• September 4, 2015

Soccer Conquers the World

Soccer on the World Stage 1

Illustration from Aurora

Why are the Ivory Coast soccer player Didier Drogba and the Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo featured in underpants on a recent cover of Vanity Fair? Why was Drogba just named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine? The answer is that the men's World Cup tournament, in South Africa, is imminent. Vanity Fair is running a blog, Fair Play, and the magazine's cover story has even taken a baby step toward maturity: In best deconstructive style, it presents the word "soccer" with a line through it—put under erasure by the big word used globally, "football."

One in every two people in the world is expected to watch the cup on television. Nike, McDonald's, and Coca-Cola—American brands all—see it as a much bigger deal than the Beijing Olympics, two years ago. Major sponsors are paying as much as $40-million for the privilege of associating with the event. Coke's biggest promotion ever includes a deal with YouTube whereby viewers from around the world will post their goal celebrations. Anheuser-Busch and Visa, too, are heavily involved: The Visa Match Planner is a cellphone application that provides scores, retail information, and opportunities to chat about the tournament.

It was not always so, among American advertisers, sports fans—or, until the 1990s, scholars. But soccer—make that football—has become big business in a globalized world. In the last World Cup, in 2006, Anheuser-Busch was famously ambushed, to use marketers' argot, by smarter foreign opposition. It had exclusive beer-promotion rights to the event, but a Dutch brewer circumvented that by giving thousands of branded lederhosen to Dutch fans in team colors. The intellectual-property regime has developed since then; World Cup lawyers now have obtained an injunction preventing Kulula, a South African airline, from advertising itself as "Unofficial National Carrier of the You-Know-What."

MTV, which does not have the right to carry the games, will run spots around the world during the cup with the tag line: "We understand why you aren't watching MTV." ESPN Deportes, Disney's U.S. Spanish-language channel, doesn't have the rights, either, but it's dispatching 25 reporters to South Africa and is running a promotion called "90 minutos no son suficientes" (90 minutes aren't enough), troping the duration of matches to indicate the importance of background and synoptic material as well as play-by-play coverage.

A new crop of books on football is to be expected, given the hoopla. Among them are three excellent scholarly studies: Peter Alegi's African Soccerscapes: How a Continent Changed the World's Game (Ohio University Press), Laurent Dubois's Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France (University of California Press), and Richard Giulianotti and Roland Robertson's edited Globalization and Football: A Critical Sociology (reissued by Sage last summer). They join a distinguished group of academics writing about soccer around the world over the past 20 years, including Jean Williams, Joseph A. Maguire, Eduardo Galeano, Sheila Scraton, John Sugden, David L. Andrews, Ben Carrington, Alan Tomlinson, Tony Mangan, Joke Hermes, Eric Dunning, Norbert Elias, and Gary Armstrong. Many of the books take up the role of football in creating a sense of nationalism focused on home teams while at the same time facilitating a globalized labor market that undercuts national boundaries. A few even recognize that laggard America is no longer exceptional.

The books tend to follow one of two paths, drawing on Elias's theory of figuration and diffusion to explain how cultures travel across space and time, or on neo-Marxist and postcolonial approaches, which focus on the experience of imperial and commercial enslavement and exploitation as the means whereby soccer spread around the world.

Most histories of association football describe Britain as the home of the game. As early as 1860, an anonymous handbill was issued proclaiming itself to be an "Obituary: Death of the Right Honourable Game Football," after two court cases prevented the citizens of Ashbourne, Derbyshire, from playing an annual festive street game. But just as soccer was "dying," it was actually developing first into a national pastime and then into an international sport. Its codification domestically coincided and blended with the establishment and synchronization of the British Empire's cultural mission. The game was reborn through diffusion across the British and French Empires in the 19th century; organizational domination by European entities and then by Latin American ones in the 20th; and a return of power to Europe, based on its status as a profit center of the game, thanks to the combination of deregulated TV markets and new technologies, which together generated untold revenue for soccer from the sale of rights.

Soccer worldwide is about more than sport tout court. The famous Dutch coach Rinus Michels likened it to war—and the Soccer War itself broke out, in 1969, because the Honduran government expelled Salvadorans following a match between the two countries. In the Biafra-Nigeria civil war, at one point in 1967, fighting was halted so the combatants could watch the Brazilian star Pelé. The Brazilian junta took the national team's 1970 World Cup song for itself. In 1978, the fascists running Peru helped out the fascists running Argentina during the World Cup. Argentina, the host, had to beat Peru by at least four goals to nil in order to qualify for the second round. With the help of 35,000 tons of free grain and $50-million in credits to Peru that allegedly came from Buenos Aires, they did so. Four years later, the Argentine generals used the 1978 team song during the Falkland Islands war.

During the revolutionary events of 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe, sport was part of the intense passions. Some athletes in the army sports club shot at the secret police in Romania when players from another team, the Dinamo Club, defended the police force, which was their patron (the Dinamo teams of Eastern and Central Europe were KGB-backed). When Georgia achieved its independence from the Soviet Union, almost the first act of its new government was to submit an application to join the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). After the Communist-bloc revolutions overturned the state-socialist sports systems, the system of cultural labor destroyed the club and national teams that had been built up over decades. Within two years, Torpedo Moscow, for example, had sold 23 players to Western clubs; top talent was desperate to leave in search of higher pay and better quality of life. Home sides were left with cash balances to pay inflated wages to second-raters.

That gives us a clue to part of the reason for soccer's globalism: It is a major site of international mobility, via what could be called a New International Division of Cultural Labor, a concept that I have been using with collaborative research teams for 20 years to analyze both sports and the media. Players move because of several factors beyond talent and money. There is a clear link between imperial history and job destination in the case of Latin Americans going to Spain, Portugal, and Italy, or Africans playing in France, while cultural ties draw Scandinavians to Britain. A small labor aristocracy experiences genuine class mobility in financial terms, underpinned by a large reserve army of players. A Professional Football Players' Observatory tracks players' success and value and comes complete with an interactive online instrument to illustrate migration (eurofootplayers.org).

