Football Paradoxes I

Football: The nº1 global sport but not in populous countries?!

Football. The beautiful game. The most followed and played sport in the world.
However, if you think about it, it is only the most popular in 3 of the 10 most populated countries in the world (Brazil, Nigeria and Mexico). So why isn’t football the number 1 sport in any country with more than 210 million inhabitants.

It is quite simple to explain why football IS the most popular sport in the world. It’s simple, easy to play, doesn’t require much equipment and wasn’t considered an elitist sport like cricket or tennis. Add this with colonialism (Football is the most popular sport in all of the former colonial juggernauts) and you have a very simplistic explanation for the rise and spread of football as the nº1 global sport.

However, countries such as India, USA, China and Russia have been immune to the football “disease” and despite being colonised by footballing nations, football is not the most popular sport.

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India

The second biggest country in the world in terms of population, India was of course exposed to football by their former colonial master, the British Empire. The British brought football, field hockey and cricket to the country and until the late 1950’s football was quite popular. India even managed to achieve 4th place at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. So what happened?

Essentially financial troubles and the lack of good competition lead to a lack of interest in football. Until the 1960’s British teams used to tour in India to play Indian teams and this helped them improve their quality. After the 1960’s British teams stop touring in India and, since there was little competition in Asia, the quality of football declined. Coupled with financial troubles the Indian domestic game crashed, paving the way for cricket to become the most popular sport. (Curiously, British cricket clubs never stopped touring in India and one could argue if the situation might be different if British football teams continued touring.) However, football’s popularity in India has grown in the last decade and they even organised the last FIFA under 17 World Cup 2017 with much success, even setting the attendance record for the competition!

USA

The United States is perhaps the most interesting example of the failure of football to attract popularity. In fact football has even lost its original name and been given a title that causes outrage for many football fans: soccer. So why is football not the biggest sport in the US? Essentially there are 3 reasons:

  1. Basketball
  2. Baseball
  3. Football (American Football for the rest of the world)

Basketball took the place of football in the US by being a flexible sport, that can be played anywhere and that is associated with the urban working class. Baseball attracted large chunks of the urban population and benefited from a very early professionalisation of the sport which made it attract a lot of potential athletes. American Football has had very strong support from the US school system and this created a strong cultural attraction for the American public to this sport.

All of this created a near impossible situation for football to develop instantly in the US since the sports market became saturated. Their school system only adopted football (with the name of soccer) in the 1950’s and it was not a priority when compared to the other 3 main sports. In fact, the infamous American stereotype is that “football is a sport for girls”. Strangely enough this prophesy seems to have come true and the US are one of the few nations that have done better in women’s football then men’s – winning the most recent World Cup in Canada 2015 and having won the competition a record three times! (Despite being paid less than their male counterparts – for more see Gender (In)Equality)

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In their defence, the US have now got a solid football market in the MLS (unlike their old leagues the NAFL, ASL, APSL which ended due to financial difficulties.) The MLS has even attracted the likes of David Beckham, Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic towards the end of their careers. It is expected that football will continue its growth with the obvious aid of the FIFA World Cup in 2026 co-hosted by the US, Mexico and Canada. Watch this space….

The US certainly has a growing fan base and despite the poor performance of the men’s team, which World Cup had the highest attendance? Answer = USA 1994

China and Russia (Former USSR)

Football in these countries had politics against it: Both China and the USSR had bigger interests in the individual sports of the Olympic movement where the “strongest”, “fastest” athletes would win and not in football where sometimes the “strongest or fastest” teams do not win and an element of creativity is required. Perhaps it makes sense that creativity is not appreciated in dictatorships. However, one can argue that many Soviet-aligned football teams did well in European football until 1991. There is an explanation for this: football was used as a tool for the ruling class to entertain the masses and normally there was one team that had special treatment (extra-resources or just plain corruption) from the regime in place. So football in Russia and China has been very unequally developed around the country in terms of infrastructure.

China also has another social/cultural factor. In Asia, team sports are not treated as a priority in leisure time, instead giving way to individual Olympic sports, education or work. However, there has been a change in mentality and in the last decade both football infrastructure and investment in the domestic leagues have greatly improved. In 2016 Brazilian midfielder Oscar (remember him?) moved from Chelsea to Shanghai SIPG for £60 million breaking the Chinese Super League’s transfer record while becoming Chelsea’s biggest ever sale. At Shanghai, Oscar was reunited with former Chelsea boss Andre Villas-Boas and fellow Brazilian Hulk; all high profile players. It’s clear football in China is growing and the Chinese Head of State has even stated that he has the intention of making China a FIFA World Cup winner before 2050!

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Although football is not the nº1 sport in these countries at the moment, football is clearly growing, and in this ever more globalised world, I do not think that football (soccer for the Americans), will be an unknown or unfollowed sport for long.

Miguel Rodrigues

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