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[FROM THE ARCHIVE] A game of two hemispheres

  • Written by  Gavin McGowan
  • Published in Cultures
[FROM THE ARCHIVE] A game of two hemispheres
06 Jul
Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that football has had a major impact on our world. We investigate how a lowly sport gained the power to start wars, make millionaires, and prompt a nation to paint its lampposts green and yellow

This is an archive story, published in the June 2002 edition of Geographical magazine. All facts, figures and statistics were accurate at the time of original publication.

More countries are members of FIFA, the international football federation, than are members of the United Nations. On the face of it, that can be taken as just another glib statistic. Or it could mean that there’s more global cooperation and energy put into kicking a leather ball around a grass pitch than there is in striving for world peace and harmony. The current scoreline is FIFA 204, UN 189. If you are not a football fan, a non-believer, it’s impossible to grasp the importance football has on people’s lives around the world. Even if you are a fan it’s hard to explain why it matters so. It just does.

Like many cultural phenomenon, the reasons for its universal appeal are inexplicable. The highly respected journalist Brian Glanville has been writing about football for 50 years, but says he has never heard a plausible theory. He finds it difficult to explain its popularity, but says it must be at least partly due to ‘the combination of implicit dramatic potential and extreme simplicity. Whereas a game like rugby or cricket is rather prolix and difficult to grasp, football has a wonderful fluidity and is, in the first instance, easy to grasp. Yet beneath the veneer of simplicity, the deeper you go into it, the more fascinating and sophisticated football becomes.’

Cameroon has come a long way since 1990, but the world is still waiting for an African nation to reach the top of the world footballing treeCameroon has come a long way since 1990, but the world is still waiting for an African nation to reach the top of the world footballing tree

To say it’s ‘only a game’ trivialises the affect football has on people’s lives. For Brazilians, losing the World Cup Final on home soil in 1950 was their ‘John F Kennedy moment’. Everyone old enough to remember still has the game and the nation’s tears etched in their memory – the streets remained silent for days after.

As small, downtrodden Cameroon progressed to the quarter-finals in Italy in 1990, beating world champions Argentina en route, the whole of Africa held its collective breath and then celebrated wildly in the streets with each victory. Englishmen never tire of black-and-white footage of Geoff Hurst scoring England’s winner against Germany in the 1966 final, and Kenneth Wolstenholme’s famous commentary – ‘Some people are on the pitch. They think it’s all over. It is now’ – is quoted by a generation too young to remember the original event.

At the end of a game, either the losing or winning captain – historians are unsure on this minor point – would be rewarded by being sacrificed

Football was played in a host of ancient civilisations, the earliest record being a game in China around 5,000 years ago. In the courts of the Maya Empire, in pre-colonial Central America, teams played a form of marathon football which lasted several days. At the end of a game, either the losing or winning captain – historians are unsure on this minor point – would be rewarded by being sacrificed. In ancient Greece, Egypt and Japan there are records of men playing a form of football, and Roman legionaries are said to have kicked a ball around the Roman Empire.

But modern football is generally regarded as having started in medieval England. On Feast and Saints’ Days, in matches that sprawled over kilometres of English countryside, entire towns battled against one another, kicking, brawling and punching their way towards the goals. There appeared to be no rules whatsoever, and death was commonplace. By 1314 King Edward II stamped his seal on a royal decree condemning the game as riotous: ‘For as much as there is a great noise in the city caused by hustling over large balls, from which many evils arise, which God forbid.’

It was not until the 19th century and the rise of the English public school system that the barbaric game of medieval times became more ordered. The first codification of the laws took place at Cambridge University in 1848, and by 1963, when the Football Association was established, the rules that are today followed all over the world were in place.

old football englandThe ancient two-day game of Shrovetide football harks back to British football’s wild origins


• THE GAME OF WAR: In 1969, war broke out between El Salvador and Honduras after a disputed World Cup qualifier match.

• TEARFUL FANS: Football’s worst ever disaster occurred in Lima. Police fired tear gas and charged fans who threw missiles onto the pitch after the referee disallowed a goal by the host nation against Argentina in the dying minutes of a game. A shocking 328 people died, four by police bullets. That night fans protested in the streets of Lima against the referee, not the police.

• PEAK PERFORMANCE: In La Paz, Bolivia, international games are played at a lung-bursting 3,662 metres above sea level. South American opponents have put pressure on FIFA to move matches farther down the mountains. Bolivia’s response? ‘Hey, this is the “World” Cup and this is where we live.’

• MOURNING ON MASS: Almost 200,000 people attended Maracana stadium, Rio de Janeiro, for the 1950 World Cup Final – the largest ever recorded attendance at a football match. When the host nation lost 2-1 to Uruguay, the stadium was engulfed by a deathly silence.