In the wealthy West, an even more significant soccer revolution was brewing after 1989, as the Belgian midfielder Jean-Marc Bosman appealed to the European Court of Justice against his suspension by the Union Royale Belge des Sociétés de Football Association for seeking an overseas transfer. The right to freedom of movement for European Union workers led the court to rule in Bosman's favor in 1995. That decision, opposing restriction on movement and upholding freedom of labor within the European Union, has prevented the imposition of quotas on foreign players. Immigration authorities' power to decide whether players from outside the EU have sufficiently rare and demonstrable skills to merit a work permit has become the only formal barrier to labor-market entry. Even those rules can be circumvented through the accelerated awarding of dual citizenship and the use of European nurseries to assimilate young players before their formal entry into the football labor market.

The essence of the decision was that soccer is a business like any other. The Belgian association had argued that perfect competition is impossible and undesirable in sport, since the very viability of soccer rests on a continuing number of equivalently strong clubs. The Court of Justice disagreed. That does not mean it rejected the notion that soccer has noneconomic, cultural aspects tied to regional and national identity—the latter was noted in the decision. It does mean that the court was suspicious of the association's claim without supporting evidence that culture is not a cloak for economic gain via anticompetitive conduct.

Facing the threat of fines from the European Commission, FIFA in 1996 discontinued rules restricting the number of foreigners who could play. Within a few months, cross-European player mobility increased sharply, and a talent gap between wealthy teams and also-rans widened. Top performers were able to command unheard-of salaries, increasing wage disparities, and top clubs dispensed with their youth-development policies. Widespread anxiety was expressed that clubs would buy teams rather than develop them. The EU seemed to stick to its view that soccer is a commodity like any other: Rules of competition applied to the sport, and its players were workers like any other, with the right to work for whom they pleased. Even as elite players celebrated their freedom, though, many also felt that they lacked a sufficiently powerful union to counter the organizational power of employers and administrators.

The globalization of soccer labor markets has also generated new forms of identity—one effect of which is to question the meaning and efficacy of nationalism. In their books, both Alegi and Dubois show us how soccer has been used against itself by peoples colonized by the French, whose Mission civilisatrice sought to bind Africans to Paris but ultimately saw them align their struggles for national independence in part with a sporting identity. But soccer has equally allowed Algerians or Guadeloupeans in France to say, effectively, "We are here because you were there" as they remake French national identity from within.

Multicultural national sporting teams bring into question the traditional political and racial core of nationalist sentiment, blurring the meaning of "us" versus "them." So people all over the world obsess over English soccer's Premier League. (In Kenya, the key to the current battle over TV platforms is being decided over who has the rights to the league, which is the key to consumer loyalty.) And many people, including the world's leading team manager, José Mourinho, maintain that the World Cup is inferior to the leading European leagues (in England, Spain, Italy, and Germany), because the latter draw at will from elsewhere to combine players on the basis of skill rather than birth. (The United States is one of dozens of feeder leagues to European club competition.)

The rise of global electronic-media coverage, intertwined with new forms of commodification, has changed sport irrevocably. For instance, not content with 30-second TV spots or arena signage, Adidas redesigned its soccer boot for the 2002 World Cup to achieve what it called "maximum on-field visibility" for television viewing. Regardless of the angle, or the use of slow motion, the company's three-stripe logo would be visible every time one of the 150 players in the tournament who were paid to wear the "Predator Mania" shoe was on screen. Major stars were encouraged to don a champagne-colored variety, which had been tested for maximum televisual impact.

Of course, in the United States, Americanization has historically tied sports to nationalism. For instance, the push toward the "Americanizing" of American Indians and new immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was embodied in the formation of compulsory sports schools and voluntary sports associations, respectively, while black slave labor was crucial for the emergence of regional identity through Southern horse racing. In the last two decades of the 19th century, America gave birth to national bodies to regulate and represent tennis, golf, and college sports. The American Legion sponsored baseball to counter working-class radicalism and encourage social integration. Baseball, hockey, and what we call football professionalized and associated themselves with patriotic rhetoric.

Sport also became an arm of U.S. foreign policy. In 1888 an international baseball tour was staged to promote sporting goods and display the nation's missionary zeal. World War I saw a major conflation of sporting values with militarism and citizenship through propaganda and news-media coverage. Peace Corps officials argued in Sports Illustrated in 1963 that sport was a more productive terrain for their mission than teaching because it was less "vulnerable to charges of 'neo-colonialism' and 'cultural imperialism.'" The President's Council on Youth Fitness was established to counter a "growing softness, our increasing lack of physical fitness" that constituted "a threat to our security." And consider President Carter's insistence that the U.S. Olympic Federation boycott the 1980 Moscow Games; the Treasury Department's initial denial of a license to ABC to telecast the 1991 Pan-American Games because they were held in Havana; government opposition, until 1999, to Major League Baseball's attempts to open up Cuban links; and a Congressional resolution opposing Beijing's 2000 Olympic bid.

A potent brand of amateur intellectualism and reactionary academic scholarship celebrates a putative American exceptionalism, which supposedly seals off American sport from outside influence. The concept of exceptionalism began as an attempt to explain why socialism had not taken greater hold here. It has since turned into an excessive rhapsody to Yankee world leadership, difference, and sanctimony. So we encounter claims made—in all seriousness—that "foreignness" can make a sport unpopular in America.

Perhaps the most notorious instance of American exceptionalism was applied to soccer by the Reaganite Republican Jack Kemp, who derided it as a "European socialist" sport, in contrast to its "democratic" rival (the "football" that he had played in college and professionally). Similarly ethnocentric denunciations of soccer—predicated, of course, on letting Latinos and migrants know they're not "American"—still flow from angry white men. Frustrated at the prominence and popularity of the sport, they are desperate to attack what a Wall Street Journal opinion essay calls its taint of "European ... death and despair." The American Enterprise Institute's journal says Americans insist that "excellence should prevail" while Europeans and Latin Americans are happy with second-best—so they enjoy soccer.

