competition? Here are a few other options:
Have club teams compete. There are versions of this already but limited global competition between clubs. This would run into issues regarding money, access to players, level of competition in different national leagues (though there do not have to be national leagues), and more.
Borrowing from video games, have ultimate or fantasy teams. Perhaps fans could pick teams. Or, a global body of experts. Perhaps there could be a global draft.
Have city states compete. Since nations can be so large, why not narrow the geographic scope to have more variation? Imagine Team London playing Team Tokyo or Team Cairo or Team Los Angeles.
Let players be free agents globally and form their own teams. They could select friends, good competitors, players from their clubs or country, or utilize other logics.
In the end, does organizing a sport by country provide the best sport experience and outcome? Does the World Cup do more to reinforce the importance of nations than highlight sports or other values?
Los Angeles fits the city-state frame well, certainly better than it does a lot of other possibilities—if we update the model a bit. In 2010, Forbessuggested that if the criteria for a place to be considered a city-state were modernized for the 21st century, certain global capitals might qualify thanks to a few key features: a big port to sustain trade; investors from overseas; money laundering; international museums worth visiting; multiple languages spoken in good restaurants serving alcohol; and an ambition to host the World Cup…
The city-state label rings true to me for hazier reasons as well. Los Angeles lacks the bedrock Americana that anchor towns like Chicago, New York, and Boston. In terms of identity, it doesn’t attach to the state of California the way that Houston and Dallas serve Texas. As for international ties, Miami has Latin America, Seattle has Canada and Asia, but Los Angeles, perhaps the city of globalism, has everybody. We’re Angelenos first, Californians second, Americans third or not at all.
“I absolutely think of Los Angeles as a city-state,” Mayor Eric Garcetti told me a few months ago. “The root of politics is the same as the root word in Greek for “city”: polis. People engage in politics because they came to a city and vice versa.” I wanted to point out that lots of citizens don’t engage with Greater L.A. in the way he described. If anything, civic life here often feels optional. Residents stay in the bounds of their neighborhood. Voters supported a $1.2 billion bond in 2016 to build supportive housing, but progress on the homeless problem is abysmal, stymied in part by NIMBYism. To borrow Garcetti’s measure, had life in the Greek city-states been as complacent, as mean, as L.A. often feels? “The man who took no interest in the affairs of state was not a man who minded his own business,” the ancient historian Thucydides wrote, “but a man who had no business being in Athens at all.”
My unspoken question for Garcetti was a nod to the fact that the city-state label can stretch only so far, at least until Los Angeles secedes from the United States. Angelenos may not always feel particularly American, but L.A. continues to receive policies and funding from Sacramento, which receives the nod—or not—from Washington. Our tap water flows from the Colorado River. A fifth of our power is from a coal plant in Utah. Los Angeles simply isn’t self-reliant. We have plenty of investment from abroad, but no local currency. The world’s largest jail system, but no independent military. Garcetti recently proposed a guaranteed-basic-income program that would be the country’s largest experiment of its kind—but that’s only even theoretically possible thanks to funding from President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.
The main argument here seems to be that Los Angeles has the infrastructure, amenities, and identity needed to be a city state. On the other hand, the political fragmentation and reliance on other parts of the American federal system may be obstacles. However, I am not sure
Political fragmentation comes through the sprawling and decentralized landscape. Who is in change? Whose opinions should hold sway? Going further, what is the relationship between the sprawling city and the sprawling suburbs? This would seem to be in tension with the identity as Angelenos. On which issues does the identity bring political unity and where do the fault lines emerge when fragmentation bests identity?
A city state could make relationships with other entities. But, this might be a little different than having steady relationships within a system versus having to negotiate new relationships if Los Angeles became a city state. Take an example relevant to sprawling LA: could a city state of Los Angeles afford to fund all of the highways that right way get monies from the federal government? Or, would this then courage a LA city state to pursue more mass transit? Right now, the highways might be an amenity but
If the mayor of Los Angeles operates now as if his city is a city state, what exactly does this mean? Is there an American city that is already more city state like and provides a model of how this might look in the future?