In Other Words

Soccer Goes Glocal

Sociology, Vol. 36, No. 1, February 2002, London Soccer’s recent World Cup finals in Japan and South Korea exemplify how the world’s premier sport has become fully globalized. Before a worldwide television audience of more than 30 billion fans, 32 national teams from all continents battled for a shot on history. Soccer’s diffusion and political ...

Sociology, Vol. 36, No. 1, February 2002, London

Soccer’s recent World Cup finals in Japan and South Korea exemplify how the world’s premier sport has become fully globalized. Before a worldwide television audience of more than 30 billion fans, 32 national teams from all continents battled for a shot on history. Soccer’s diffusion and political structure offer an advanced case study in the globalization of a cultural form. Yet a closer look suggests that soccer’s global advance — like many globalization processes — is less widespread than first meets the eye.

London School of Economics sociologist Patrick McGovern assesses the degree of soccer’s globalization in his study of elite labor migration within English soccer over five decades (1946–1995). Writing for the quarterly journal Sociology, McGovern describes how English soccer clubs have favored the recruitment of players from nations within the British Isles, northern Europe, and the British Commonwealth — nations that closely approximate English cultural attitudes, weather, language, and even playing styles. On this matter, many U.K. soccer fans would point to the great Liverpool team of the early 1980s, famed for featuring "Celtic" British players, the odd Australian and Zimbabwean, and sometimes even an Englishman. Contrast this trend, up to 1990, with the striking absence of Italian and Iberian players and the rare forays of South Americans into English clubs. Overall then, McGovern contends, we witness a process of internationalization in English club recruitment, not the kind of freewheeling globalization that more extreme labor market theorists might otherwise advance.

These findings also fit most European and South American nations. Reaffirming their colonial connections, Spain and Portugal remain prominent destinations for South American players; top African players are more likely to arrive in the European leagues, notably France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Spain; and the larger South American economies of Brazil and Argentina continue to draw in elite players from smaller countries in the region, notably Uruguay. Italy is perhaps exceptional: It has long recruited players from a wider pool of nations, including large numbers from South American countries, since the interwar years. In general, however, postwar evidence suggests that distinctive regional patterns underlie the formation of the soccer world’s top club sides.

Of course, many realist analysts highlight globalization’s unevenness and regionalism. Political economist Linda Weiss of the University of Sydney argues that sovereign states are not disarmed by globalization but instead actively promote corporate internationalism, notably at the regional level. Paul Smith of George Mason University notes that the largest corporations are not truly transnational but are still tied strongly to localities by business centers and cultural symbolism. And University of Aberdeen sociologist Roland Robertson coined the term "glocalization" to explain how global social processes are selectively redefined and adapted to suit local cultural exigencies.

These interpretations fit the soccer context as well. National soccer associations can be seen as statelike actors in Weiss’s terms — witness the English Football Association in its regional recruitment of a Swedish team coach. Perhaps more relevant, many top English and other European soccer clubs operate very much like modern multinational corporations. Manchester United, for example, may play its home matches in northwest England, but it has a global fan (i.e., consumer) base of over 50 million supporters; with 20 million of these in Asia, it becomes Singapore’s "home team." Moreover, to retain a local cultural definition and identity, the world’s largest clubs still appoint a long-serving team captain who has close personal ties to the club’s civic or national base. Thus, the world’s most famous club, Real Madrid, has the Spanish star Fernando Ruis Hierro to lead his cosmopolitan teammates, Roma has the renowned local star Francesco Totti as its captain, and AC Milan has Paolo Maldini as its leader.

Nevertheless, we should recognize that in the past decade or so, English soccer has undergone increasingly rapid structural and cultural changes, and recruitment practices are no exception. Clubs such as Chelsea, Arsenal, Newcastle United, Liverpool, and Fulham have recruited European coaches with avowedly European (not "British") coaching techniques, playing systems, dietary programs, and management styles. Britain has experienced an unprecedented influx of elite players from non-traditional nations, such as Italy, France, Germany, and Croatia, as well as African and South American countries. Most of the 20 English Premier League soccer clubs could field a team consisting primarily of players from outside the British Isles.

This trend has certainly enhanced the aesthetic sophistication of English club soccer. Whether or not it improves the standard of English players — and thus boosts the World Cup chances of England’s national team — remains a matter of serious debate.

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