Two billion souls: One must begin with that. That’s how many people, or nearly so, sat or stood in view of television screens to watch twenty-two men kick a white ball around a green field on a warm July night in Berlin four years ago. The twenty-two men comprised the men’s national soccer teams of Italy and France. The occasion was the final game of the 2006 World Cup. The cagey match, as the world now knows, turned on an extraordinary event near its end when France’s captain and star, Zinedine Zidane, strode toward the Italian defender Marco Materazzi and, for reasons unknown, drove his bald pate into the taller man’s chest. The motion mimicked one he’d used a few minutes earlier to head a flighted ball inches over the Italians’ goal, coming agonizingly close to winning the day for France. Now Zidane was expelled, his team was rattled, and a player in blue whose name few outside Umbria and Trieste recall darted inside a player in white and curled the ball inside the French goal with his left foot, cueing images, on countless flickering screens around the planet, of his countrymen celebrating Italy’s triumph in the floodlit waters of the Trevi fountain in Rome.
Unlike many World Cup finals—whose pressure-filled stage can make for less than scintillating soccer—this game had produced high drama. Before the match, though, none of those billions who felt compelled to turn on their home TVs or gather around a communal set knew that it would. They “tuned in” to see twenty-two men kick a white ball around a green field—and, depending on their predilections and prejudices, to do much else besides: to watch the year’s most high-profile exhibition of a sport they played themselves in nearby parks; to join in what their fathers or friends were doing that day; to see, if they were fans, whether this French team could replicate their World Cup triumph eight years before, when Zidane’s talents and goals had prompted celebrations on the Champs Élysées of a scale unseen since Liberation Day. The reasons that a third of our species felt compelled to watch this game, like the narratives those billions of minds may have projected onto what they saw that day, are innumerable. So too, in truth, are the precise number of people who watched the game. But whether or not the 2006 World Cup final garnered more eyeballs than any televised event in history (and it has close rivals in the funerals of Princess Diana and, more recently, the King of Pop), it is least a fair bet to claim that never before had so many human beings done the same thing at the same time as watched the dramatic final moments of that game in Berlin.
In his book Human Universals, the anthropologist Donald Brown identifies a number of beliefs and traits apparently common to all human cultures: music and sexual jealousy; proper nouns; social rituals marking birth and death. People everywhere may celebrate unions and commemorate lives. The particular rites by which they do so, though, are endlessly diverse. The organized games people play to act on our native capacity for play, too, vary widely in content and form. There is one game, though, that is not only played in every one of the world’s nations but is also played, everywhere, by the same simple set of rules. Soccer is not merely our planet’s most popular sport by far; it may also be our most global human activity.
Win the Day in Peace and War
The first builders of a great stadium for sporting spectacle—the Romans—may have favored watching lions maul slaves in their Colosseum. But in many other societies where people developed the requisite social complexity to build cities and have a leisure class, people placed team games involving the kicking or passing of a ball near the heart of their lives. The Han-era Chinese played a game wherein two teams competed to propel a stitched leather ball, stuffed with fur or feathers, through a hole in a silk sheet hung between two bamboo posts. Mesoamerica’s Maya and Aztec civilizations—uniquely possessed, among the ancients, of rubber balls that bounced—played games in ornate walled courts adjacent to their great temples, whose meanings and conduct were tied to the complex symbologies of astronomical time around which their cultures revolved. The Mesoamerican ball game, like many aspects of those great civilizations vanquished by the guns and smallpox of their conquerors, disappeared with the arrival of Columbus and Cortez. The game we know as soccer, like many aspects of our world whose lingua franca remains English, emerged from a damp island off Northern Europe in the last half of the nineteenth century.