What prompts such anger? It sometimes seems that the game is too low-scoring (as opposed to a classic pitchers' duel in baseball, where the score is 1-0?); the players too small and Euro (but look at that Vanity Fair cover); and the sport too ruling-class (whoops—on average, admission to a Major League Soccer game costs a third of that to an NBA or NHL game, and almost four million MLS tickets are sold in the United States each season. Forget about the NFL, where the price is so high for a purportedly blue-collar sport that the average salary of spectators is over $100,000).

In reality, the claims of the nutty right about soccer are death throes against the tide of history. Wiser critics, like Habte Selassie, who has written several articles on sport in The Village Voice, have connected such protectionist expressions to cold-war scapegoating of immigrants—the rejection of soccer in the 1940s and 50s as a rejection of difference. But that repudiation works only if you count just some of us as "American."

The clouds have grown thick around those elderly ways of understanding the American sporting market. Average attendance at the 1994 World Cup, held in the United States, was just under 70,000—still the highest ever in any country. American television viewership for the last World Cup, in 2006, was up 90 percent over 2002. The Spanish-language Univision, which is frequently top-rated in this country, outranked every other network in 2009 with its coverage of the U.S.-Mexico match, in New Jersey, and 79,000 people attended in person.

By 2005, America had English- and Spanish-language TV networks dedicated to football, covering leagues in Britain, Germany, Asia, Africa, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Australia, Latin America—and the United States. We have loads of podcasts, radio shows, fans, and players, from children whose parents faithfully cart them around town to adults who play pickup games in parks.

Soccer has always been popular in America—but the key is that its popularity is greatest among people whose interests have not been important for mainstream sports marketers, newspapers, and so on. For the immigrants, the Latinos, and the soccer moms, their time has come. Witness, for example, the Bolivians and Salvadorans crowding into D.C. United games in the La Barra Brava fan-club section.

Because soccer is now loved by an unusual cross-class alliance of very poor, working-class Latino immigrants and relatively affluent, college-educated white parents, it is tough to market to, and even to measure. Los Angeles, for example, has perhaps 200 unaffiliated amateur adult leagues, with half a million players. They cannot afford to join the national system. But they are American.

The expectation is that this year's Census will disclose that there are 48 million Latinos in this country. Nativists mightn't like it, but those people are American, and for them and millions of others, soccer is the world's game, and the United States is part of that world. Almost six million women and more than eight million men in America play regularly, and two-thirds of them are over 18.

So go read Vanity Fair's blog, watch ESPN's and ABC's and Univision's coverage of the World Cup, and rethink any residual ties to exceptionalism. And if you still believe that soccer is un-American, or simply that it's unpopular, take a peek at the following:

Toby Miller is a professor of media and cultural studies at the University of California at Riverside. Among his books is Globalization and Sport: Playing the World (Sage, 2001), which he wrote with Geoffrey Lawrence, Jim McKay, and David Rowe.


1. arrive2__net - May 30, 2010 at 03:51 pm

As a father of daughters, I think soccer has an edge over American football in that both women and men can play soccer, so 'becoming a fan by playing in your youth' is cultivated in women as well as men. Another edge for soccer it that when kids play soccer parents don't have to worry as much about serious injury ... as they do with American football. You don't have to be oversized to play soccer, compared with American football, so a wider range of sizes can play it. I think American football will always be a popular sport in America, where we like to breakthrough and make the big play. In college, football is obviously the money sport by far. However I think the article made some good point about soccer. I though the article could have mentioned the women's 2004 Olympic Gold, which I think gave America a sudden reason to check-out soccer on the world stage.

Bernard Schuster

2. jffoster - May 31, 2010 at 02:24 pm

What angers the "nutty left" is not that Americans think angrily about socer, it is rather that mostly, with the partial exception of organized children's leagues, we don't think about it much at all. And that we don't call it 'football'.

3. weststillman - May 31, 2010 at 03:10 pm

Jffoster wrote: "...it is rather that mostly, with the partial exception of organized children's leagues, we don't think about it much at all."

Are you saying that the majority of people living in the U.S. whose children aren't involved with youth soccer "don't think about soccer much at all?" That might be true. But even if it is true, soccer still is a fairly popular sport in the U.S., both as a participation sport and as a spectator sport. For instance, millions of adults living in the U.S. play soccer, in organized leagues and/or for recreation. Moreover, combined the English and Spanish-language telecasts of the final match of the 2006 World Cup (between France and Italy) attracted an estimated 16.9 million viewers in the U.S., comparable to the average viewership of the 2005 World Series of Major League Baseball. Here is a link:


Also, there are 48 million Latinos living in the U.S. And soccer probably is, overall, the most popular spectator sport among Latinos living in the U.S. Here is a link:


Also, the 1999 Women's World Cup got good TV ratings in the U.S. and sold out large U.S. stadiums. And there now is a professional women's soccer league in the U.S., the WPS. In addition, last season, Major League Soccer, the largest men's professional soccer league in the U.S., averaged about 16,000 fans per game over a 30-game regular season and is on pace to beat that number this season.

Moreover, the Mexican national soccer team generally sells out large stadiums in the U.S. Here is a link:


Finally, here is an article by Nancy Armour of the AP on soccer's increasing popularity in the U.S.:


4. jffoster - May 31, 2010 at 04:55 pm

No 3, I havent got time to read all your links -- read the last one I did.

It cuts no ice. Just because people play it as children in organizaed leagues, that doesn't mean they'll fovor it over everything else when they grow up and put away childish things. We even played pick up games of socer back in the 50s -- but preferred football.

Socer can't hold a candle in the United States to College and Professional football and a lot more people turn out on Friday nights to see High School football. Football can fill Jordan-Hare stadium--I doubt if socer can.

In the push for Socer ---- and no I will NOT "make that football" as the original poster said, I detect a not very under undercurrent of socer's being part of a larger political and social agenda -- we all have to be like Yurp and like what Yurpeans like. We are supposed to abandon football and baseball in favor of games girls can play too, &c., &c.

The United States are not going to replace football with socer.

5. syoshonis - May 31, 2010 at 05:14 pm

@jffoster: Interesting how you "don't have time" to read links that happen to contain facts that refute your position. Apparently, you didn't "have time" to read the article on which you're ostensibly commenting, since it has lots of evidence that contradicts your assertions, or "have time" to learn the correct spelling of the sport that you feel the need to criticize by denying facts.

