World History and the World Cup

One Thing after Another is a huge soccer fan, so this blog cannot allow the 2014 World Cup to pass without remark. One Thing after Another roots for an eclectic collection of teams, something that is by no means unusual (a number of this blog’s friends and acquaintances do the same thing). This phenomenon calls to mind several important points with which historians constantly wrestle.

For one thing, identity is a malleable thing that often depends on context. When it comes to Major League Soccer (MLS) in the United States, this blog feels the tug of the local community, supports the New England Revolution, attends a number of home games, and really likes the way Lee Nguyen plays. Yet, so far as “real” soccer is concerned, One Thing after Another sees nothing better than the Barclay’s Premier League, roots for Tottenham Hotspur (COYS!), and still has a hole in its heart from when Gareth Bale left in 2013. When the World Cup rolls around, however, the blogmaster is compelled by his ethnic heritage to cheer on “les bleus” and thinks Zinadine Zidane (“Zizou”) was all that. At times, these allegiances overlap and reinforce one another, as when the blog feels a special loyalty to Hugo Lloris who happens to be the keeper for the Spurs—as well as for the French national team. As historians have long understood, identity is like that; we can be different things under different circumstances. Identities can reinforce or undermine one another. Depending on the situation, one’s gender, class, ethnicity, family, party, religion, community (and one can form part of several), and nation—to name just a few factors—compete with one another, determining our ideas as well as our behavior.

This interplay between identities leads to another, related point well illustrated by soccer: the interaction between the local and global may ebb and flow, but that ebb and flow is a constant presence in people’s lives. As C. A. Bayly, one of the leading students of global history, has pointed out, “all local, national, or regional histories must, in important ways . . . be global histories.” Any history of the world during the modern period, he argues, must “chart the interdependence of world events, while allowing for the brute fact of Western domination.” “At the same time,” he continues, “over large parts of the world, this European domination was only partial and temporary” because non-European peoples received and remolded Western ideas in such a fashion that they limited the nature and extent of that domination.

Royal Engineers 1872

In 1872, Royal Engineers AFC, pictured here, played in the first FA Cup final against Wanderers FC, a squad consisting mainly of alums from elite public schools. Royal Engineers AFC was known for pioneering the “combination game,” that is, passing the ball instead of solely dribbling (which is what teams had done up to that point). Despite helping develop the modern form of the sport, Royal Engineers AFC went down to defeat that year, 1-0.

Soccer reflected these dynamics. Professional association football, as we know it, was a creation of the Midlands, the industrial heartland of the England. From this small corner of the world, the sport was spread by British workers who migrated throughout the globe in the late 19th century. Soccer did not take particularly well in the formal empire (e.g. India) or in what became the dominions (e.g. Australia), but it did put down roots in areas where British commercial influence was great. A number of teams on the European continent were created by British expatriates. Italians say “Milano,” so why is the famous soccer team there referred to as “AC Milan”? Because it was founded by English businessmen who originally named it the Milan Cricket and Foot-Ball Club. The same was true in South America, where British business interests were particularly strong. Brazilian, Argentine, and Uruguayan elites who lived in the great port cities of South America embraced the sport because they felt the cultural pull of England and sought to emulate a people whom they admired. Having embraced football, however, they made it their own.

The most famous case, of course, is Brazil, which developed a very distinct style of play. As David Goldblatt, perhaps the leading historian of soccer has put it, Brazilian football sought to resolve “two competing rationalities: the instrumental and the aesthetic; the efficient and the beautiful; to play to win but to play for pleasure, and in so doing to reconcile, if only for a moment, a central dilemma of not merely Latin American football but of all modern societies.”  This was the “jogo bonito,” the beautiful game.


Exeter City FC, a middling Southern League team, toured South America in 1914 and played a number of games with local sides. Most famously, it took on an all-star squad of players from Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The Brazilians won, 2-0. This photo was taken during the tour. City is in the striped jerseys. 