At the elite “public” schools where upper crust Britons sent their boys to study Greek and God in pre-Victorian England, physical education was anything but a curricular staple: “sport,” in those days, connoted hunting, or pastimes—horseracing, darts—you could bet on. With the growth of Queen Victoria’s empire, though, and with it Muscular Christianity’s dictum that physical and moral health were inextricable, teachers at Harrow, Eton, and Rugby turned to ball games as a means of funneling their pupils’ energy away from masturbation and buggery—and as a means, moreover, of imparting ”the pluck, the energy, the perseverance, the good temper, the self-control, the discipline, the co-operation, the esprit de corps,” as one Harrow headmaster put it, “…that win the day in peace and war.” By the 1840s, each school had its own idiosyncratic set of rules. Some allowed handling of the ball; others focused on kicking. During the next decade, a series of efforts were made to set these rules down in one unified football code in order that those schools’ “varsity” sides could play one another. One game that emerged is what we know as rugby (later transformed, across the Atlantic in New Jersey, into gridiron); the other—whose “laws” were promulgated by a new London organization called the Football Association (FA) in 1863—is what we North Americans, using the slang term short for “Association,” call soccer.
Soccer’s spread from Eton’s fields to more plebeian districts was swift. Unlike tough-tackling rugby—which largely remained a game for privileged boys in plush surrounds—association football could be played on hard or bumpy surfaces, without risk of injury to working men. Clubs sprung up from Glasgow to Kent. The first FA Cup—a national knockout tournament open to every registered club in the land—took place in 1872. Soon enough, those teams organized themselves into formal leagues, Saturday at 3 pm was enshrined as the time for football matches to kick off each week. In the grim factory towns of urbanizing Britain, those weekly matches quickly became not just a diversion but the key weekly outlet for recreation outside the tyrannies of the factory and the clock. “It turned you into a member of a new community,” wrote J.B. Priestley of the game’s role in such lives, “all brothers together for an hour and a half, for not only had you escaped from the clanking machinery of this lesser life, from work, from wages, rent, doles, sick pay, insurance cards, nagging wives, ailing children, bad bosses, idle workmen, but you had escaped with most of your mates and your neighbors, with half the town, cheering together, thumping one another on the shoulders, swapping judgements like Lords of the Earth, having pushed your way through a turnstile into another and altogether more splendid life.”
The story of how soccer became the most popular game on the globe, during the ensuing half-century that saw Britain build an empire over half its surface, is naturally a story about empire—though perhaps not in the predictable ways. In many key territories of the commonwealth—like Australia (which developed an alternative football code) and India (which preferred cricket)—soccer was slow to take root. It was to everywhere else, rather, that the game most readily spread. Britain’s empire was not just military but mercantile. Soccer was carried forth to the world less by colonial administrators and police than seamen and salesmen: the employees of British firms who supplied the world with its widgets and wheat threshers, and who were responsible, as well, for such exemplary modern tasks as building a railway network for the whole of South America. Along with these servants of informal empire setting up soccer pitches in their far-flung ports of call, their wealthy bosses founded formal clubs. Soccer’s spread—abetted by the intense Anglophilia then gripping the world’s upper classes—reached a critical velocity near the century’s end. The cause and legacies of that initial spread are still visible from Argentina—where Buenos Aires’ biggest club is named not Rio de la Plata but River Plate—to Italy—where the nation’s most storied team is called not Milano but AC Milan.
All of this may go some way to explaining the means by which soccer circled the globe. None of it, though, explains how and why people in all the places it alighted embraced soccer as their own. One ready answer is the very simplicity of the sport, a ball—or ball of rags—the only necessary equipment: an obvious attraction for children from the favelas of Rio to the shanties of Lagos and apartment blocks of the old Eastern Bloc. Flexible in terms both of numbers and area needed to play, the game is also easy to learn, and—conducted largely on the ground, and with no necessary premium on strength or height—requires no physical attributes in particular. Yet still: these simple facts do not explain the game’s attraction as spectacle for those variegated throngs of people who, whether or not they play themselves, have been transfixed by those who do.
Why is it then that this brand of football has captured the social and aesthetic imagination of literally billions of people? For partisans like me that answer is implicit in countless telecasts today beamed in from overseas on cable: whenever Argentina and Barcelona’s Lionel Messi ghosts past a gaggle of defenders with the ball seemingly tied to his foot; whenever Milan and Brazil’s Ronaldinho executes some outrageous bit of creativity with chest and thigh to inspire a stadium of fans to new samba heights; whenever one of the great sides manages to orchestrate a passing move involving four or five players that, for all its speed and precision of ball and man arriving in space at the same moment again and again, one would think it was exactingly planned beforehand, but executed with such breathtaking verve and awareness that it could only be a product of the moment. Affording the space both for individual genius to express itself and the possibility that a brilliant or driven team can win the day, soccer dramatizes the dialectic between individual and collective. Combining a beguiling mix of power and touch, delicacy and speed, its finest players also offer up, in mid-air contortions of leg and trunk to send a speeding airborne ball goalwards, supreme visions of physical grace.