And, I'm sorry that you lack the ability to understand that the word "football" indicates not just one sport, but a category of sports that includes American football, Canadian football, Gaelic football, Australian football, Rugby League and Rugby Union and yes, soccer. Yes, soccer IS football, and simply your asserting otherwise doesn't change that.

But by all means, cling to your strategy of demonizing those who disagree with you, and assigning positions that they don't actually take (e.g., that soccer is as popular as American football here) as a convenient straw man to attack when you can't actually refute what they do say. It shows just how weak your position really is, better than anyone else could.

6. weststillman - May 31, 2010 at 05:38 pm

Jffoster wrote: "It cuts no ice. Just because people play it as children in organizaed leagues, that doesn't mean they'll fovor it over everything else when they grow up and put away childish things. We even played pick up games of socer back in the 50s -- but preferred football."

I didn't mean to suggest that soccer's popularity in the U.S. as a participation sport for kids is evidence that soccer is a fairly popular as spectator sport in the U.S. However, I provided other data and reasons to support the latter claim, including links. For instance, combined the English and Spanish-language telecasts of the final match of the 2006 World Cup (between France and Italy) attracted an estimated 16.9 million viewers in the U.S., comparable to the average viewership of the 2005 World Series of Major League Baseball. The links provide evidence to show that soccer is a fairly popular spectator sport in the U.S.

7. weststillman - May 31, 2010 at 05:39 pm

Jffoster wrote: "Socer can't hold a candle in the United States to College and Professional football and a lot more people turn out on Friday nights to see High School football. Football can fill Jordan-Hare stadium--I doubt if socer can."

Soccer is a much less popular spectator sport in the U.S. than is American football. I didn't mean to suggest that soccer is anywhere near as popular a spectator sport in the U.S. as American football is. Here is what I wrote: "soccer still is a fairly popular sport in the U.S., both as a participation sport and as a spectator sport."

I'll be clearer. First, soccer is a popular participation sport in the U.S. Second, soccer is a fairly popular spectator sport in the U.S. My links include evidence to support this claim. For instance, there are 48 million Latinos living in the U.S. And soccer is the most popular spectator sport among Latinos living in the U.S.

8. weststillman - May 31, 2010 at 05:40 pm

Jffoster worte: "In the push for Socer ---- and no I will NOT 'make that football' as the original poster said, I detect a not very under undercurrent of socer's being part of a larger political and social agenda -- we all have to be like Yurp and like what Yurpeans like. We are supposed to abandon football and baseball in favor of games girls can play too, &c., &c."

For the sake of argument, let's say that that some people's motive for claiming that soccer is a good sport and/or an increasingly popular sport in the U.S. is that they want to bring about political or social events. That is, of course, unimportant to whether one is warranted in believing that their claims are true. For instance, suppose Copernicus came up with the idea of heliocentrism partly because he wanted to undermine the Catholic Church. I'm still quite sure that the earth revolves around the sun.

9. weststillman - May 31, 2010 at 05:44 pm

Jffoster wrote: "The United States are not going to replace football with soccer."

First, no one knows what will be the most popular spectator sport in the U.S. in 50,000 years. Will the U.S., as nation, even exist in 50,000 years? A lot can happen in 50,000 years.

10. weststillman - May 31, 2010 at 05:48 pm

In fact, a lot can happen in 100 years. For instance, 100 years ago horse racing was a significantly more popular spectator sport in the U.S. than was American football. In fact, 16 years ago the U.S. didn't even have a significant professional soccer league in the U.S. Now it has both men's and women's professional soccer leagues. And last season MLS averaged about 16,000 fans per game over 30 game regular season.

11. weststillman - May 31, 2010 at 05:49 pm

However, it is unlikely that, within the next 30 years, soccer will be as popular a spectator sport in the U.S. as American football is. For one thing, soccer has so far to go to catch American football in terms of its popularity as a spectator sport in the U.S.

12. jffoster - May 31, 2010 at 09:38 pm

It appears that Weststillman and I are not in as much disagreement as it might first have appeared. Thank you for your clarity.

Syoshonis (5), In the United States of America when most people mean by the word 'football' that game with 11 men to a team, quarterbacks, tailbacks, tackles, guards, centers, ... &c., that's played in the Fall and early Winter. Americans in general do not mean by it all that other stuff you listed, excepting Canadian Football, which is like football save for minor differences. It is not very much like socer. In the English of most Americans, 'socer / socker' is NOT football and you cannot make us call it that.

Or 'socker'. Words spelled with medial Vowel_cc_Vowel in English look funny and I absolutely refuse to spell that word with geminate "cc". So as far as I'm concerned it's socer, or socker. (The vegetable that the Itallians write as 'broccoli' I write as 'brockley'.

13. trendisnotdestiny - June 01, 2010 at 09:55 am

Soccer is culture... The combination of globalization, embedded media and marketing and intricate feeder systems of mining for players has led to what the author refers to as conquering: whether the roots come from colonizing past, cultural bottom up approach or both/and...

In America, what is interesting is that the sport has had a bit of an enlightened period in recent decades... In 1950's, the sport was really in its infancy except in large cities where european, latin american and global immigrants lived en masse: Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, New York etc... US National Team's victory against heavily favored England is a good example as the game winning goal was scored by a Haitian-American in 1950.

By the 1970's there was a market for the professionalization of the sport leading to the NASL; North American Soccer League... This led to a whole new intergenerational transmission of the sport starting locally while many professionals either were international players relocating in US or were Americans growing up in major cities with cultural ties to the sport: German, Italian, British, Dutch, Polish, Mexican and many others communities in major US cities...

