This month, the 2018 football World Cup looks set to become the second most-watched live event of all time. According to FIFA, around 3.2 billion people watched the tournaments of 2010 and 2014 – but this summer’s tournament is expected to attract 3.4 billion viewers. That is almost half of the world’s population. The only event to have been watched by more people was the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008.
The popularity of football around the world is nothing short of astonishing – especially when one considers the humble origins of the sport. As a historian, I am interested in how this happened; but as a football lover I am also interested in its consequences. How has the popularity of the sport affected the way we regard the game, and how we enjoy it? What does it say about the world we live in today? And why do some countries always perform better at the World Cup than others? These are some of the questions I will be thinking about while I watch the games in Russia.
A Short History of Football
Almost every culture in the world has at some point developed a game involving kicking balls between players or at goals. One of the earliest examples was the Chinese game of Cu Ju ( 蹴 鞠 ), which was played in China more than 2000 years ago. However, the version of the game that is played around the world today originated in Britain around 150 years ago.
The creation of the modern game came from a desire to create order out of chaos. During the nineteenth century there were a wide variety of football games in Britain, many of them quite violent, and many of them without any rules at all. Tournaments between different schools or different regions were almost impossible. In an attempt to create a common version of the game, representatives from several clubs and schools met together in a London pub in 1863. Together they formed The Football Association, and for the first time agreed a single set of rules.
Once the rules were codified, the new game of football grew rapidly in Britain. Within eight years, The Football Association already included 50 member clubs. In 1872, it organised the world’s first football competition, the FA Cup. Sixteen years later it established the world’s first league championship.
The international form of the game was a little slower to develop, because football was still not widely played in countries outside the British Isles. The first international fixture took place between England and Scotland in 1872 – but at the time this was the only fixture possible, because no other country yet had a national football team. Wales and Ireland soon formed their own national football associations, followed by various countries in Europe, Australasia and Latin America.
The spread of the game around the world is largely due to British influence during this era. British soldiers and administrators who had learned the game at school took it with them when they took up posts around the British empire. Other British sports, like cricket and rugby, were spread in the same way. British traders and businessmen also carried the game to other parts of the world.
However, the spread of the international game was not exclusively a British story. For example, it was not the British but the French who set up the first international body. The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) was set up in Paris in 1904: its founder members were France, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Spain and Switzerland, with Germany joining the same day by telegram. The British did not join FIFA until the following year.
The international game grew rapidly after that. In 1908, an international tournament was held during the London Olympics. By 1930, the year of the first World Cup, FIFA had 41 members. China first joined the following year.
Today FIFA is made up of 211 national associations in every part of the world. It is the world’s largest sporting body, with more member nations than the United Nations itself.
The Joys and Perils of Globalisation
The fact that football was first developed and promoted in England is a source of great pride for the English. As every English football fan will tell you, his country is the “home” of football. In 1996, when England hosted the European championship, the slogan of the tournament was “Football’s coming home”. A number 1 pop song was released that year in which the words “Football’s coming home” was the main refrain: England fans occasionally still sing it today during international matches, particularly when their team are winning.
However, alongside English pride in the game is also a sense of nostalgia, and perhaps even a feeling of betrayal. England may be the “home” of football, but it sometimes feels to English fans that the sport has left home permanently. Since they won the World Cup in 1966, the England team has never performed very well. During the last tournament, in 2014, they failed to win a single game.
England has never performed well in the European Championship either. Apart from 1996, the year of all the slogans and songs, they have never advanced beyond the quarter-finals. Two years ago, they lost to Iceland – a country so small that one tenth of its population was actually in the stadium watching the match.
England fans have slowly been forced to acknowledge an uncomfortable truth: their team is not actually very good. The reason that this fact has taken so long to sink in is that it doesn’t really make sense. England is home to some of the biggest football clubs in the world: Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea regularly win major trophies, both in Europe and in the wider world. How is it possible that English clubs can be so good, and yet the English national team can be so bad?
According to many British football critics, the answer lies in the globalisation of the game. Fifty years ago, English football clubs used to find most of their players from the streets and schools around their football grounds; but today they source their players from all over the world. The perfect example is Chelsea Football Club. When the team won the English FA Cup in 1970, every one of its players came from Britain and Ireland. Today the club fields players from four different continents. Only six of the 27 players in their squad are English.
This vast wealth of international talent at English clubs makes the English Premier League one of the most exciting leagues in the world. The football they play is beautiful to watch, but it comes at a cost. With so many international players in the English league, many English players never get the chance to play in the best teams. Without the opportunity to learn their craft, no wonder they are not as good as they could be.
