The success of Giannis Antetokounmpo has a multitude of positive consequences that we will attempt to pinpoint. For that, we need to examine football as well, in a day when basketball is triumphantly celebrated in Greece.

By Vangelis Chorafas

Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks won the title of NBA champions and, along with the team’s fans, the Greeks are also celebrating. A Greek athlete, leader of a team, wins a championship in the USA. Things are not as simple as they may seem at first glance.

The success of Giannis Antetokounmpo has a multitude of positive consequences that we will attempt to pinpoint. For that, we need to examine football as well, in a day when basketball is triumphantly celebrated in Greece.

AMERICAN AND EUROPEAN BASKETBALL

It is commonly accepted that basketball in Europe is second only to football. And this is true due to historical and social reasons. At its birth, football was associated with specific social groups, starting as a working-class game before becoming “the people’s game”. At the same time, the colonial expansion of European countries ensured its rapid spread throughout the world, helped by the relative absence of special requirements for its playing, especially concerning the players themselves.

Contrastingly, basketball had almost none of the aforementioned features. It started out as a college game but quickly spread to all parts of the United States, especially in urban areas. The speed of its global spread was much slower than that of football and only increased when American capitalism emerged as the dominant power in the West after World War II.

Under these circumstances, the 1950s saw a massive export of cultural standards and mass products of the leisure, entertainment, and sports industries from the USA. Among the exported American sports products, basketball quickly managed to climb to the top of popularity due to its ability to be played in small spaces of urban centers. The process of globalization as a whole has further accelerated these developments in the last 30 years.

In the same way as football, basketball helps people seek their national identity through national teams, a process that is extremely important, since the traditional references of national identity are in crisis. As globalization tends to dismantle the foundations of national identity, football and basketball are two of the few processes that allow these foundations to be rebuilt, to the extent that they allow a special relationship to be established between national sovereignty and the everyday lives of citizens.

In the past, national sovereignty was primarily associated with the affirmation of the nation, and successes in football and basketball contributed to this purpose. In the current age of globalization we have shifted from “affirming” the nation to “protecting / rescuing” the nation, and thus football and basketball are called upon to contribute to this perspective.

National football and basketball teams are possibly one of the last remaining strongholds that have yet to be completely overtaken by money, and they allow us – even though football and basketball together are the peak of globalization, in the sense that they are more globalized than the internet or democracy or even the market economy – to fight the most destructive manifestations of globalization.

A comparison between the European and the American basketball development model would be unequal. And this is not because of their respective effectiveness, but due to the historical evolution of basketball, which has resulted in the largest accumulation of capitals in American basketball. It must be noted that basketball is not the most popular sport in the USA – compared to American football , hockey and baseball. However, it is the most widespread American sport in the world, and this “globalizing” aspect of basketball makes it the most representative sport of the US and the values it stands for.

Furthermore, it is an important factor of the United States’ soft power. Globalization has enabled the free movement of players around the world and in this sense – at least in theory – all movements are possible. Nevertheless, the different rate of wealth accumulation in American basketball – which is owing to the historical reasons mentioned above – allows it to maintain the lead, due to the growing inflation of basketball payments, over European basketball. The opposite is true for football, in which Europe is the dominant power. The rate of capital accumulation in European football teams allows them to maintain a security advantage over its main competitors: the football teams of Latin American countries.

BASKETBALL AND GEOPOLITICAL BALANCES

The hegemonic form of the West remains dominant on a global scale. But capitalism as a system has shown its dynamics elsewhere – at the current juncture, mainly in the countries of South and East Asia. This does not mean that capitalism has lost its power in the developed countries of the West. It just shows that its growth rates in Asian countries are much faster and the conditions for this rapid development – cheap labor, large markets, effective social control, etc. – still apply there.

Both the US and the EU understand these dynamics in different terms. The US understands the growth in Asia and partly in Latin America in strategic terms – there is also an economic dimension, of course. As world leaders, the Americans must calculate their long-term interests in order to maintain their hegemony. Currently, this hegemony is achieved through the global institutional network they have created, through military global reach capabilities, through the expansion of soft power, and through alliances.

In this context, basketball – to its respective extent – becomes a tool of such an approach. The goal of the NBA leadership is to expand to Asian countries and especially China. This policy has been consistently implemented in recent years and is expressed through the “Yao and globalization” phenomenon. In a similar course, Europe and, in particular, UEFA export European football and especially the most prestigious inter-club competition of the continent, the Champions League, to the same regions. Each “pole” of the West promotes the sport which provides it with the greatest soft power and in which it has respective comparative advantages.

From the NBA’s point of view, Europe does not bear any special significance. It offers players for transfers and an already saturated market. In contrast, Asia, Latin America, and Africa offer both human resources and unsaturated markets and strategic prospects. Western countries move forward and make plans through agreements, clashes, frictions, and external pressures. All these procedures are reproduced in the field of sports.

Basketball, as a sport that reflects the logic and dynamics of American capitalism, will continue to play its own leading role in the West’s division of labor, with European football at the other end as an adversary and a companion as well.

GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO

For the first time in NBA history a team, the Milwaukee Bucks, wins the championship title under the leadership of Greek player, Giannis Antetokounmpo. But what Giannis Antitokounmpo has achieved in the NBA is much more than just a title. First of all, he has impeccably fulfilled his role as the leader of his team and has demonstrated his value throughout America. Second, he contributes to keeping the “American dream” narrative alive.

A poor kid from a small country conquers the US, or “through hard work everything can be achieved”, or “seize the opportunity you are given”, or “talent is rewarded”, etc. Third, he helps to preserve the legend of the NBA and the opportunities it offers on a global scale. The preservation of this legend, in turn, contributes to the amplification of the Unites States’ soft power.

Finally, Giannis highlights the name of Greece across the world. Greece, a country with a small population and without a strong economy, has been considered one of the strongest basketball powerhouses for the last three decades, concerning both national teams and domestic clubs. In contrast to basketball, Greek football is less successful and Greece is considered a country of small or medium football power, despite the success of the national team in 2004. But if you look at the overall combined development of both sports, then the big picture becomes quite positive from the perspective of the contribution of sports to the protection of national identity in the age of globalization. To the said protection of national identity, the contribution of Giannis Antetokounmpo, the “Greek Freak”, is very important.