By the 1980's soccer had a new audience in the US: suburbia... As many who grow up in the culture of soccer from outside of the US usually come from lower socio-economic areas: slums of Brazil, Argentina, Spain, England etc., soccer in American was being marketed as alternative to Basketball, Football and baseball... Each of these sports had their dyadic issues of race, violence, gender, urban-local, access, and expense... There was blowback by the dominant sports which led to some 'American sports exceptionalism'. The period between the early 80's and mid 90's in America was marked more by a middle or upper middle class involvement to get fund, develop and orchestrate an American approach to winning soccer. (Some these are comments are gross over-generalizations, but am trying to paint a broad picture here)... Women's soccer emerged, the failure of the NASL earlier was reorganized by the 1990's into the professional Soccer for men in the MLS (Major League Soccer)... University programs all over the country were looking to recruit 25-30 players for their teams with 9.9 scholarships.... Travel soccer and Olympic Development Programs were prevalent forms of middle class soccer structures.... By the 2000, these structures merged into what are called academies (or feeder systems to develop the American professional soccer player)with college as a potential weigh station.... Combine this with English premiere league, serie A league in Italy, and Spainish/German/ Dutch Leagues for global television and now you have a more complete picture...

Soccer has become increasingly more important in this country for a number of reasons:

1) More and more people are playing (small sided, full 11 vs 11 and AYSO, travel, high school, acadmies, college, professional ranks: PDL, USL, MLS all the way to EPL)

2) Globalization means that we shape markets and are shaped by them: population demographics, acculturation reciprocity potential in speaking the same sporting languages

3) Media, Access, and Structures: the marketing of professional leagues across the world daily means that many become apart of the larger global soccer narrative; and with feeder system leagues in most countries to mine for talent---- there are structures in place to capture it all levels... (see u-tube and young juggling soccer players under genius; it will flip you out

4) The dwindling power of nation-states in a global economy can be massaged by power. Where else to feel good about ourselves than to beat a world power. Tiny nations that have few people and resources can beat major economic and powerful nation states which allows leaders to change perceptions, rebrand and create belief in country.. (See Ivory Coast or South Korea in 2002).. Anyway, this four year tournament becomes a marketing opporunity to win or lose

5) Failure of other sports to keep growing at previous rates

6) Americans are earning elite status in the sport (albeit slowly) American Goalies have had a long hsitory of success in the sport, but we have had many playing in the top leagues in the world: Hahneman, Freidel, Keller, Guzan and Tim Howard... Not to mention very solid GK'ing in our professional leagues: Meola, Hartmann, Thornton, Rimando and many others.... Also, we have Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Oguchi Onyewu, Jay DeMerit all playing in important leagues with important teams...

7) The play of the game is getting better: fitness, psychology, tactics, and technique are all getting better which makes the sport more fun to watch, play, and coach...

8) The finances are there to support it (Television, Management, US Soccer and Stadiums)

This kind of morphed into a historical piece, my apologies.

14. sayyedmaisikeli - June 01, 2010 at 10:57 am

Forgive my little diversion from the topic at hand. I just need help on a simple question. Since I lived in US for over 25 years, my friends in other countries usually ask me a simple question I found difficult to answer. I always feel empty and at loss for not being able to answer "a simple question". I tried, but I always find my arguments and points shallow. The question is: WHY IS AMERICAN "FOOTBALL", which really is a "HAND BALL" being called "FOOTBALL"?

I asked several good American friends I have to help me with some explanation, but so far there is no clear, logical and convincing explanation. Is it that the word "HAND" is known as "FOOT" and "FOOT" as “HAND” in American (street English)? Please help me with clear objective and logical explanation.

Again, why is "HAND BALL" called "FOOTBALL" ?. I admit I am at loss. The feeling in the rest of the world is that, based on "REAL English", the American "Football" should be called a HANDBALL. Please help this ignoramus.

15. syoshonis - June 01, 2010 at 11:04 am

@jffoster: Nobody is trying to make you call soccer football. I was just pointing out that it is not incorrect to do so, and the idea that the word is limited to just one code of the sport is borne of ignorance, willful or otherwise. Ignorance is the enemy, and its eradication is the goal of higher education.

Your citing conventional usage is fairly amusing, given your obviously selective devotion to it.

16. sayyedmaisikeli - June 01, 2010 at 11:17 am

"Ignorance is the enemy, and its eradication is the goal of higher education". I totally agree with you!

I just need a simple explanation if you have one. This will help me explain my self and defend the use of the word "FOOTBALL" when I talk to those who have not lived in US.

Any explanation will be appreciated. Let us help eradicate ignorance around the globe.

17. sayyedmaisikeli - June 01, 2010 at 11:40 am

I will be attending the Football World cup events coming up in June in South Africa, and youths from many other countries will be attending; and there will be colloquia and other forums that will discuss issues globally. Again, the question is: why is American football, which actually is a HANDBALL called "FOOTBALL" ?.

I need any logical explanation please. I believe this will help prepare me and equip me with the means to argue logically and convincingly. I need Help please.

18. greeneyeshade - June 01, 2010 at 11:54 am

I understand that those who love soccer would feel it is a dominant sport in the U.S. And indeed, IMHO, it is a rising sport, not least because it is by far the top sport in every other country in the world.

But no, to say it is as much a major sport in the U.S. as it is in the rest of the world is still wishful thinking.

Does soccer have the extensive professional minor league system that baseball does, all the way down to the collegiate and other amateur levels? Ditto Basketball and football? Hardly, yet.

Americans understand soccer the way much of the rest of the world (notable exceptions: Latin America, Japan and Taiwan) understands the nuances of baseball. Boring sport they say. Hah!

I am absolutely sure soccer has the same nuances that baseball has in its sphere. But Americans in general don't yet appreciate those things. When we do, it will rise to the level of other sports in this country. Not before.

19. rhadmanthys - June 01, 2010 at 11:58 am

You raise a good question. But don't worry about it, we don't need you to defend the use of the word football. In the US, it is an accepted term for a game in which, yes, a ball is mostly thrown and caught with hands--although sometimes kicked with the foot, you must admit. Nevertheless, I agree the name doesn't make much sense, but cultural phenomena often do not. For instance, it also doesn't make sense to call the US "America" when there are dozens of other countries in the Americas--but on second thought this probably still makes more sense than calling our sport football.
Obviously, if you are speaking to someone outside of the US, or in an international context, you'll need to call it "American football" because they'll assume you're talking about the game the British invented otherwise. Really it should be called "US football" or at least "North American football," since what Brazilians play is also American football (or futebol). But ultimately this is just about semantics and is hardly unique to the word football or event to this sport--after all, people still aren't sure why tennis is called tennis.