• THE BEAUTIFUL GAME: In 1894, after studying in England, Charles Miller, a Brazilian born of English parents, stepped off the boat in Santos, Brazil, with two footballs in his hands, bringing the ‘beautiful game’ to the people who would play it most beautifully of all.

• FRENCH BEGINNINGS: It was in Paris (the location of FIFA’s original headquarters) that the brilliant Jules Rimet thought up the idea of the World Cup.


With British industry and empire at their zenith in the late 19th century, English and Scottish sailors soldiers, railway workers and merchants took football with them around the globe. The rules were simple enough to export the game wherever they went. This innate simplicity is one of the beauties of football: with a ball and a couple of jumpers for goalposts, a game can be organised on any piece of reasonably flat land.

In the 40 years up to World War I, the speed at which football spread around the globe was remarkable. It sank its roots deep into the urban society that had followed industrialisation, not only across Britain and Europe, but also throughout Latin America, and later Africa.

In Italy, for example, the British version of the game quickly replaced calcio, the local sport which originated in Florence in the 16th century. Calcio, a bright and bloody spectacle played by two teams violently rucking for a ball – originally a decapitated head – was the preserve of the aristocracy. When English sailors introduced the modern version it became, as it did all over the world, the people’s game. The aristocracy were left on the touchline to administer the game and bankroll the new clubs.

JuventusJuventus is owned by one of Italy’s wealthiest families

Many of the first clubs in northern cities were of Anglo-Italian origins and the English influence can still be seen in the anglicised names of AC Milan (originally the Milan Cricket and Football Club) and Genoa. During Mussolini’s fascist rule, these clubs were forced to change their names as they were deemed ‘unltalian’, but after the war both reverted to their original English titles.

The ‘Duce’ was the first, but certainly not the last, to exploit Italians’ exaggerated love of football. Politicians, businessmen and mafia bosses have courted football for their own ends, and it is no coincidence that the country’s two wealthiest clubs are owned by the Italian Prime Minister and one the country’s wealthiest families. After the Fiat car company, Juventus football club is the Agnelli family’s second-most important asset, and Silvio Berlusconi climbed up the slithery pole of Italian politics in no small part thanks to the enormous success his club, AC Milan, enjoyed in the late 1980s and early 1990s.


• CREATIVITY IN GOAL: Existentialist writer Albert Camus played in goal for Algeria in the 1930s. He later wrote: ‘After many years in which the world has afforded me many experiences, what I know most surely in the long run about morality and obligations, I owe to football.’

• WAR AND PEACE: The Biafra conflict in Nigeria in the 1960s was suspended for 48 hours so that both sides could watch Pele play a round of exhibition matches.

• NOT SO BLACK AND WHITE: There were just three finalists in the first African Nations’ Cup: Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt. South Africa was banned after saying it would send only an all-black or all-white team, precipitating a 35-year stretch as the world’s sporting outcast.

• MILITARY MANOEUVRES: General Videla’s brutal military government used the 1978 World Cup to legitimise its regime, going to extraordinary lengths to ensure a home win. Dutch master Johan Cruyff, the world’s greatest player, boycotted the Finals in Buenos Aires. Holland, who lost to the hosts in the Final, refused to salute the Argentinian generals when they collected their medals.

• LOW TURN-OUT: Just 13 teams competed in the first World Cup Finals in Montevideo in 1930, with only three European teams braving the three-week Atlantic crossing.

bilbaoAthletic Bilbao is seen as a strong symbol of Basque independence


In Spain, football came via the influx of British workers in the Basque country in the late 19th century. Curious locals gathered in Bilbao to watch miners and factory workers play football after work on what would later become known as Campo los Ingleses. Before long Spain’s first football club, Athletic Bilbao, was formed, adopting the red and white stripes of Sunderland, the favourite team of the English workers. Yet despite the anglicised name and origins, the club has always been a fierce symbol of Basque independence. In the international climate of modern European football, where at least half the players of most top clubs are likely to be imports, Bilbao has never signed a non-Basque.

To understand the unrivalled passion of Spanish football is to understand the country’s strained post-civil-war history. It is said that Spain is a country divided by language, culture and football. As the Franco regime suppressed regional identity and forbade the open use of Catalan and Basque, many of the tensions that remained were channelled into supporting regional football clubs. As football boomed in the post-war years, displacing bullfighting as the national obsession, the packed terraces became hotbeds of dissent, one of few safe places where locals could speak in their native tongue.

It is difficult to say whether Barcelona would have become the biggest and – until recently – the richest football club in the world had it not suffered 40 years of subjugation from Madrid, but it is unlikely. During Franco’s totalitarian regime, ‘Barca’ was the greatest expression of Catalan defiance, and as the region has prospered in recent decades the club and its stadium, the Nou Camp, Europe’s largest, have remained a symbol of Catalan independence.


