Soccer and World History?


Ancient Athenian playing a soccer-like game. (National Museum of Archaeology, Athens, Greece)


In preparation for my sports history class next semester at the Community College of Baltimore County, I have been preparing a unit on soccer–the game the world plays . . . even if the U.S. does not.  It is also the sport over which the most ink has been spent.  Because of its penetration into the societies that really play it, it is something that has garnered the attention of political scientists, economists and sociologists, but not so much by historians.


The Ball is Round, A Global History of Soccer by David Goldblatt


It is with that in mind that I have started to develop the reading list, both my preparatory list and my students’, and have started reading David Goldblatt’s 974-page tome, The Ball is Round, A global history of Soccer.  Goldblatt’s argument is simply that soccer must be part of modern historical writing, “Whether the historians like it or not, football [soccer] cannot be taken out of the history of the modern world and the history of the modern world is unevenly, erratically but indisputably etched into the history of football,” (xvii, Goldblatt).  I have argued that sports and other hobbies and interests open windows onto exquisite views of our human past, but I cannot think of a single modern history that has included soccer.  In my mind, sports potentially provides a spark of interest for people who may not know why they should care about history.  Goldblatt argues that it should be considered not as a gimmick to get attention, but as a genuine contributor to history.  I have thought its value is the connection to the culture.  Goldblatt agrees, but thinks it is still more than that, contributing to the culture’s history.


A recent tribute to Kurt Landauer, club president of FC Bayern Munchen until the Nazi regime forced the club to expel its Jewish members--the only club not to do so voluntarily before such laws.


I wonder if Goldblatt is to be taken seriously.  Certainly, his latter point about history etching itself on the sport has to be accurate, but on considering whether it is the case that soccer can be included versus must be included . . . I am not yet sure.  I will say this: the Cold War should not be covered without a look at the international competitions as a way to demonstrate the apparent success of two conflicting ways of life–regardless of how accurate that presentation actually was.


The Miracle on Ice: The US is victorious over the USSR at the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympic Games in New York--incredible win considering the state of the nation and the Cold War


Come to think of it,  is it is not easy to think of the Nazi regime’s insistence on the physical prowess of the mythical Aryan race without thinking about the Olympics preceding World War II.  For that matter, I can seldom think of baseball without thinking of Cuban refugees and a certain Venezuelan dictator’s failed attempt to make the Big Leagues (poor Hugo Chavez).  Perhaps Goldblatt really has it right and I have undersold my own attempt to bridge sports and history.  Maybe we as historians do ourselves and our scholarship a real injustice by ignoring sports in the final analysis of [modern] world history.


A stamp for the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany--an affair that violated virtually all of the idealistic purposes of the Olympic Games, but also frustrated Hitler with the success of American Jesse Owens.



Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning

5 responses to “Soccer and World History?

  1. Jonathan

    What does he say about sports ‘imperialism’? Baseball is popular is some areas that have at some time been dominated by the United States, like Latin America or Japan. Alternatively, Cricket is popular among British Commonwealth nations. Soccer, on the other hand, seems to have been spread throughout the world without necessarily having been accompanied by British imperialism. What accounts for this? Also, as someone who doesn’t at all watch sports, what accounts for such enthusiasm for athletics and loyalty to one team versus another at say, the sub-national level? Regionalism? Does it serve as a release valve for pent-up social tensions? Does serve the same function as the ‘bread and circuses’ of Rome? Is it sort of a religion, only with more tangible, although not always satisfactory, results? Has it simply been promoted so heavily to the populace because of its revenue-generating potential? Does it allow fans to feel that they belong to a warrior tribe in a society that is now so global where real warfare is too costly and destructive?

    • I am not that far into the book that Goldblatt would be dealing with imperialism, just yet, but I can tell you some of what I have heard regarding soccer and imperialism–especially Paul Gardner, columnist for Soccer America. While anyone can play, and kids frequently play barefoot with a ball of rags, not every nation has the means to take advantage of its skilled players, who are aggressively scouted by European teams. Soccer remains exceptionally Eurocentric as the most skilled players are recruited at a young age and then grow up within a club’s system, attending European schools, eating European foods on [sports] nutrition plans, being treated in European hospitals with attendant team sports trainers and being housed and hosted by the club.

      Two things happen as a result: 1) developing nations often lack the personnel (and wealth) to develop strong and competitive leagues at home that help foster a national style and camaraderie among its most gifted players; 2) its most skilled (and wealthiest) players are abroad growing up in disparate styles and distant from the next generation that should develop under their tutelage and leadership. On the other hand, it should be pointed out that one of the top leagues in the world, if not the top league, the English Premier League, has one of the most diverse group of soccer players and one of the highest number of foreigners playing in it. As is evident by the recent struggles for the English National Team on the international stage–despite the consistent successes by English clubs on this stage–this is not always good for the European nation whose clubs are bringing droves of foreign players, perhaps at the expense of the nation’s young, developing players. In contrast to the Premier League, other national soccer bureaucracies actually cap the number of international players for each club to preserve the skill of the national players. It is a fascinating phenomenon.

      Many of your other questions I hope to research, but largely in the work of sociologists and anthropologists. These easy answer is yes. And, no. Much of the affinity for sports teams is a communal and regional loyalty–one often tied to a local identity. It is also a place where athletes work hard and persevere in a competition that is meant to celebrate hard work, loyalty, community and on a certain level a collective honor. This is why athletes can hate each other for a 60 minute contest and embrace each other with genuine affection at its conclusion (sometimes the affection returns a little while after the contest, but it often does return). I tend away from notions that it is a valve for pent-up social tensions, because tension is usually always a distraction for the athlete who is competing, though a workout may relieve one’s recent or immediate frustrations–in the end I believe this has more to do with personalities than anything else. (Having said that, I am a nicer person when I have the opportunity to consistently work out–and, I sleep better. 🙂 Finally, while there is always a revenue-generating angle in modern sports marketing and promotions, it is the actual drama of sport that generates the fandom. Whether marketing allows athletes and fans alike to ignore transgressions is a separate issue.

  2. Pingback: Top Ten Most Popular Posts – Korea, Baseball, Beowulf, Soccer, DC and MORE! | Brush off the dust! History now!

  3. Jace

    THANKS A TON!!!!!!!

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