20. syoshonis - June 01, 2010 at 01:06 pm

greeneyeshade said: "I understand that those who love soccer would feel it is a dominant sport in the U.S. And indeed, IMHO, it is a rising sport, not least because it is by far the top sport in every other country in the world.

But no, to say it is as much a major sport in the U.S. as it is in the rest of the world is still wishful thinking."

I'm not sure anyone here, or really anywhere else, has said that. But, it is closer to being "a dominant sport in the U.S." than it is to being as universally ignored here as its detractors so stridently proclaim, in the face of all credible evidence.

@sayyedmaisikeli: The term "football" originated to denote sports that were played ON foot, as opposed to on horseback, not ones that were played WITH the foot.

In fact, the sport that we now call soccer originally didn't preclude the use of the hands. Contrary to popular belief, the original split between the soccer and rugby codes of football was not due to the use of the hands, but of the practice of "hacking," or kicking the ball-carrier's legs out from under him. The first rules of what would become the Football Association provided for catching the ball, which didn't become illegal until later.

21. syoshonis - June 01, 2010 at 01:09 pm

@sayyedmaisikeli: Also, please point out to anyone who questions why American football is called football, that the same question could be asked of Rugby League, Rugby Union, Gaelic football and Australian football, for the same reason. The USA is not the only country with a code of football that uses primarily the hands.

22. ebustin - June 01, 2010 at 01:12 pm

@jffoster : What's in a name? You -and all other Americans- are welcome to call it "soccer", just as Italians like to call it "calcio", while the French casually refer to it as "le foot". What matters is its worldwide popularity -the reasons for which I will let others analyze.

PS: Eat your 'brockley' -it's good for you- but don't expect that nativistic preference to catch on!

23. 12052592 - June 01, 2010 at 01:38 pm

@sayyedmaisikeli: the early american game was very much like rugby and kicking dominated. It wasn't until 1906 that the forward pass became legal and 1951 when they instituted designated forward pass receivers. The game has only relatively recently evolved into what you see today (and it continues to evolve every season), but of course it keeps its name from the old days.

24. dank48 - June 01, 2010 at 02:54 pm

Old joke:
Q. Why are so many American children playing soccer?
A. So they won't have to watch.

What's all this got to do with higher education?

25. weststillman - June 01, 2010 at 03:00 pm

Dank48, millions of people living in the U.S. enjoy watching soccer. For instance, there are 48 million Latinos living in the U.S. And, overall, soccer is the most popular spectator sport among Latinos living in the U.S. Here is a link:


Also, last season, MLS averaged about 16,000 fans per game over a 30 game regular season. Here is a link:


26. dank48 - June 01, 2010 at 04:38 pm

Weststillman, millions of people living in the U.S. enjoy watching American Idol, Dance with the Stars, and Survivor, not to mention internet porn. I'm also aware that soccer is the most popular sport on earth, a fact that I think says a lot about our species. Considering that we're pretty clever with our hands, fingers, and opposable thumbs, the human mania for a sport that forbids their use to all but the goalies is striking. I don't know what it means, but it surely means something.

But I still don't see what it's got to do with higher ed.

27. futureprof7337 - June 01, 2010 at 04:43 pm

Thanks for the article!

I'm surprised there's no mention of the very good book on the subject, How Soccer Explains the World. You see the nationalism aspects also in that book, and it makes Barca rightfully look like the most politically neutral and socially responsible of the UEFA bunch.

Futbol seems so democratic on some level, so simple, and very accessible to anyone that can afford a cheap ten dollar ball. And then there is the global, er spherical shape that lends itself to inherent global thinking too. And those geo-metric panels that everyone's kicking at and trying to put their own spin on. It's ripe for a metaphor, I think.

What about soccer's role in diplomacy? Couldn't it cross-pollinate cultures and contribute to mutual understanding across nations and borders also? Isn't that what we're trying to do with Education?

For me, it is a source of great exercise, and taught me much about teamwork also. Not only that, it is an international window into other cultures. I've met a great many friendly internationals (international friendlies anyone?) playing Futbol. It's no wonder Futbol is the greatest sport in the world!

28. rhadmanthys - June 01, 2010 at 04:45 pm

Dank48 makes a fair point. Although it references them briefly, this article does not seem to touch much on academic appropriations of soccer, or even more journalistic global histories like Goldblatt's The Ball is Round. This was a missed opportunity and hopefully will be rectified in the future by the Chronicle.

29. jffoster - June 01, 2010 at 04:57 pm

Dank48 & al.,
At the same time the CHE ran and feature headline ths story on socker, CHE also is running and feature-headlining an exultatory and celebratory story on the rise of the "Global University".

Of course the running of these two features of globaloney might have been coincidental.

30. cwinton - June 01, 2010 at 05:38 pm

The best part of this article has been the comments, many of which are hilarious. In truth my interest in American football has declined and my interest in soccer has increased (including the women teams), although I think soccer's Achilles's heel is the ability of officials to determine game outcome by the penalty kick (a means of almost guaranteeing a score in a game for which it is ridiculously hard to score otherwise). Both American football and soccer have their intriguing strategies, but American football as played today is a game for behemoths with very little actual playing time (which on the other hand makes it a natural for commercial TV). Moreover, most collegiate football programs have to be subsidized to operate and I suspect even pro football is finding out there are limits to what people will pay to attend a game (15 years ago 2 nosebleed seats, a shuttle bus, and nominal concessions cost me over $100 - I shudder to think what the tab would be today). To its credit soccer can be played much more economically and by people of average size, so if nothing else, perhaps that reality will push more collegiate institutions to give it the kind of attention in the future now being lavished on football programs.

31. trendisnotdestiny - June 02, 2010 at 10:00 am

Green eyesshade

US Soccer does have a minor system and is a part of the world feeder system leading to the top flight European leagues...
Baseball does have similar systems (minor leagues, college, Babe Ruth leagues, Little league) but has been on the decline...

