The Reading Room

Soccer’s Invisible Hand: Globalization

In my previous post in honor of the World Cup, I explored the role that soccer’s early adoption of professionalism played both in its rapid growth and in that tournament’s founding. But that a World Cup was even feasible by the start of the 20th Century is itself a testimony to the remarkable global expansion of a sport whose rules were still being codified within its birth nation less than forty years earlier.
Soccer’s rapid dissemination through Europe is understandable, though still impressive. Switzerland’s Lausanne Cricket and Football Club was established in 1860, Denmark’s Københaven Boldklub (Copenhagen Ball Club) in 1876 (the first football-only sports club on the continent), Holland’s Haarlemse FC in 1879 (switching from rugby to soccer rules in 1883), and Vienna’s Der Challenger Cup (an FA Cup-style competition open to all football clubs in the Austro-Hungarian Empire) in 1897.
Even more striking is how quickly football spread to South America. Football of some sort was being played in both Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro from the 1860s on, at least in the social clubs of their respective British business communities. David Goldblatt, in his magisterial global history of soccer, The Ball is Round, recounts a report from a Brazilian journalist of the time:
In Bom Retiro, a group of Englishmen, a bunch of maniacs as they all are, get together, from time to time, to kick around something that looks like a bull’s bladder. It gives them great satisfaction or fills them with sorrow when this kind of yellowish bladder enters a rectangle formed by wooden posts.
But soccer was not confined to British players for long. The Argentine Association Football League was established in Buenos Aires in 1893 (following a false start in 1891). Uruguay’s Montevideo clubs did the same in 1901 (though Albion Cricket Club had established a football section in 1893), and Brazil’s Sao Paulo clubs initiated the Paulista Championship in 1902, the same year that Rio de Janeiro’s oldest soccer club, Fluminense, was founded. Given that it took the FA twenty-five years to establish its league in 1888, South Americans had proven quick studies.
Stories about the emergence of football, both in South America and in continental Europe, frequently invoke British sailors (or railway workers) playing on the docks with local factory workers. But in reality, it was traveling British elites, mostly businessmen, who shared their love of soccer with anglophile local elites. In some cases, those anglophile elites went directly to the source, attending British schools and bringing a love of the game back to share with other anglophile elites.
The one apparent exception to this rule appears to be in Bilbao, where English factory workers did seem to play a substantial role in the early dissemination of the game. Yet even here, Bilbao is the outlier within the larger story of soccer’s development in Spain. In Barcelona, Madrid, Galicia, and Seville, it was English and/or anglophile elites who fostered the growth of the game.
One notable aspect of soccer’s international expansion is how closely it tracked the global networks of British commerce, sometimes referred to as the “informal empire.” This framing of Britain’s sphere of economic influence has always been contentious, and it is worth noting Keith Hancock’s alternative conception, explicitly drawn from Adam Smith, of the Great Commercial Republic of cosmopolitan, trans-national merchants seeking the mutual benefits of global commercial exchange (Smith’s exact phrase, in reference to the use of bullion as an international currency [WN I.4.1.28], is “great mercantile republic”).
In the case of soccer, we can be fairly certain that British economic policy and naval deployments were not being shaped in order to propel soccer to global dominance. Both in Europe and South America, it was local anglophiles whose admiration of British commercial success led them to join in the pastimes of the British entrepreneurs amongst them, to emulate those pastimes in competing sports clubs of their own making, or to seek out a British education which introduced them to the beautiful game.
While the emergence of a global anglophile elite can certainly be understood through the lens of cultural imperialism, it is further notable that soccer did not long remain the province of those elites. Both in Europe and South America, the game was disseminated across class divides, perhaps in emulation of the entrepreneurial spirit of the British businessmen who had introduced them to the game.
One further reason to suspect that soccer’s growth and dispersion might be linked specifically to the entrepreneurial spirit of English merchants and businessmen is its distinct lack of success within England’s “formal” empire of former colonial holdings. In the Indian subcontinent and the West Indies, cricket became the dominant sport, while New Zealand and white South Africa adopted rugby.
Other former colonies, such as the United States and Ireland, developed their own brands of defiantly-not-British football, while Canada (somewhat understandably) opted for hockey. Australia, arguably, adopted something of each approach with cricket and their own version of (rugby) football. It seems that it was not Britain’s influence in general, but specifically its commercial influence that drove soccer’s rapid globalization.
Moreover, few would argue that the globalization of soccer has not produced the mutual benefits pursued by the Great Commercial Republic. The sport as a whole has benefited enormously from the diversity of styles developed around the world: Austria and Hungary’s wunderteam and arynscapt (golden team), Brazil’s joga bonito, Holland’s total football, Spain’s tiki taka, even Italy’s catenaccio and Germany’s gegen-pressing have made the beautiful game more beautiful and more diverse.
It is a game worthy of the World, and a Cup that runneth over. I hope that you have found some time these past three weeks to enjoy it.