Football or ‘soccer’ is the unrivaled champion when it comes to global sports. It is extensively played all over the world, in schools, colleges, leagues - big or small, and especially out on the streets. It’s one of the many ‘games’ I played growing up. Watching neighborhood kids from the sidelines and trying to join when I was old enough to actually execute a ‘kick’. When it comes to football as an institution, however, its star-studded presence and the numerous leagues that have fans hooked to their screens all year long begins and ends in the football empire of Europe.
Football, like many other sports, has a complicated history when viewed through the lens of colonialism. Like cricket in India, football saw a massive reach in Europe’s African and South American colonies. It also took a political shape and became a means to rouse the masses. Introduced as a mere sport, it soon became a unifying force transcending social and economic class barriers and bringing together the colonized under a nationalist umbrella.
“Although the British wrote and administered the rules of play, they exercised very little influence over how teams were organized in the neighborhoods or the meanings which men attributed to the game within their own lives,” writes Laura Fair, tracing the history of the British colony of Zanzibar and their reception of football. Naturally, the sport held a special place in the hearts of the ‘subjects’, long after they fought their way out of foreign rule.
South Africa, being one of the instrumental colonies under British Imperial Rule, constantly had its natives repudiate the white men trying to control the game, its leagues, and thereby the entire narrative. The 2010 FIFA World Cup carried with it a more profound complexity for the people of not just South Africa, but all the former colonies in the history of the continent.
Football holds a special place especially for them, given the recent five-year civil war which ended in 2007 because of a historical game. Therefore the world's most important tournament being hosted by South Africa was way beyond an honor. It was the first time that an African nation got the chance to be the face of the sport that was monumental in their nationalist movement, and gave them a sense of power over the imperial forces.
The following World Cup was yet again hosted at a former Portuguese colony of Brazil and paved the path for progress and inclusion. But given the development and world’s adoption of, what’s less a sport, more a phenomenon - European countries have found countless ways to keep the power over the organizational tenets of the game. Many countries with an equal passion for the sport do not get the coverage, the economic incentives, or the viewers they require, for there’s no end to the number of European leagues and their omnipresent fixtures.
One can represent their country, of course, maybe once in four years. But then one has to dedicate all that in between playing for the big leagues because that’s where the big bucks are. As if the UEFA’s Champions and Europa League and the many individual nation leagues weren’t enough, the administrators and investors took their single-minded approach for capitalistic gains a little too far with the introduction of the European Super League.
Even for India, in the midst of its coronavirus pandemic height, this news took the audience by storm. A staggering online backlash from fans all over the world among that from existing corporations like UEFA and FIFA eventually led to the disbanding of this group, reversing the pipe dream of lavish American investors like JP Morgan from becoming an alienating reality in the world of football.
The Super League, something Arsene Wenger prophesied in 2009, was on the verge of implementation despite its highly elitist agenda and the estrangement of players from their own countries. This was solely due to the profits that drove the money-minded stakeholders. It was yet another blow to the rest of the world, and an attempt to concentrate the charge in the hands of the football ‘nobility’.
The mere conception of this idea is extremely problematic for it blurs the line between making money and intense commercialization at the cost of the sport. We have already outlined the issue with the need for European ‘super’ powers to control the narrative, but the format of a league would further isolate the rest of the world, barring smaller clubs from ever moving up the ladder; and as many said, football would never be the same.
It is therefore important to take the historical perspective and be proponents for the sport to shed its exclusive robes and embrace the world, the way the world has embraced it. In an increasingly capitalistic world, we have to draw the line before an entire sport loses its essence and its history altogether — all in the name of making money.