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The People’s Game Part One: When Soccer Conquered the World

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Posted on Jun 11, 2014

By Alan Minsky and Meleiza Figueroa

  Aspiring young soccer players continue with their practice during a dust storm in Jammu, India. Soccer fans around the world are gearing up to watch the World Cup, which begins in Brazil on Thursday. AP/Channi Anand

The quadrennial men’s World Cup soccer tournament is the most popular, and most fervently followed, spectacle in the world. Not surprisingly then, the games are the source of parallel political contests—witness the street demonstrations in Brazil and the competition between nations to host the event. Indeed, the World Cup is so grand, its scale so vast, that it merits serious social, economic and political analysis.

The following is the first installment of a three-part series on the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, which begins Thursday. The first essay is on the history of soccer, both on and off the field, as it informs this year’s Cup. Read part two here. Part three can be read here.

Global soccer 2014 through the prism of history

Across most of the globe, soccer has long been associated with the working class and the poor. There are exceptions, such as in the United States, where, outside of immigrant communities, Volvo-driving suburbanites define the sport. Soccer as part of working-class culture has been with us since its early growth in industrializing England in the 19th century—and the archetype extends today to barefoot youth playing in tropical slums. Yet, just as the masses have the greatest passion for the game, the profits have largely flowed to the 1 percent. Thus, class conflict is inscribed across soccer’s entire history.

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Before elaborating on big-money spectacle soccer 21st century style, a few words about the sport’s poetics. Soccer is a source of joy and transcendent pleasure. Of course, one of the few things in the world more popular than watching soccer is playing it. All you need is a ball, gravity and a slice of open space. Indeed, the only participant sport more popular than organized soccer is the pickup game. The vast majority of the billions who will watch the World Cup have played the game, which is one element of the spectacle’s appeal. The billions are watching the world’s greatest practitioners of a craft they themselves plied.

Soccer as a spectator sport brings a unique set of joys that contrast with other team sports, and these have become a common shared language for contemporary humanity. As opposed to baseball, cricket, basketball and American football, soccer never stops: two halves, 45 minutes straight, no commercial interruptions. In the ebb and flow of almost every game, in a relatively close competition, any team will string together a series of attractive passes, make astonishing runs and threaten the opponent’s goal, lifting the spirits of every partisan. Your team may lose, but every game offers this analog for when everything is clicking in life: You’re one with your muse; you smile and he or she smiles back. This aspect of the game is important if we’re to understand the ever-increasing popularity of the sport. Soccer historians rhapsodize about the glorious creativity players displayed in the soccer of yore, and bemoan the evolution of the game toward more constraint. Yes, we’re in an era of defensive tactics when the final outcome is prioritized over beauty; but no amount of cagey gamesmanship can suffocate the flow of the game across midfield, can eliminate this oxygen that fills the spirit, even if goals become less frequent.

Of course, the infrequency of goals adds its own pleasures. The underdog will hunker down to defend, hold out, all hands on deck, counting down the seconds, with nail-biting tension, feeling the beauty of solidarity, believing against all received wisdom that “you” can slay a Spain or Brazil. Fans of all teams strive for their side to hit their rhythm, control the ball, move it forward with ingenuity and astonishing skill, break down a world-class defense, and produce that most orgasmic of all sporting moments: the soccer goal, pure rhapsodic joy shared with millions.

Coming back to reality, outside the heavenly cocoon of the game itself, elite global soccer in the 21st century is, like the rest of the world, dominated by the seemingly unlimited resources of global capitalism. In between games, rumors of huge money deals dominate the international soccer discourse. Top players and coaches climb the ladder and join the most elite clubs (Real Madrid, Manchester United, Barcelona, et al.) that buy the best talent from around the world to ensure their continued domination. This exclusive group of elite teams remains relatively stable—the only time a new member crashes the party is when some billionaire oligarch decides to match or raise the stakes, as has happened recently with Manchester City, Paris St. Germain and Chelsea. This, in effect, creates astonishing inflation in the upper-most echelons of the sport, as transfer fees reach mind-boggling proportions. The domination of the club sport by these super-elite European teams strips the best talent from elsewhere in the world, replicating a core-and-periphery structure that itself parallels global capitalism. As such, the TV broadcasts of the top European leagues now reach everywhere on the planet. Corporate globalization, soccer style.


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