This is an archive story, published in the June 1998 edition of Geographical magazine. All facts, figures and statistics were accurate at the time of original publication.
This month, the world as we know it will come to an end. Streets, usually teaming with summer evening activity, will be left deserted; pubs will be packed to the full; and from almost every household in the country victorious cries (or exasperated groans) will echo.
However, these scenes will not be unusual to the UK. For as the top 32 footballing nations battle it out in France to bring home one of the world's most coveted prizes – the Fifa World Cup – the whole world will be gripped by the same football fever.
Strange as it may seem, the world’s love affair with football is a relatively new romance, which has only been going steady for the past 50 or so years. Created in 1904 in recognition of football’s growth in Europe, the world football governing body, the Federation Internationale de Football (FIFA), has seen its membership swell from just seven nations at its foundation to 198 today. This number is set to increase further when seven or eight nations join just days before the opening game at the FIFA Congress.
The most significant surge in the globalisation of football came shortly after England became a fully-fledged member of FIFA in 1950. Considered to be the best footballing nation in the world at the time, England was embarrassingly defeated by the US in Brazil that same year.
‘But,’ says a spokesman at FIFA, ‘it marked a turning point in footballing history and made the rest of the world wake up to the sport.’
Today, football is by far the most popular sport in the world with as many as 200 million playing the game at all levels. Moreover, says Dr John Sugden, co-author of FIFA and the Contest for World Football, there is not a single corner of the globe that has not been saturated by it.
As every English person knows, the game was officially invented on home territory (who could forget the immortal words of ‘It’s coming home’ sung with such patriotism during EURO 96?). It was traditionally played on Shrove Tuesday when entire communities would gather and play a foot-and-ball game that would often last for days. Although other countries such as China and Italy have been keen to have their respective games of Tsu Chu and Calcio acknowledged as early examples of football, it was in the English public schools of Eton and Harrow that modern football was born. In response to Rugby College’s rougher version of the game (today known as rugby football), these schools introduced the basic no-hands and forward passing rules which differentiated it from other foot-and-ball games. In 1863, the Football Association (FA) was founded and for the first time the rules of the game were codified.
The game quickly became a phenomenon in England (and indeed the rest of the UK), particularly among the working class who formed teams through their churches or factories, supported avidly by competitive fans. Among those teams still in existence today are Everton, a church team; Manchester United, formed by workers at the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company; and Arsenal, established by the Woolwich Munitions Factory. The game became part of working class culture because factory managers, who were often educated in public schools, believed in ‘the importance of cooperation between workers and management’. In 1871, the FA competition was launched shortly followed by a professional league in 1888. Meanwhile, the sport was gaining popularity in Western Europe where numerous national associations were being set up.
Then, to the great annoyance of the British, the European countries set up FIFA. ‘The four national teams making up the UK were very reluctant to join and so there was a long period where we would join and then leave, join and leave and so on,’ explains Sugden. ‘There was a certain amount of nepotism in international football in those days and the UK teams hugely resented the fact that football was being governed by a bunch of foreigners. They believed that as the inventors of the game they should rule and control its development.’
“In those days, the four UK teams hugely resented the fact that football was being governed by a bunch of foreigners”
Despite the British desire to control ‘their’ game, football soon achieved popularity worldwide. This, by all accounts, was achieved on the industrial wings of imperialism where the working class, particularly those involved in establishing the infrastructure in the dominions, formed their own teams and encouraged its spread to the ‘natives’. Ironically, among those countries not associated with football today are those which the Europeans colonised in the 18th and 19th centuries.
‘It is true to say that football has never been as big as rugby in the former dominions,’ explains Professor Eric Dunning at the Centre for Research in Sport and Society, University of Leicester. ‘This is mainly because Britain’s colonies were ruled by the upper and middle classes who traditionally played rugby.’ It seems that the British tradition of workers’ football teams did not spread overseas. ‘Football was often more popular in the trading posts, such as in South America, where working class elements were more dominant,’ he adds.