Sports waged by individuals—as David Goldblatt notes in The Ball is Round, his peerless global history of soccer—were never likely to capture the minds of mass societies in an industrializing age. In North America for a time in the last century, baseball—played in city streets by kids down the block from urban stadiums where they could watch their heroes play the same game—occupied a similar place to that which soccer does in most of the world today. Now that place, here, is held mostly by basketball: a team ball game of soccer-like simplicity that affords analogous moments of both physical grace and narrative possibility. But even basketball requires a modicum of equipment—a good round ball that bounces, a hoop. Its playing area, too, is too small to afford the truly massive spectacles on which mass cultures thrive. Circumscribing a basketball court within a steeply banked oval of seats affords an indoor arena holding 20,000 at most. Building a similar structure around a large green soccer pitch affords the construction of great cantilevered cauldrons holding as many as 100,000: spectacular spaces whose dramatic qualities are compounded, at night, by floodlights bathing the pitch and stands in evocative light. Singing songs and bellowing chants at the players representing their club or country, the crowds in such spaces—at once providing ambience and shaping the game’s course —are unquestionably the chorus: participants in dramatic spectacles that afford opportunities without parallel in global popular culture, argues David Goldblatt, for “the celebration of the miracle of our own solidarities, innumerable imagined communities of class, ethnicity, nation, region, neighborhood and community, struggling to be born.”
In the U.S.A. on certain fall afternoons, one might point to parallels in college towns like, say, Knoxville, Tennessee, where similar numbers of orange-clad fanatics singing “Rocky Top” make rooting on their state school’s football team a key inculcator of their Appalachian identities. In the United States, transforming old English games into more rationalized New World variants—the innings short and clear, the territory gained and lost plain—was for much of our early history a key facet of inventing a new American identity. It’s no wonder that soccer has only recently gained a significant following and legitimate pro league in the U.S. One reason the game’s charms still elude so many here, one suspects, is for precisely the reason the game retains the hearts of so many elsewhere: its caprice, its unwillingness to offer up its charms on demand. Kobe Bryant is never held scoreless, but the best strikers in the world game can go weeks without a goal. Even when our teams battle bravely, ping the ball beautifully around a confounded enemy, forge gilt-edged chances at goal—the ball can carom off the woodwork. To be a soccer fan is to lust after the moments of joy the game can provide. But it is to know, too, that the game’s tense flow may not find release in a goal’s orgasmic peak, that the best team doesn’t always win.
For perhaps most crucial of all to its lovers, this is a game wherein success can’t be bought: where the result—no matter the rich and powerful’s attempts to bend it to their will—is always in doubt. Last summer, Spain’s Real Madrid spent some $200 million to assemble a veritable all-star team purposed to return that club to the top of the European heap. This spring, Real was dumped from Europe’s Champions League by an unfancied French side assembled for the salary of a single Real backup. The ball may always bounce our teams’ way; nothing is guaranteed. That the happiness of cities, even the economies of nations, could ride on such chance—this too is part of the game’s charm. As the soccer writer Phil Ball puts it: “The essential absurdity of football—that it has become so important—is nine-tenths of the poetry.”
More Than a Club
If the passions voiced in soccer stadiums can dramatize larger tensions in the societies that build them, so too can the feelings bred in stadiums shape societies beyond their walls. In Italy, where Silvio Berlusconi owns not just the nation’s major TV stations but its largest soccer club (AC Milan), the Prime Minister—nothing if not alive to the objects of popular acclaim in his society—named his political party, Forza Italia!, after a chant bellowed by fans during matches involving Italy’s national team. Today in the former Yugoslavia, outside the stadium where Dinamo Zagreb, Croatia’s leading team, plays its matches, there stands a monument “to the fans of this club who started the war with Serbia at this ground.”
