Are you ready for some football?

20 August 2013, 1747 EDT

It’s been a big week for football (that is, soccer to all you U.S. readers). The raffle for 2014 World Cup tickets in Brazil started today ($90 is the starting price for first round games). Brazil had a dry run of hosting the Confederations Cup soccer tourney over the summer, which went great, aside from the mass protests by Brazilians upset about corruption and state incompetence that challenged the country’s leadership.

In other news, the British Premier League started this week (now on NBC instead of FoxSoccer, with hilarious Jason Sudeikis spoof of Americans’ lack of football knowledge mocked in a promo), with much handwringing about Arsenal’s chintzy manager Arsene Wenger and whether or not Gareth Bale will be transferred from Tottenham to Real Madrid for a staggering $150 million dollars (where a Spanish club can come up with this kind of cash at this moment in the country’s economy is beyond me). After Russia (!) hosts in 2018, there is still some question about whether World Cup 2022 will actually be held in the searing 120 degree summer heat of Qatar or moved to winter (the international politics of FIFA, anyone?).

And the sport is changing and challenging notions of race and citizenship. Enter Mario Balotelli or Super Mario.

Balotelli pictured above in all his shirtless glory graces the cover of this week’s Sports Illustrated (according to SI Writer Grant Wahl only the 2nd non-American soccer player to be pictured on the cover since 1994, the other being Beckham of course). Balotelli was born to Ghanaian parents in Italy and is an Italian citizen, having been adopted as a child. He is a great talent, undisciplined and volatile. He nows plays for Milan after having been too much to handle at his previous club Manchester City (see his goal celebration below from Euro 2012).

Germany Italy 1:2 second goal Balotelli on EURO…

If you have followed the fate of black players in Italy and Europe more broadly, you would know that they have endured racist abuse of late, with bananas thrown on to the field and other racial epithets, so much so that Kevin Prince-Boateng,  who also plays for Milan, walked off the field with all of his teammates during a friendly earlier this year (watch video below). Interestingly, Boateng plays for Ghana but his brother plays for Germany!  Fancy that. How players change national affiliations based on dual citizenship and national rules is fascinating. The U.S. just laid claim to an Icelandic guy while a desperate Mexico squad suited up two  players born outside of Mexico (gasp!).

Whether a perhaps increasingly diverse but race-conscious Europe can adapt to the current times and integrate black players in to professional soccer without fan violence and racism remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, back in the United States, soccer is taking off. U.S. star Clint Dempsey has returned from a successful run in the UK to play for the Seattle Sounders in Major League Soccer (MLS), a still maligned league around the world that has tried to raise its stature with international players like David Beckham, Robbie Keane, and Thierry Henry. The first home game with Dempsey is this weekend and will have a record 60,000 plus fans. The league is now rivaling the NBA and NHL for average attendance (though there may be reasons for that, namely cheaper tickets).

In any case, it’s a great time to be a soccer fan, and if you want more connections between soccer and international politics, I’d read Franklin Foer’s book How Soccer Explains the WorldYou might check out the original Fever Pitch from Nick Hornby or Bill Buford’s memoir about hooligans Among the Thugs, both of which capture the obsession with football.