A Global Sport


Go Into the Intro of The Cambridge Companion to Football

World Cup-watchers, enjoy an excerpt from The Cambridge Companion to Football. As you cheer on your team, remember the power of football (or soccer) to unite people across countries, cultures, and languages.


‘And did those feet…’: Introduction

The Adaptable Game

Football attracts some of the biggest media audiences in the world, for quadrennial spectaculars such as the men’s FIFA World Cup, and annual showpieces such as the UEFA Champions League. The accumulative global audience, including the most casual and passing of viewers, for the South Africa 2010 World Cup was reported by FIFA to be 3.2 billion, 46.4 per cent of the world population; those catching longer chunks of action (20 minutes or more) numbered 2.2 billion, 530.9 million of whom watched the final, with those catching a minute or more of the final numbering 909.6 million (FIFA, 2011). The Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester United in Rome in 2009 attracted a bigger global audience, 206 million, than that year’s Super Bowl. This global football business has spawned superstars and millionaires, and created a nouveau riche class of celebrity sportsmen willing to travel the world in response to the lucrative contract.

However global the apex of the game has gone, football still preserves its local identity, fostering tribal loyalties and community attachments

But however global the apex of the game has gone, football still preserves its local identity, fostering tribal loyalties and community attachments. One of the underlying appeals of sport is that it can prosper in local, regional, national, international and global contexts; and football, the world’s most popular sport, thrives at all of these levels. You can play for the local parks team, watch your city’s professional outfit, cheer on the national side, admire teams from across the world, and revel in the simplicity and accessibility of the game. There are many dimensions to football at all of these levels, but when you see Zinedine Zidane volley the winning goal in a European final, he does not appear as some form of special species. You could be him, if only you’d had that inspirational teacher, that patient coach, the time and the opening in life and on the pitch. Many sports offer the opportunity for this mix of ‘if only’ vicariousness and wish-fulfilment. Arguably, football allows this more than most other sports, and the secret to this is the game’s fundamental simplicity, in conception and execution. Sport draws us into a form of what Hans-Ulrich Gumbrecht (2006) has called a state of being lost in ‘focused intensity’, as we are at one with the performer or competitor, willing him/her on, being him/her. The Zidane volley was not just the sublime skill of the supreme player producing the perfect response at a critical moment; it was a shared experience of the collection of individuals lucky enough to be there and so able to say ‘I was there’, each time with a smile of privileged contentment, as long as the memory lasts.

The Unjust Game

Football is a form of culture, made in and by the collective watching of the event, the follow-up argument and analysis, the folklore that is passed down from generations. It is soap opera on grass, providing main narratives, sidelines, unlikely diversions, wonderful arrays of character. And it can defy logic and all attempts at rational analysis, a great sporting arena for the David and Goliath giant-killing trope. The most admired and feared team might lose its nerve, superstition and fatalism outweighing resources and talent. More and more, in a time of instantly available statistical breakdowns of performance, match analysis on the spot, technological assistance and psychological preparation, top football professionals make excuses for defeat, blaming referees and officials, fixture schedules and international commitments.

But it is one of the glories in football to see 11 versus 11 in a sport rooted in low-scoring. When the World Cup went to the United States in 1994, some seriously suggested that the goals should be made bigger, to provide higher scores for the U.S. public in particular. Even FIFA, or more accurately the International Football Association Board established in 1885 to harmonize interpretation of rules for ‘Home Nations’ international games within the United Kingdom, and to this day still the institutional body in charge of the laws of the game, resisted this crass proposal. The magnificence of a 0–0 draw might bypass those indifferent to the game or concerned only with high-scoring high-five achievers; but the epic defence against opponents of clearly superior technical skill, the match-of-a-lifetime performance by the underdog’s goalkeeper, can provide rivetingly tense spectacle. The best teams can lose on the day, and two such losses are etched in World Cup history: Hungary’s defeat by West Germany at the Miracle of Berne in 1954 and Holland’s defeat by West Germany in Munich 20 years later.

The Simplest Game

A fundamental simplicity has fostered the transmission of the game across cultures and through time, so whatever style of play has been adopted or tactical innovation put in place, football has remained recognizable and familiar to its massive and culturally varied fan base. Go anywhere in the world with a ball and you won’t be alone. Go into any bar with an opinion about football and you’ll find a friend. On the streets, on the beach, anything will do. You don’t need a pitch or any fancy kit. Two jumpers for goalposts and a pair of rolled-up gloves or an old coke can – anything will do. And that’s the point.

The continuing attraction of football lies in the core features of what the pioneer John Charles Thring called ‘the simplest game’: football can be played at its highest level of excellence by a short and stocky figure such as Argentinean Diego Maradona, or by physically deformed Brazilian Garrincha, as well as by mercurial bad boys such as George Best. Its principles are simple, its equipment minimal, its dramas flowing and focused. We all know what it is: and yet we can all argue over Brazilian or Argentinean style, German pragmatics or French hubris, Italian ruthlessness or Dutch prima-donnism, Cameroonian indiscipline or English doggedness. It brings players of varied cultural backgrounds together in teams of global appeal, a metaphor for cosmopolitanism and cross-cultural harmony, yet it can still be a catalyst for local club loyalties and national passions. The simple game, the beautiful game, the bountiful game, feeds the diet of the fan worldwide. In international media markets, football may look to have reached peak after peak, yet still, ‘final’ frontiers are exceeded, and the saturation point that some commentators and analysts believe to have been reached continues to be stretched to new limits (Hamil and Chadwick, 2010).

The International Game

Football’s first international match was a goalless Scotland-England encounter in 1872. It was in 1904, though, with the formation of the world governing body La Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), that a framework for truly international competition began to emerge (Sugden and Tomlinson 1998), though domestic football satisfied many national associations and it was not until 1930 that the first men’s football World Cup was held, in Uruguay. The first international staged outside the British Isles was the United States–Canada match in 1885; the first in South America in 1901, between Uruguay and Argentina; South America also staged the first official international tournament, the inaugural Copa America, in 1916, the year which also saw the formation of the continent’s confederation, CONMEBOL (Mason 1995; Miller and Crolley 2007). It was mid-Europe’s Mitropa Cup, from 1927, that provided organized international competition for clubs; in the same year, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Italy and Switzerland played for the Dr Gero Cup, in a tournament conceived as a Europe, International and/or Nations Cup.

British associations had withdrawn from both the Amsterdam Olympics and FIFA in 1928, in relation to issues of Olympic eligibility and principles of amateurism. In the absence of the self-isolating British, the growth of world football assumed an increasingly all-embracing international profile. The European association, UEFA (Union Européennes de Football Association), was established in 1954, followed by other continental federations for Africa, Asia, the Central Americas/Caribbean and Oceania. The growth of the game worldwide – imported into many countries initially by military personnel, migrant international workers, educators and colonial elites from Britain – has been phenomenal, and football is widely recognised as the world’s most popular game, in terms of both participation and the fan-base for the professional game. Conservative authorities and associations have held back the development of women’s football at different historical points, and effective levels of sponsorship prove difficult to secure and sustain for the professional women’s game. The dominant men’s form, though, has become increasingly visible in the international spotlight.

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