By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

I am just going to put this right out there: It seems to me that football (I am talking about soccer, my fellow Americans) became the sport of the world as a result of English Imperialism.  Why this thought came into goal savemy head the other day, I have no idea.  But, when it did enter my brain, I thought about how this theory seems more than plausible; dare I say that it seems likely.  You see, evidently, games that were football-esque have existed from the earliest civilizations, but modern soccer (what I will use from now on, since most of the readers of this blog are American) is quite a recent invention. The modern rules of the game formed in mid-nineteenth century England.  During this era, soccer gained popularity in lock step with England’s superpower status. England’s naval strength and prowess, and it’s commercial, industrialized economy were central to its position at the top of the national pecking order.  But, what separated the isles from Germany, France, the United States, and other powers, was its massive empire.

English imperial power globalized English culture.  Even where the English empire did not reach, British cultural carriers in the form of English_imperialism_octopussailors, diplomats, explorers, and merchants did.  These nomadic sea-faring hordes in coats and top hats brought British goods, and British practices to much of the world.  Soccer was one such practice.  

Obviously, the European imperial relationship to the rest of the world during the nineteenth century was one of exploitation.  But we must remember that a great many proud imperialists of this era believed themselves to be paternal do-gooders.  These men and women rationalized imperialism by pointing to it’s purported benevolent core.  ‘Native’, ‘backward’, ‘primitive’ peoples benefited from the ‘superior’ cultures they were provided. Albert Beveridge, a US Senator from Indiana stated this quite clearly in 1898.  Running for reelection on a pro-Spanish-American War, pro-imperialist stance, Beveridge stated that,

Therefore, in this campaign, the question is larger than a party question. It is an American question. It is a world question. Shall the American people continue their march toward the commercial supremacy of the world? Shall free institutions broaden their blessed reign as the children of liberty wax in strength, until the empire of our principles is established over the hearts of all mankind?

Have we no mission to perform no duty to discharge to our fellow man? Has God endowed us with gifts beyond our deserts and marked us as the people of His peculiar favor, merely to rot in our own selfishness, as men and nations must, who take cowardice for their companion and self for their deity-as China has, as India has, as Egypt has?

Beveridge

Beveridge

Beveridge felt the American imperial experience would even outshine the British since, as he put it, America was ‘a greater England with a nobler destiny’.

In 1898, America was playing catch up to other European powers, and to England in particular.  England had brought its laws, its government, its religion, its commerce and its language to the world. England also provided the benevolent gift of soccer.

As the twentieth century commenced, many of England’s imperial holdings rebelled against English power, and often, English culture. But, soccer remained and flourished. Instead of rebelling against the imperial game, the peoples of the world embraced it.  They made the sport their own, creating specifically national styles of play.  This may be an example of cooptation and transformation of the European cultural hegemony that often marked the decolonization movements of the mid-twentieth century.  Rebels such as Ho Chi Mihn, Mao, and Che Guevera took European ideologies, transformed them, and used said ideologies against the imperial powers that be.  

Defeating the imperialists in the streets was necessary, but often deadly.  Defeating the imperialists on the pitch was safer, and undoubtedly almost as fulfilling. 

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I think soccer being understood as an imperial force may solve a major conundrum regarding the sport; why is soccer so popular everywhere in the world, except for the United States.  The general response most Americans give is pejorative.  Soccer is just too boring to watch, as this Simpsons clip humorously illustrates:

But, this explanation doesn’t hold water. Americans religiously watch boring sports all the time.  No matter what you think of baseball, it is hard to argue that the game is not one marred by hours of stasis.  Though for true purists of the game, pitchers’ duels that lead to 1-0 scores are the epitome of the sport, for those on the outside looking in, such a three-hour ‘spectacle’ can seem mind-numbing.

Boring soccer is not the answer as to why the sport never captured the American imagination. Instead, I venture that nineteenth century beliefs about American cultural exceptionalism may be behind Americans’ general tepidity towards the ‘beautiful game’.

During the time of soccer’s viral spread, as England ruled the waves, Americans were often quite distrustful, and even disdainful, of the ‘old-world’.  Cultural and political figures in America were a paradoxical melange of feeling historically inferior to Europe, and yet, socially/culturally superior to the old world. Americans viewed their nation, their people, and their land as different from the decaying world across the Atlantic. America was supposed to be exceptional. Our sports were no different.

Thus, baseball would become America’s game at roughly the same time that soccer was taking over the rest of the world. Baseball would become a symbol for America itself.

Even today, this prejudice against European and worldly culture retains its power for many Americans. As in the past, America feels Europe can keep its English invention of Imperial Football. We now have our own imperial sports to ‘provide’ the world.   

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