If identitarian passions nurtured in the stands can, in extreme cases, abet a nation’s being torn apart, by far the more common are cases where soccer fandom offers a venue for those passions’ less violent expression. “Més que un club” (more than a club) goes the Catalan motto of Spain’s FC Barcelona, perhaps the most glamorous soccer club in the world, founded in 1899, and, as even casual fans know, the “flagship” of Catalan nationalism. Futból—first brought to Spain in the 1870s by British miners in Andalucia, was already a national obsession in Spain by the time Franco came to power. In the capital, Franco made public support for Real Madrid (and private funding of the team) a central tenet of his politics. In Catalunya, Barcelona’s famed claret and blue shirts became the preeminent symbol of this cosmopolitan port’s determination to remain more in tune with the world than with a dour dictator in Madrid, enlisting the most skillful and artistic players from Argentina, Brasil, and Holland to its cause, helping to make beautiful soccer a point of nationalist pride in Catalunya. Whether or not one affirms all the self-congratulating myths peddled by the club’s fans, any lover of the game who catches a glimpse of their brilliant current team—by consensus not only the finest but most stylish side on the planet—must grant that this is an institution, més que un club, that’s onto something.
In the decades since Franco’s fall, Spain’s historic transformation into a prosperous and pacific member of the European Union has seen its internal tensions—at least outside the soccer stadium—lessen considerably. And this transformation, too, has its analog and expression in the country’s futbol. In the summer of 2008, Spain’s national team ended decades of underachievement to become champions of Europe. “It is the first time we, as a democratic nation, have won a title,” observed Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero amidst the sangria-drenched celebrations occurring from Barcelona to Bilbao, “[and] it is right that a football victory on this level strengthens the unity in a country.”
The Appearance of Playing for Glory Alone
Among the aspects of soccer that perhaps compound Americans’ befuddlement about the game as spectator sport, is the truth that its best players regularly turn out for two different teams: those of their professional clubs and those of their countries. Professional soccer’s history is naturally as old, or nearly so, as the game itself. No sooner did football matches begin to draw large crowds in Victorian Britain than did competitive clubs begin paying the best players to join their cause. Thus began a history of money in the game that has seen the gap between the richest clubs and everyone else grow wider with each decade. The global result—especially with ever-growing streams of television revenue accruing to the most popular clubs—has been a professional soccer pyramid whose primary function, it sometimes seems, is to funnel talent from smaller clubs and nations to wealthier ones. Today even the biggest and best-supported clubs in Brazil and Argentina are unable to keep hold of their best players once they attract the covetous eyes of Europe’s top clubs. All of this has made for some outrageous fantasy-league fun for fans of mega-clubs like Chelsea and Real Madrid: debt-ridden behemoths who, spending millions of dollars trying to outbid each other for the game’s stars employ far more people to market their “brand” than they do players and coaches to represent it. With the caliber and concentration of talent today on offer at the top pro sides, the European Champions League over the past decade has likely offered up a brand of high-speed technical soccer unequaled in soccer history. One of the game’s most distinctive features as a spectator sport, however, is the truth that its most watched and coveted championship—the World Cup—is not contested by those teams.
In soccer as with other sports, the game’s Victorian progenitors bewailed the encroachment of money into arenas they held sacrosanct: the impetus for the Olympic movement was the aim of upholding a sporting space for the amateur ideal. Soccer’s international governing body—the Federacion International de Football (FIFA)—was founded as an outgrowth of the International Olympic Committee, the group responsible for staging the quadrennial modern Games born in Athens in 1896. FIFA’s main function, for its first two decades of existence, was to oversee the soccer competition at the Olympics. However, after the 1928 games in Amsterdam—during which soccer was by far the largest draw—FIFA’s governors decided that soccer could support its own global competition, and that that competition should be open to all players from every country, whether they earned money from sport or not. Thus was established the unique global structure of a game whose top professionals can earn fortunes and fame playing for their clubs, but whose transformation from superstars to gods, can only happen on a stage where they and their nations have at least the appearance of playing for glory alone.