Every four years the cumulative audience of the World Cup surpasses that of all other sporting events. In the last event, staged in France, the total viewing figures for the 64 matches was a staggering 33.4 billion from 196 nations.

This year, the event takes place for the first time in Asia, in South Korea and Japan. Apart from the logistical difficulties of staging such a huge event in two places divided by several hundred kilometres of sea. South Korea and Japan are not friendly neighbours. Japan’s harsh colonial rule over Korea from 1910 to 1945 has left Koreans deeply suspicious. Hostilities flared up again last year over Japanese textbooks, which South Korea said whitewashed Japanese atrocities.

With China thrown into the mix – it qualified for the World Cup for the first time this year – the recipe for diplomatic disaster multiplied. An estimated 60,000 Chinese are expected to travel to see their team play, so FIFA organised China’s opening games for South Korea. As Geographical went to press, the Koreans were still insinuating that the Japanese Emperor, a symbol of former atrocities across Asia, would not be welcome at the opening ceremony.


If football is clanish in Europe – you either love it or hate it – in Latin America it is as ubiquitous as music, permeating everyday life. The moment British emigres stepped off their ships, footballs in hand, onto South American soil at the end of the 19th century, the game found its spiritual home. The disciplined, physical, English game was soon infused with artistic achievement and athletic ability.

Tiny Uruguay was the first country to dominate world football, winning Olympic gold medals in 1924 and 1928, with skills that dazzled the Europeans. ‘We are no longer just a tiny spot on the map of the world,’ said Atilio Narancio, the man who believed so wholeheartedly in the team, that in 1924 he mortgaged his house to pay for the players’ passage to Holland. Before football arrived, Uruguay had been lurking in the shadows of international anonymity.

The game had become such a national obsession that when FIFA asked for candidates to host the first World Cup Finals in 1930, Uruguay offered to pay the travelling costs of all the European teams. It won the tournament and declared a national holiday. Other countries have their history, it is said; Uruguay has its football.

chocolate box‘La Bombonera’ is the communal heart of La Boca in Brazil

Facing Uruguay on the other side of the vast estuary of the Rio de la Plata, is Buenos Aires, one of the world’s footballing meccas. In the old port district of La Boca, founded by Genoese immigrants in the late 19th century, many houses are painted deep blue and yellow, the colours of the local side, Boca Juniors. With the port a thing of the past, the communal heart of this neighbourhood is now La Bombonera (the Chocolate Box), the club’s stadium. This colourful district defines itself through football. It was here that the young Diego Maradona made his name. Despite his fall from grace and drug problems, Maradona is still a living legend in Buenos Aires.

In Brazil, they don’t paint their houses in the colours of their favourite team, but every four years when the World Cup is on, streets, walls and lampposts the length of the country are painted the green and yellow of the national team. Even people who don’t like football wear the flag, watch all the games and cheer on the team.

It is universally acknowledged that Brazil plays the most beautiful football in the world, so it is appropriate that a Brazilian, football journalist Roberto Moraes, explains why the Copo do Mundo is so important: ‘It is difficult for Europeans to understand why football really matters here; for us it’s an expression of our identity. Brazil is still a poor country, at the bottom of the heap in many respects, and this is our chance to show off on the world’s biggest stage. Brazilian teams have won in real style, like a carnival, in a manner that reflects the personality of the people. It’s more than a game – it’s about magic and dreams.’

kids football


• RUSSIAN REVENGE: In the first European Championships in 1960, General Franco pulled Spain out of the tie with the hosts in the quarter-finals. Four years later the General had his revenge as he watched Spain defeat the Soviets in the Final in Madrid: Fascists 2 - 1 Communists.

• RED STAR HOOLIGANS: As the old European order fell apart Serb warlord Arkan took charge of the Red Star Belgrade supporters’ club – the ground is right opposite his house – to recruit some of Red Star’s most violent hooligans into the Tigers, Serbia’s Volunteer Guard.

• BAREFOOT BAN: India withdrew from the 1950 World Cup because FIFA would not let it play in bare feet. The world’s second-most populous country has failed to qualify since.

• A SPORTING CHANCE: Despite it’s justifiable reputation as the world’s most sporting nation, the round ball has never really caught on in Australia. The domain of non-Anglo Saxon immigrants, it is patronisingly referred to as ‘Wogball’. Even so a sellout crowd of 102,000 watched the USSR beat Yugoslavia 1-0 in the final of the Melbourne Olympics at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in 1956.

• COLD FOOTWORK: During Ernest Shackleton’s failed attempt to cross Antarctica, the thwarted crew members took a little solace from a game of football on the ice. Everyone was having fun until the ship’s captain, Frank Worsley, fell through rotten ice and had to be rescued.

This is an archive story, published in the June 2002 edition of Geographical magazine.
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