Where did this game come from? Gilberto Freyre, one of Brazil’s leading public intellectuals, was in no doubt. After Brazil first made its mark on global soccer with a third-place finish in the 1938 World Cup (with two black stars, Domingos da Guia and Leônidas  da Silva—the latter often credited with being the inventor of the bicycle kick), Freyre wrote:

Our style of playing football seems to contrast to the European style because of a set of characteristics such as surprise, craftiness, shrewdness, readiness, and I shall even say individual brilliance and spontaneity, all of which express our ‘mulattoism’ . . . Our passes . . . our tricks . . . that is something which is related to dance, to capoeira, mark the Brazilian style of football, which round and sweetens the game the British invented, the game which they and other Europeans play in such an acute and angular way—all this seems to express—the flamboyant and at the same time shrewd mulattoism, which can today be detected in every true affirmation of Brazil.

In other words, the English game had been filtered by a culture that combined Portuguese, African, and American features. The Brazilian style of play proved dominant starting in the late 1950s, with Pelé leading the charge. Of four successive World Cups, Brazil won three of them (1958, 1962, and 1970).

And what of England, the inventor of football, during this period? England suffered from the complacency and insularity of the long-dominant. In some ways, England’s decline as a football power in the post-World War II era mirrored its decline as an industrial one. It stuck with outmoded ideas that had appeared to work for a long time in much the same way that it relied on obsolete plant. As Goldblatt puts it, Britain continued to count on character, instinct, and grit, unlike other Europeans who increasingly employed advanced training methods and coaching. The bell began to toll in 1950 when England first deigned to play in the World Cup. After beating Chile, the team lost to the United States and Spain. England would stage a brief resurgence in the 1960s, with a World Cup victory at home in 1966, but a strong English team in 1970 was eliminated in a controversial quarter-final by West Germany in extra time (the first time a German team had beaten England).

 At the 1970 World Cup, England faced Brazil in group play. Brazil won 1-0, but the English could console themselves with the fact that Gordon Banks, their keeper, made what is widely regarded as the save of the century against, appropriately enough, Pelé.

Yet, as Bayly points out, one of the hallmarks of modern global history is a uniformity in which “forms of human action adjusted to each other and came to resemble each other across the globe.” Football has undeniably become more global in the last 20 years. There are limits, of course, to this globalization. The two countries with the largest populations in the world, India and China, are miserable football weaklings (although the latter are huge football fans). And as one recent article in The Atlantic has suggested, the World Cup is not truly global: a better title would be “’The West European/South American Cup’ since the eight countries who have won the World Cup have been from those two continents.”

That being said, coaches, players, management, and capital freely circulate throughout the soccer world just as they do in every other business. As football has become more global, it has, in many ways, become more uniform. Cultural differences remain—football is not homogeneous—but teams play more like each other than ever before. England plays less like old England and more like South America (even if the English still value mental toughness and physicality). And while English fans lament that their team has underperformed in not reaching a final since 1966, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski have found in Soccernomics that given its size, wealth, and soccer experience, England actually does better than it should. At the same time, Brazil, particularly the 2014 squad, now plays less in the old Brazilian tradition of the jogo bonito and more like European teams (which is a problem according to most Brazilian fans). This development clearly has something to do with the globalization of soccer. Of Brazil’s World Cup roster of 23 this year, 19 players belonged to European professional teams, with more, ironically enough, in Barclay’s Premier League clubs (five) than any other league (only four members of the Brazilian national team play in the Campeonato Brasileiro Série A).

On the one hand, we could say that the uniformity that goes hand in hand with globalization might very well be reflected in the close scores that we have just witnessed in the quarter-finals, semi-finals, and finals. With the exception of Brazil’s catastrophic meltdown against Germany (7-1), every game was decided by one goal in 90 minutes, ended in overtime, or went to penalty kicks. On the other hand (and this is the position of Kuper and Szymanski), all things being equal, the future might lie with bigger, wealthier, more experienced countries. Since football know-how freely circulates throughout the world, the nations that can tap the largest pools of athletic talent and afford the best facilities will eventually emerge on top. Of course, football knowledge is not easy to multiply, but such an argument bodes well for the United States. One Thing after Another, however, recommends that you don’t hold your breath waiting for the United States to hoist that World Cup trophy.