The first World Cup was held in Uruguay in 1930. The tiny South American nation—buoyed by its fine national team’s gold medal win in Amsterdam, flush with new wealth from its burgeoning industries in beef and leather—had won the right to host the tournament largely by dint of putting its money on FIFA’s table. Offering to pay visiting teams’ expenses, Uruguay’s government also commissioned a magnificent new art deco stadium. The Estadio Centenario—named to commemorate the centenary of the nation’s founding as a result of compromise between larger powers a hundred years before—wasn’t ready for the tournament’s start, but was completed just in time to stage an epochal final pitting Uruguay against Argentina, its great rival from across the River Plate. The host nation’s victory over their larger neighbor is still recalled, writes native son Eduardo Galeano, as the moment its people at last came to believe that “Uruguay was not a mistake.”
The World Cup was, from the start a global event of immense local import to its hosting nation. In 1934 in Italy, Mussolini expended millions of lira to stage a tournament which, in its pomp and fascist circumstance, presaged the Nazi coming out party at Hitler’s Berlin Olympics two years later. In a new Roman stadium worthy of Caesar, Italy’s team—helped by the forcible recruitment of a slate of Argentine ringers with Italian parents, and by favored Argentina’s resulting boycott of the tournament-garnered the Cup that Il Duce required. After the 1938 tournament in France—won by Italy, to Mussolini's satisfaction and the rest of the world’s chagrin—the world turned its attentions from sport to other concerns for much of the next decade. Ever since 1950, however, the World Cup has been held without fail every four years. Each quadrennial edition has brought with it a new defining narrative.
In the 1950 Cup in Brazil, the host nation’s tragic loss in the final—witnessed by 200,000 fans in the immense Rio stadium their government had built to herald the greatness of “Nation of the Future,”—was experienced by many as proof that Brazil’s long-awaited Future was still a distant prospect. Eight years later, the 1958 World Cup in Sweden marked the debut of seventeen-year-old Brazilian phenom Pelé, who won Brazil its first Cup and became soccer’s first global star of the TV age. In 1966, England’s famous victory on home soil—apart from providing to Blighty a crucial morale boost after the loss of its empire—has doomed every England team since to negative comparisons with the heroes of ’66, still the only winners of soccer’s major trophy from the country of its birth. Finally in 1970, color television arrived, as if on cue, with an all-conquering Brazilian team outfitted in Technicolor yellow shirts and blue shorts ideally suited to the new medium. That Pelé-led team’s joyous style—and irresistible triumph in Mexico that year—was put in perspective by Jornal do Brasil: “Brazil’s victory with the ball compares with the conquest of the moon by the Americans.”
1970 may have hailed the World Cup’s arrival to the age of color TV, but it wasn’t until three years later, with the ascension to FIFA’s helm of its most influential president, that the tournament’s growth into the undisputed Greatest Televisual Spectacle on the planet was assured. Joao Havelange was a well-connected Brazilian businessman, who, after overseeing his country’s three World Cup wins as head of Brazil’s football federation between 1958 and 1970, glimpsed a chance to become overseer of the game worldwide. In his bid to unseat the organization’s conservative English president, Havelange courted dozens of new nations who had joined FIFA’s ranks with the dismantling of Europe’s empires in the post-war years. (FIFA’s membership today stands at 208 compared to the United Nations’ 192). Promising to funnel “development” funds to poor countries and expand the World Cup final to 24 teams, Havelange also vowed—in a move crucial to his winning the support of Africa’s federations—to expel Apartheid South Africa from the FIFA’s ranks. He won the support of nearly all of FIFA’s new Third World members, and with it the FIFA presidency.
