The Chronicle Review

Soccer Conquers the World

Illustration from Aurora

May 30, 2010

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 (

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.