A whole different ball game.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto considers why soccer will never score highly in the US

June 26, 2008

The English, with good grace, and even some enthusiasm, stand by while other people's teams enjoy a major soccer tournament without them. For the media, the spectacle raises the problem of why the English are so bad at sports they invented. For academics, a more interesting problem is: why do some games "travel"? Why do some sports, which are viscerally cultural forms of behaviour, transcend national frontiers while others remain interesting and intelligible only to the descendants of the people who devised them? And what sets limits to their diffusion? Association Football has almost conquered the world, but the US remains so indifferent to its magic that when I am in Boston I feel bereft of all the charming chatter about the tactics, the transfers and the managerial merry-go-round that fills so many pages in European newspapers every day.

Soccer is the most dazzling case and the most appealing, in an academic sense, to Times Higher Education readers, as, like the British Empire, it was one of the many blessings and curses that English educational institutions have given the world. The rules, which evolved as a blend of practices peculiar to a handful of public schools, were first formulated at the University of Cambridge. Other games, such as tennis, which the French claim as their invention, or golf, the invention of which is disputed between the Scots and the Chinese, may be played in more countries. But soccer is more nearly universal because it galvanises more players and more spectators and overleaps boundaries of class, as well as of culture, more perfectly than any other game. How did the worldwide take-up happen?

Some games spread inside those great arenas of cultural exchange that we call empires. But soccer is not one of them. With few exceptions, only countries with a British imperial past play cricket and rugby football to a high standard. Like the taste for English food, enthusiasm for cricket and rugger seems to benefit from reinforcement by coercion. Some imperial implants thrive in the corners of foreign fields, but never get much further. I have read that there is still a diocese in South Africa where football is played according to the rules of the Winchester College game, because the place had an old Wykehamist bishop some time in the 19th century. Although "baseboru" started in Japan not later than the 1920s, US occupation turned baseball into something like a national sport. Soccer, however, was hardly more popular inside the British Empire than outside it - perhaps less so, as in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa other football codes outstripped it in popularity. Meanwhile, the great enemies of the British Empire, the Germans, took it up with embarrassing dedication.

Trade is a vector of every form of cultural exchange and we might expect soccer to have travelled with it. The English were the most travelled merchants - indeed, the great business imperialists - of the 19th and early 20th centuries and many of the founders of soccer clubs in odd parts of the world were displaced English businessmen. Brazil still has its Corinthians, though they are distressingly professional, Uruguay its Wanderers and Chile its Rangers. Tennis arrived in the US as a commercial venture in the promotion of English-manufactured rackets and nets. But since the English were incredibly fecund in the invention of games in the 19th century, the reach of English commerce cannot explain the diffusion of soccer in particular.

Migration transplants culture, and migrants have, for example, taken the many games of Basque invention throughout the Hispanic world, but not much farther. Cricket is now played all over the US - or at least wherever there are south Asian immigrant communities. But soccer is played where there are no migrants or descendants of migrants to nurture it. Educational institutions can be effective nurseries: students from Canada took basketball and lacrosse to the US. Spaniards educated in England helped promote the beginnings of rugby at Madrid University.

Global soccer seems to defy institutional or cultural explanation. The only conclusion - disappointingly unacademic as it seems - is that people play it and watch it because they like it.

Today, thanks to promotion by the media, globalisation is making almost every game universal. I cannot imagine huge popularity ever attending shinty in Italy, the Eton field game in Iowa or sumo in France. Birmingham's Bullring will, I suspect, remain a shopping centre. But we have already seen American football in London, the Netherlands in a major cricket tournament, world-class rugby from Georgia, and Switzerland winning the America's Cup. Jamaica, as the calypso reminds us, has had a bobsleigh team.

So why is the US almost uniquely perverse in resisting the spectacle of soccer? The playing bug has bitten North America late, but has infective effect. The continued resistance of the spectator public has, I think, nothing to do with the game or with the usual complaints about low score lines. But American football is ideal for commercial television because of the many boring time-outs that broadcasters fill with advertising. If soccer became popular, the economy would suffer and the media tycoons would suffer most.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto is Prince of Asturias professor of history at Tufts University in the US.

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