With the 20th FIFA World Cup well underway, and Brazil’s first time as host since 1950, it is illuminating to explore the impact of the world’s “beautiful” game and the passions the sport evokes among global and local audiences. No other sport can be considered as global a phenomenon. Soccer, or association football, with its annual revenue in the billions, is played professionally around the world by 300,000 clubs and their 240 million players.1 The football industry employs over 200 million people worldwide, including referees, coaches, medical staff, and so on. FIFA, the governing body of football, currently has 209 member countries, 16 more than the United Nations.2 In 2010, FIFA’s flagship tournament, the World Cup in South Africa, was broadcast to 26.3 billion people in 214 countries.3

What is not immediately evident from these numbers is that despite its overarching global structure, football has been intertwined with class and national identities, with nationalism and sectarianism, and has both created and affirmed social divisions. It is for precisely these reasons that the last leaders of the Ottoman Empire and of China’s Cultural Revolution attempted to ban the game. They recognized that soccer serves as an agent and a tool in helping to define and reinforce the “Us/Them” distinction, what some see as the quintessential marker of nationalism — a concept that is irrevocably linked to the movements of economies. Tracking the ways in which soccer has historically affected the formation and perpetuation of national identities is thus relevant to a much wider group than sports fans.

When one watches football or analyzes accounts of past matches, it may appear that the game is a war and the stadium is a battlefield. But while soccer has not replaced war, brought about peace or defined borders, it has nonetheless triggered a conversation on national and local identities, pride, economic revenue, and cross cultural interactions.

Walker Connor defines the state as a subdivision of the globe, a political unit, and the nation as a glorified ethnic group with attachment to its territorial homeland.4 Adapted to the case of football, it can be argued that support of an international or state team is a form of patriotism or civic nationalism. The fan base of an international team constitutes an imagined community5, to use a term coined by political scientist Benedict Anderson, because its members, who often do not know one another, are bound together by the fact that most of them live within the boundaries of the same state. When France won the World Cup in 1998, for example, there were people of every race and every religion crowding the streets to cheer for the French team’s victory6. Support for club teams, however, is more directly linked to ethnic nationalist sentiments, and there are indeed many clubs in every state. These teams tend to be mostly homogenous and their supporters are often of the same race, religion, or class. When clubs compete, the “Us/Them” distinction, which is so often inherent to nationalism, plays out between two separate and mostly homogenous groups. The fight then is usually for only the pride of the nation.

The ease with which goods and services move across political boundaries in our globalized world has contributed to the creation of a globally homogenized culture, one which is apparent in modern football fandom. It has become common for local or regional teams that once represented a homogenous population to now allow others to join their club, and this squad diversity in turn diversifies the fans. In other words, with globalization the purity of the nation that was once reflected in the local football team (and its fans) is no longer possible and thus a new “global sporting culture” has developed. Inevitably, in the process of purchasing championship-winning players, teams lose their local, regional and even their national identities. Many of Brazil’s top football players, for example, play for clubs outside their country of origin. It is clear that the new members of these teams may have limited loyalty to the local clubs and that they join them in order to maximize their economic gains, as well as to test themselves at the highest level.

If globalization indeed flattens nationalist sentiment, then where does soccer lie in this continuum? Spain’s Basque football provides one answer. The ideology and hiring practices of Athletic Bilbao, the flagship club of the Basque region, suggest that it seeks to maintain the purity of the Basque nation. Since it hires only players of Basque origin to play for the team, the club has earned unparalleled support from much of the region because the supporters feel that they are cheering their own people rather than imported talents. This policy also broadcasts the unique sense of Basque nationalism to the rest of the world, especially because the team plays in the top division, it often qualifies for the European club competitions, and its games are watched and followed in Spain, Europe and beyond.7 Here, football serves as an extension of the nation and as a mechanism that reinforces divisions based on national sentiments, in the face of the forces of globalization. At the same time, the attachment of fans to their club often crosses local and national boundaries. Fans now support teams whose national and ethnic origins may be different from their own, and therefore, with globalization, football becomes less about geography and nationalism and more about a brand — a global brand. It is this brand and the way football is now played that has helped erase some of these national differences. A newly released study from Havas Sports & Entertainment and the Annenberg Innovation Lab at the Universtity of Southern California, focusing on the mindsets of 21,000 fans in 15 countries, bears this out.

Most football fans prefer their national teams, with some interesting exceptions: Over half (52%) of people interested in football see their national football team as their #1 favourite football team. This applies to a great majority of countries, with the notable exceptions of the UK and Spain, where support is higher for national club teams — 66% in the UK and 52% for Spain, as well as South Africa, where 34% of football fans are loyal to foreign club teams. In China, fans selected their national team (25%) as their #1 favourite as much as other national teams (26%). An interesting outlier is the U.S., the country least interested in football, where 26% of football fans state that they are more a fan of the sport than an actual team or player.8

It is conclusively clear from this discussion that football is an example of the interaction between the local and the global in regards to the globalization of the sport and the impact that the game’s globalizing has had on local and national identities. Sometimes, this effect has been retributive, such as the sports’ initial spread from Britain, following colonialism. At the time, football was instrumental in giving the former colonies a national identity. The game’s European origin allowed victories of the ex-colonies to be vengeful as the ex-colonizers were beaten at their own game. At other times, it has pushed development in unprecedented ways as a global industry. For instance, many of globalization’s effects today on football have been correlated. Increased labor flows, for example, have often been the result of capital inputs; and globalization has also resulted in global marketing and branding for athletes and teams. These interactions of football with the development and realization of national identities and the global economy are undeniable and cannot be ignored.

Tahl Mayer is an alumnus of the United World College system and Brandeis University, with an emphasis on Cultural Globalization and Sustainable Development. He recently moved to New York from Mumbai, having spent a year developing volunteer projects in local slums as a Fellow with the Joint Distribution Committee. His loyalties in club football lie with Liverpool FC and nationally with perennial underachievers Israel, although for this World Cup he is supporting Germany.

1 http://www.loc.gov/rr/business/BERA/issue3/soccer.html
2 The UN has only 193 members (it does not recognize Kosovo and the Vatican City, nor does it recognize territories, like Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam and US Virgin Islands (all territories of the US), to name a few. FIFA, on the other hand, includes territories that the UN does not recognize as independent states.
3 http://www.fifa.com/aboutfifa/marketing/factsfigures/tvdata.html; this figure refers to the total views of the tournament, not to individuals who watched.
4 Connor, Walker. (1994). Terminological Chaos, in Ethnonationalism: The Quest for Understanding. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
5 Anderson, Benedict. (1991). Imagined Communities. London: Verso.
6 Mignon, Patrick. (1998). “A Beautiful World. In Lyons,” Andy and Mike Ticher (eds.)
Back Home: How the World Watched France ’98. London: WSC Books
7 In fact, Athletic Bilbao is one of only three teams never to have been relegated from Spain’s La Liga. The other two being traditional powerhouses Barcelona and Real Madrid.
8 http://www.bizcommunity.com/Article/196/19/115063.html