Soccer's minor league system consists of the PDL, USL-1 and USL-2

32. trendisnotdestiny - June 02, 2010 at 10:31 am


"I think soccer's Achilles's heel is the ability of officials to determine game outcome by the penalty kick (a means of almost guaranteeing a score in a game for which it is ridiculously hard to score otherwise)."

Unless you have played the sport, are apart of its culture and get the nuances of playing, watching or coaching games, it would be easy to reduce soccer's problem down to referee decision-making, penalties or frequency of scoring (easy targets) or some other simplistic outcome based criticism.

Cwinton, this is like the ethnographer who goes into an indigenous culture "to report neutrally" on their subject of the Other.... when they have very little understanding of the language, culture or nuanced meanings invariably drawing absurd conclusions about groups of others. Your opinion while not absurd, is not very informed in terms of merit and does little to explain the problems with a sport I play, coach and watch. Whether we call it football, handball, soccer, lefoot or Ole ole Ole: we know each others' passionate psychology on the issue... This could be an incredible opportunitiy for most of us to learn more about: Cote D'ivoire or North Korea or Italy... How they play the game is a reflective interaction of culture, temperment and aspiration: # of fouls, how they attack, tactics on defense...

One may say that having one man in power of the 22 on the pitch and 10-15 on the bench is a problem: feminists, critical theorists, evidence based researchers might all have something to say about the authority issue, but what sport doesn't have that?

Now, some might say that one of the problems with soccer is the potential for unresolved conflict: the tie... I make the counter argument that this (and hockey) are just a few sports who are modeling for the rest of us how to live with mistakes, ambiguity of outcome, almost good enough but not quite and how to keep fighting for a result that is not a winning one but one grounded in dignity... (A bit over the top on the last comment really)

"To its credit soccer can be played much more economically and by people of average size, so if nothing else, perhaps that reality will push more collegiate institutions to give it the kind of attention in the future now being lavished on football programs."

This comment misses the whole title 9 debate about adding men's sports in the culture. And most division-1 women's teams already have well established/funded programs... This is nonsense
Not trying to pick the bones of your comments here, but really this is so lofty ivory tower stuff

33. cwinton - June 02, 2010 at 08:59 pm

trendisnotdestiny ... I have played the sport, and am sorry to report that the use of the penalty kick to assure home team wins destroyed the credibility of the pro soccer league that operated in my area for a couple of years. Of course, if you are only interested in how the game is played and not the outcome ...

34. trendisnotdestiny - June 02, 2010 at 10:32 pm


Here we go... at what level did you play? Youth? Recreational? Travel? High School? College? Professional?

Also, provide us with some examples of what you are witnessing. Provide us a list of all those 'mystery PK's' that are happening that taint the sport.

It is funny that you are so concerned about credibility of pro soccer when your credibility is in question....

Refs make mistakes move on,

Armando Gallaraga

35. rhadmanthys - June 03, 2010 at 10:22 am

Without the penalty kick you would have a ridiculous amount of injuries in soccer--this would free up defenders to pulverize anyone in the box (true, they would be at risk for a card but that is not as much of a disincentive as going down by a goal). Unfortunately, refs are imperfect human beings and sometimes make game-changing mistakes in every sport.

36. futureprof7337 - June 03, 2010 at 11:56 am

Well, I've played at every level, youth, then middle school, then JV, then Varsity HS, then pickup games of nearly every stripe; Intramurals, and with pros, former pros, national team members, former national team members, collegiate, some faster and dirtier than others, sometimes intense, sometimes relaxed, and I've seen the some of the best play when everyone is relaxed and doesn't really care about the score. Well, that's where you really see the jogo bonito. People show amazing skill when they are comfortable. Obnoxious people yelling from the sidelines, hot-headed prima donna forwards, ball hogs, all degrade the sport. But it's only human nature. Otherwise, the pressures of winning create an ugly desperate situation more often than not. But that drama element makes it more compelling to watch and play. Should we leave it at a draw? I'd be comfortable with that.

And when you see cooperative friendly play that is greater than the sum of its parts, it's almost a miracle, almost like peace on Earth. What if all sports were international friendlies and no one was trying to win? It'd be more of an exhibition and demonstration of skill right? A celebration of sport. but arguably introducing scoring provides an objective, that can help unite a team towards a common "goal." And yes it becomes more fun when the other team is trying to prevent this. This is one reason why sports are fun. But introduce nationalism, with an entire country's pride seems at stake, then things get a little more emotional.

The credibility of US soccer gets questioned because of the run and gun, fast winger and server style. When US pro leadership begins adopting and adapting Brazilian and Euro-Playmaking as the norm, (1st touch passing and creativity) that is what will catalyze the US into the next level of a more globally credible brand that can compete with SPanish and English and other leagues. Many other leagues worldwide still consider the US leagues 3rd class. Mobility has allowed more outside influence, and this is good for the sport. Also, optimistically Goldblatt says that American Pro soccer is finally on firm footing: http://www.amazon.com/Ball-Round-Global-History-Soccer/dp/1594482969

And I haven't looked into the PK controversy much, but here's my opinion anyway. If anything, rather than deciding a win based on home team advantage, nerves and a fair share of heckling in favor of the home team, maybe it adds a different needed element to a tied match. This adds a shooting gallery piece into the play, suspense, it tests the skill and anticipation and reflexes of not only the PK-taker but the Goalie also. It is often surprising, and nerve-wracking. The best players sometimes overshoot or miss-hit, goalies choose the wrong way, and there are numerous offensive strategies to dupe the keeper, from slow , curling and deliberate, to fast and over with and many other styles. I've seen skilled, poised layers often overcome the pressures of the crowd, home or away.

That's my two cents.

37. barca - June 03, 2010 at 05:39 pm

As a passionate fan of soccer, I am grateful to Professor Miller for this article and the book recommendations. As a Ph.D. candidate in the humanities, I also enjoy reading great prose and insightful cultural analysis from a few other sources on soccer: Phil Ball (his book Morbo on Spanish soccer and his ESPN online column), Tom Dunmore and Andrew Guest at the Pitch Invasion website, and many of the authors on The Run of Play website. Hope others enjoy as much as I do, and if you recommend others, please post.

