Soccer’s Invisible Hand: Professionalism


On Sunday, November 20th, in Qatar, the World Cup kicked off its 22nd edition since debuting in Uruguay in 1930. There is little question, for better or worse, that viewing the World Cup is among the most widely shared human experiences since at least 1970, and probably since 1966 (when satellites first broadcast games live to non-hosting continents). In the first of several Reading Room reflections in its honor, I want to explore how the early spread of soccer participated in the entrepreneurial spirit of the modern world.
While many popular histories of the sport begin with ancient ball games in China and elsewhere, there is little doubt that soccer (or football, as it is usually termed in the rest of the world) really began in the public schools of Victorian England. England itself boasted an earlier folk game also known as “football” (referenced by Shakespeare in both Comedy of Errors and King Lear), but the modern sport evolved from the games produced by educational reformers under the influence of the Muscular Christianity movement that integrated sports—and especially football—into public school curricula.

At that time, each school had its own set of rules, making football something of a family of games with features drawn from what we would now distinguish as rugby and association (or “soccer”) football intermingled. As the young men who graduated from these public schools moved first to university and ultimately into professional life, they took these games with them. As such, the earliest progenitors were the British elite, which by the middle of the 19th Century meant not merely aristocratic, but also administrative and entrepreneurial elites (many of whom lacked aristocratic backgrounds, though some had aristocratic “backgrounds” without actual financial resources).

Eventually, the desire for a more unified set of rules led to the development first of the Football Association (1863) and later the Rugby Football Union (1871). But whatever rules were used, even after the soccer-rugby split, any form of football was likely played in a style more handsy and tackley than our soccer, but also more footy and less grabby than our rugby (notably, rugby supporters’ key dispute at the formation of association football was over hacking and tackling rather than over the use of hands). Indeed, as late as 1880, rugby club Clapham Rovers not only entered but won the FA Cup.

Today, this close association of soccer and rugby is difficult to imagine, and while both remain popular internationally, there is little question as to which has ultimately won out, either in England or globally. What led to soccer’s national and international eclipsing of rugby? Sports historian Tony Collins suggests the fundamental driver of soccer’s rapid expansion was its early adoption of professionalism.

Both soccer and rugby football began as elite club sports with aristocratic notions of amateurism and fair play. But amateurism, in particular, made it difficult to tap the broader pool of football talent that was emerging as entrepreneurs and civic leaders began to spread the gospel of Muscular Christianity to less financially independent sectors of English society through factory and church teams. As “shamateurism,” the “hiring” of talented footballers in amorphously-defined jobs that left large amounts of time for team practices, inevitably spread (Americans may want to think about NCAA D-I “student” athletes in football and basketball), the aristocratic ideals of both the FA and the RFU came under pressure.

While history (and, I think, a substantial body of economic theory) suggests an inevitable resolution to this tension, it was the FA that was first willing to acknowledge the reality of professionalism in 1885, beating the RFU by over one hundred years in this regard (Americans may again wish to reflect on NCAA D-I football and basketball, and the half-steps toward such truths imposed by a Supreme Court ruling only last year). In choosing professionalism, the FA chose the invisible hand of the market over the dishonest and less efficient unseen hand of illicit and unenforceable arrangements hidden behind the noble-sounding principle of amateurism.

Professionalism was not soccer’s only innovation in advance of rugby, but there is good reason to believe it was the most important. The FA also beat the RFU to creating a national cup competition (the FA Cup, 1871), an international friendly (England - Scotland, 1872), and a league (1888); but professionalism was the one recurring conflict across all forms of football—indeed, across all sports. While other FA innovations were fairly quickly adopted by rugby, professionalism was the major innovation it resisted. Or partially resisted; in 1895, rugby league broke away from rugby union primarily over the question of professionalism as well, leaving rugby a house divided. 

The emergence of professionalism did not eradicate the ideals of amateurism in soccer. Corinthian FC, established in 1882, became an international standard bearer of such values, and were still influential enough at the start of the 20th Century to inspire both the white kits of Madrid FC (later Real Madrid) in 1902 and the formation of São Paulo, Brazil’s Corinthians in 1910.

Moreover, the labor market for soccer was far from free, with strict salary caps in place until the second half of the 20th Century and a transfer system set up to allow club owners to capture much of those player’s true market value. These limitations also led to inefficiencies: “bungs” (or bribes) for managers to secure the release of players, and informal arrangements with top players (setting up pubs or other shops for them to own) not unlike the shamateurism of old.

Nonetheless, as the mixed economies of the modern world clearly demonstrate, even highly regulated markets are much more efficient at discovering and creating value than their aristocratic predecessors. Within a relatively short time, it became clear that professionalism was raising the quality of play and the appetite of football fans even as the number of soccer clubs was increasing dramatically.

In fact, the rise of professionalism also led to the creation of the World Cup itself. The origins of international soccer tournaments begin at the Olympics, which included soccer among its events from 1900 on. In the 1920s, Uruguay became the first iconic international team by winning both the 1924 and 1928 Olympic tournaments (as they would the first World Cup, in 1930).

The Corinthian spirit of the Olympics, however, limited participation to amateurs. While FIFA, established in 1905, shared these principles in theory, it had come by the end of the twenties to recognize that the world’s best players were no longer amateurs. While the Olympics followed the path of rugby union, the World Cup established a tournament where the professionals admired week in and week out at club level could represent their countries.

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