Globalisation might have been good for the game. But it has not been good for the nation that invented it.
The Perils of Big Money
The globalisation of football has generated huge amounts of money in the game, but that money has not been evenly spread. Most of it is now concentrated in Western Europe, where it has been both a blessing and a curse. Some of the top clubs, like those in England, now have so much money that they can afford to buy their way to greatness. They ignore the local talent and go on shopping sprees for the best players in other countries. But other clubs use the money more wisely. They set up football academies and training programmes to nurture their own players. In recent years, Germany and Spain have been particularly good at this.
The consequence of all this money is that European teams now have an unfair advantage over the rest of the world. All of the best facilities are in Europe. All of the best training programmes are in Europe. If star players from Asia or Africa want to progress in the sport, they have no choice but to move to Europe. Thus, while European players are generally able to live and play together with their fellow nationals, Asian and African stars often find themselves scattered across countries far from home. This has a huge effect on their national teams, who rarely get to practice together, and must make their players travel long distances to do so.
In recent years, even the great footballing nations of Latin America have struggled in this global environment. Consider what has happened to the Brazilian team in over the past 16 years. Brazil has won the World Cup more times than any other nation: in 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994 and 2002. However, in the last three tournaments they have not been quite so successful. In 2006 and 2010 they were knocked out in the quarter-finals. Four years ago they hosted the tournament, and had great expectations of success. But in the semi-final they were beaten by Germany 7-1. It was one of the biggest shocks in football history.
The reason for this embarrassing defeat is not difficult to see. Brazil had excellent individual players, but Germany played much more effectively as a team. Unlike the Brazilians, the Germans were used to working together: all but two of the German players had made their football careers in their home country, and more than half of them played for the same local club, Bayern München. No wonder they were a more effective team. Unsurprisingly, they went on to win the trophe.
European teams have this advantage over other parts of the world: they are used to playing together all the time. If you want to predict who will win this year’s FIFA World Cup, take a look at the team sheets. The winners will probably come from Europe, and will probably feature players who are used to playing together on a weekly basis. Once again, Germany looks strongest in this respect. Spain are also strong contenders, as are France.
Football and Society
There are several lessons we can learn from the globalisation of football, some of which are quite depressing, but some of which are more hopeful.
The first lesson is that money matters. The richest countries have the best clubs, the best facilities, and their players have the most experience of playing together. It is difficult for poorer countries to compete against them. Consequently, it is possible that England might one day win the World Cup again, if they can sort out their domestic problems with the game. But it is unlikely that Costa Rica or Morocco ever will. This is the brutal reality of football today.
However, the more hopeful lesson is this: it is not individuals that win the FIFA World Cup, but teams. Those who will do well this summer will not necessarily be those teams with a single star player like Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo or Uruguay’s Luis Suarez. They will be teams who work together most effectively. Football is a group game.
To my mind, there is also a larger lesson that can be learned from football. For the people watching the tournament this summer, it will not only be a group game but a group experience. I think there is something beautiful about the fact that so many people will be watching. In today’s fragmented world, there are very few events that are guaranteed to bring us all together. This summer will be an opportunity for people of different classes or different political opinions to cheer for their national teams together. It will also be an opportunity for different nations to put aside their differences for a while, and simply enjoy the spectacle.
Many of those nations who did not qualify will also be watching – not for love of any country, but for love of the game. I know that many people in China will adopt another nation for a few weeks, and cheer for them as if they were their own team. This can only be a force for good.
When I have watched the World Cup in previous years, I have often been struck by how it is almost like a religious experience. This year I will meet up with old friends, some of whom I might not have seen since the last World Cup in 2014. We will stand in large congregations – not in church, but in a pub, or a club, or in a public square. We will drink more alcohol than normal, and perhaps eat more junk food – a bit like we do at Christmas time – and the crowd will sing songs that we only sing once every four years. We will gaze up at large screens, reciting the names of national football players as if they were saints. And we will weep real tears when, as seems to happen in every World Cup, our team is sacrificed on the altar of a penalty shoot-out.
It is not the winning that is important here – it is the fact that we will all be watching the games together. The famous French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, claimed that one of main purposes of religion was to provide the social glue that held communities together. In this sense, perhaps the analogy between football and religion is not too far-fetched. The social benefits of this shared experience are huge, even if it is just to watch your team lose.
So if you are planning to watch any football matches this summer, consider this: you will be sharing an experience with 3.4 billion other people all around the world. It might only be a frivolous experience – not a matter of life and death, just a football tournament. Nevertheless, it is something that we should celebrate, and be grateful for.