38. futureprof7337 - June 03, 2010 at 07:18 pm

Another interesting link to an article about Ajax, with some thoughts on the American system as well.


Thanks for the references to links, all.

There's some clips of Galeano reading via Vanity Fair/iTunes "Soccer Scribes" also.

39. goxewu - June 07, 2010 at 07:54 am

A few miscellaneous points:

1. I've heard the term "soccer" comes from the fact that in the 19c., players in the game in England--where it was invented--were often members of an "association," or league. "Associationer" was shortened, perhaps via the common abbreviation, "assoc.," to "soccer" and came to refer to the game itself.

2. It has probably occurred that a player of American "football"--like an offensive lineman--has gone through an entire career, from Pop Warner to the pros, without ever touching a football in an actual game. So, in terms of appropriateness, forget "foot" and think about "ball."

3. In terms of body type, in soccer and baseball, no particular one prevails. Among the greatest have been really small (Maradonna), really rangey (Cruyff), really chunky (Rooney). In American football--with the exception of a few receivers and DB's--the bigger the better, and in basketball, the taller the better.

4. Soccer, like basketball and hockey, is a continuous action sport. American football and baseball are stop-action sports, with about ten minutes of actual play in a three-hour (television time) game. Think cricket.

5. Women can and do play soccer at a high level. American football is, for all intents and purposes, exclusively male. So what? Well, for one, in Title IX, there's the "football exception" in calculating student participation.

6. Not only is soccer a global game (with [3], above, being a major factor) in terms of being played everywhere, but the big-time professional teams are international, with great Italian players on Spanish teams, African players on English ones, and so on.

7. American professional football tanked in Europe. Like, really tanked.

8. American football emphasizes some of our least-appetitizing characteristics: obesity, equipment excess and fetish, militarization (terminology, crowds of "high-ranking officers" watching from the bunkers), tough-guyism (e.g., "smash-mouth football"), etc.

9. Football is, over the career haul, a crippling and even life-shortening game. (Links too numerous to include here; but if somebody wants...) Especially problematic are concussions, which may eventually do to football what lung cancer did to the cigarette industry.

10. There will probably never be a "Friday Night Lights" of American soccer. Thank goodness for that.

11. The rules for soccer are wonderfully simple. The rules for American football are maddeningly complex. Soccer has its gray areas (PK's, fouls), but American football has more (e.g., pass interference, holding, intentional grounding).

12. American football is permeated with (over)specialization: place-kickers, punters, long-snappers, et al.

13. Soccer players have to think on their feet. American football players huddle after every bit of action, have plays sent in from coaches on the sidelines and, in the NFL, the quarterback has a radio receiver in his helmet.

14. American football corrupts universities in the extreme. Soccer does not do that to universities in other parts of the world.

15. The comparison is not strictly fair, because the World Cup happens only once every four years, but it's a much bigger deal--money, TV audience, press coverage--than the Super Bowl.

16. You couldn't have a World Cup of American football.

17. Little kids' soccer looks good. Little kids' American football looks silly. The helmets and shoulder pads on 10-year-olds for one thing.

18. American football doesn't cause riots on soccer's scale. That's one thing in its favor.

19. America's increasing Latino demographic puts soccer in a very favorable position as a spectator sport. Soon, it'll be ahead of hockey, and overtaking professional basketball is not out of the question.

20. Soccer is a simple game that can be very complex, with appreciation of it sometimes on the order of appreciation of opera. American football is a complicated game, with appreciation of it sometimes on the order of bloodlust.

I watch "CSI: Miami." I watch "Foyle's War." I enjoy them both, but "Foyle's War" is better. I watch American football. I watch soccer. I enjoy them both, but soccer is better.

40. dank48 - June 08, 2010 at 11:29 am


coccyx (and related forms), succinct, moccasin, zucchini, . . .

Various pronunciations, including some optional. What on earth do you do with -ough?

41. jffoster - June 28, 2010 at 01:51 pm

Dank 48 (No 40),
It's late and old but I just have just seen this so answer your question I will.

'Coccyx' is [ks] and that's a fairly regular English spelling. Ditto 'succinct' -- it's [s@ksiŋkt]. "soccer", i.e. socker on the other hand is [sak@r] where [@] is the "schwa", the last vowel in 'sofa'. I spell "moccasin" *mockasin". The -ough is an interesting problem but it's getting regularized too -- "hiccup" is a pretty common spelling now (and as for that -- cc - many people actually pronounce a double [kk] or a tense [k:] there, especially those who have a tertiary rather than a weak stress on the last syllable. And one often sees "tho" and "enuf". And "Ruf" is a common name for a dog, but not necessarily just for Samoyeds and Chows and dogs who have ruffs.

42. wjohnson15 - June 28, 2010 at 05:12 pm

If your kids are playing at any level, you get involved, believe me. Soon you are driving to tournaments across the state, yelling at refs and having ice cream after a tough day. Your kids are developing cardiovascular fitness better than any other sport except swimming and it teaches teamwork, unselfishnesss and you can play life long unlike American football. I always soccer was short for association football. The one rule they should modernize is adding video replay on goal scoring eg whether it crosses line as in hockey.

43. charliemarlow - June 29, 2010 at 10:08 am

All the intellectual theorizing about the appeal or lack of appeal of soccer in the US can be set aside by looking at the first Comment. More people in the US have now played soccer than was the case 20 years ago. Thus, they can tune into a game and easily connect to what is going on.
There is still a lack of wiedly bradcast information about various leagues and players between World Cups, so ongoing interest is not wel maintained between World Cups. It is the job of Major League Soccer to change this.
And liking soccer does not mean disliking American football or basketball, etc.
Finally, one paragraph in the story says soccer is suppressed as the sport of Latinos and migrants and, in the same breath, says it is the sport of Euros and then of aristocracy. Hmmm.....

Add Your Comment

Commenting is closed.

  • 1255 Twenty-Third St., N.W.
  • Washington, D.C. 20037
subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.