In addition, explains Dunning, former colonies such as the US, were keen to develop non-English sports like baseball and American football in order to break away from the old order and create their own identity.
Nevertheless – and mainly thanks to the hosting of the World Cup in 1994 – football is now the fastest expanding women’s sport in the US and has become increasingly taken up by the middle classes. Football also continues to gain ground in Australia, particularly among the immigrants of non-British descent and in South Africa, where it has always been popular in the black townships.
Having run his presidential campaign in 1974 more like that of a world leader, FIFA’s president, Dr João Havelange has increasingly embroiled FIFA in world politics in his bid to drive the global expansion of football
Today, much of FIFA’s expanding membership has more to do with the fact that empires, such as the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, are crumbling thus creating new national football teams. However, there does seem to have been a certain degree of tactics involved in the globalisation of the sport. Having run his presidential campaign in 1974 more like that of a world leader, FIFA’s president, Dr João Havelange (who will be succeeded at the next FIFA Congress) has increasingly embroiled FIFA in world politics in his bid to drive the global expansion of football. The US was chosen to host the World Cup in 1994 specifically to expand the game throughout the continent. While his personal promise to Japan that they would host the World Cup in 2002 (which again was chosen to popularise the sport following the establishment of a professional league there in 1993) without the full backing of other FIFA executives, led to the politically charged decision to jointly host the event with Japan’s old enemy South Korea. The two countries have shared ‘bad blood’ for the best part of 400 years and the idea that they would co-host the event was a shock to many. Especially when it came to the prickly question of who would host the final. It was recently awarded to Japan.
‘It will be interesting to see how cooperating the South Koreans will be,’ says Tsumeo Ito at the Japan Football Association. However, we hope that by hosting the final more people will play it so that in perhaps ten years we can be as competitive as places like Europe and South America.’
Politics has also reared its head in Europe. ‘In the run-up to the Euro 96 campaign, the reputation of English football was in tatters mainly due to the hooligan problems,’ says Sugden. ‘England made a gentleman’s deal with Germany to ensure that it hosted the competition by making Germany agree to pull out and back the English campaign. In return, England would back Germany’s 2006 World Cup bid.’
Nevertheless, the overwhelming commercial success of Euro 96 – which raised an overall profit of £69million for European football – means that England has gone back on the deal and is now bidding to host 2006 itself. The British government is directly backing the bid with £9million. It is also committed to spending £200million on remodelling Wembley Stadium, while a new government body, the Football Task Force, has been implemented to counter the damaging effects of hooliganism. ‘Tony Blair is all over the bid,’ adds Sugden. ‘Hosting the World Cup is a mixture of political ambition and economic interest, it eclipses the Olympics in being the greatest show on Earth and there is a huge amount of political capital to be made.’
Indeed, with an estimated £117million received by FIFA from the 1994 World Cup (practically all of which went back into the game), and the countless millions raised by tourism and other businesses indirectly involved in the event, it is little wonder that countries are falling over themselves to host it. With an estimated global revenue of £149billion per year, football is big business.
‘In the run-up to the Euro 96 campaign, the reputation of English football was in tatters mainly due to the hooligan problems’
‘Havelange recognised in football a huge and largely untapped commercial potential – a giant cash cow for business,’ says Sugden. ‘With the assistance of multinational companies such as Coca Cola, he displayed how football could be used as a successful marketing tool.’
With big business keen to get involved in the sport, and global communications able to feed the world’s seemingly insatiable desire to watch football, it is not surprising that the game has become such a huge phenomenon.
Of course, not everybody has been bitten by the football bug and come World Cup Final day there will undoubtedly be a backlash from desperate football ‘widows’ and pubs declaring themselves ‘football-free zones’. Nevertheless, with over 1.2 billion people worldwide expected to tune in for the final, football looks set to overshadow every other event this summer.
‘It is extraordinary to think that so many people around the world will be glued to one TV phenomenon simultaneously,’ says Professor Dunning. ‘In some respects football has the power of religion.’ A global religion at that.
This is an archive story, published in the June 1998 edition of Geographical magazine.
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