Havelange, in power, proved no less adept at colluding with the rich than patronizing the poor. Working with associates like French-German sportswear firm Adidas—which became FIFA’s official supplier of balls and equipment—he elaborated a scheme to secure the World Cup’s profitability that forged a basic template for global sporting spectaculars in the TV age. He determined that only corporate firms with worldwide reach would be considered as official World Cup sponsors, and that only one representative from any sector—from soft drinks to financial services—would be awarded that status. He also ensured that FIFA would sell World Cup television rights to only one official network in each of its member nations. When Havelange finally left his post in 1998, the $4 billion pile of gold he left in FIFA’s Zurich offices only gestured towards the riches paid into the notoriously secretive organization during his reign. However, the spectacle Havelange helped make in its modern form continued to alter to course of participant and hosting nations. After France won the 1998 trophy—concluding a tournament that had attracted a cumulative global TV audience of 37 billion—the thousands of celebrants thronging beneath an Arc de Triomphe were not just celebrating a French win. They were also, in the eyes of their nation and the world, celebrating a new France in rebutting the fascist politician Jean Marie Pen’s view that “France could not see itself” in a national team composed of immigrants’ sons.
Since Havelange’s retirement in 1998, the World Cup—as if proving that it by now has a mind and momentum independent of FIFA, now led by a buffoonish Swiss lawyer Sepp Blatter—has gone from strength to strength. Asia’s first finals, in Japan and South Korea in 2002, set new records for television viewership. Four years later, the month-long celebration of a new Germany that was World Cup 2006 culminated, in that drama-filled match between Italy and France in a stadium first built by Hitler as a Nazi showpiece. Perhaps most significant of all, the new era has heralded the coming into its own of another World Cup altogether. When the US womens’ national team won the 1999 Women’s World Cup before 90,000 people in Los Angeles, the final match—belying Sepp Blatter’s suggestion that the women’s game “might gain more viewers if uniforms were more revealing”—was watched on television by an estimated audience of 40 million viewers in the host nation alone. The event was hailed by many there as the culmination of a decades-old struggle for gender equality in education and sports whose broader impacts are only beginning to be known.
The Boys, The Boys
That soccer’s signature event would be hosted by an African nation sooner than later became inevitable when Havelange won FIFA’s presidency on the strength of African support. That the nation would be South Africa—expelled from FIFA in 1976 per Havalenge’s promise, re-admitted with apartheid’s end in 1992—became apparent nearly from the moment Nelson Mandela strode free from his cell at Robben Island, heralding, in the eyes of the world, the demise of the last old-style colonialist regime on earth. Soccer, more so even than in Europe and South America, is Africa’s preeminent game, and it is only fitting that the continent’s first hosting of sporting event of global scale—the 2010 World Cup —should be a staging of soccer’s signature event.
South Africa’s preparations for the Cup were predictably fraught. The hosting of an immense sporting event meant to put one’s nation in the world’s spotlight is always a dubious proposition for that host—especially, perhaps, for an economically vital but still “developing” nation wrought with inequalities as stark as South Africa’s. The government is spending billions to construct a spate of shining new stadiums—often located next to townships wanting for basic sanitation and potable water—has been questioned by many, and black South African laborers repeatedly went on strike to demand wages higher than U.S. $2 an hour they were paid to build them.
During the Cup’s approach, the sporting side of things didn’t help the national mood. During the past decade, Africa has produced a litany of world class players now plying their trade for top European top clubs. One of the hoped-for narratives attending first African World Cup is that it might herald the emergence of an African national side that can consistently challenge the top national teams from Europe and Latin America. Sadly for South Africa, Bafana Bafana—as the nation’s mediocre national team, colloquially called “the boys the boys” in Kwa-Zulu—is given little chance of providing a host nation’s customary strong showing to become that team.
All worries of the run-up aside, everything is now in place and the 2010 World Cup has begun. All the stadiums are built and filled with spectators ready to cheer the talents of the most celebrated players on the planet, from Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo to Brazil’s Ronaldinho, Fernando Torres of Spain to Didier Drogba of the Ivory Coast. Fans will scream, coaches will blather. Commentators will debate tactics, politicians and writers alike will wax poetic about what the playing styles of certain nations evince about their peoples’ souls. “Show me how you play,” writes Eduardo Galeano, “and I’ll tell you who are.” The final game’s result will prompt great rejoicing in one country and mourning in another, but the more essential fact about what happens that day is that whichever two countries and twenty-two players take the field that day, a large segment of humanity will take the field with them. This—as billions of people will respond to Galeano’s inquest—is how we play.