I grew up seeing the world through the eyes of soccer (fútbol, football). During the 2004 World Cup, I visited my family in Colón, Panama. All summer long I tried to emulate what I saw on TV in my tía’s backyard. By the time I returned to the States, I was dribbling a ball everywhere I went. It became as though fútbol was a way to distinguish my Panamanian identity.
Over time I tried to make connections between fútbol and the world around me. Whether that was learning the flags of the world on FIFA or reading about the nations my favorite players represented, I really enjoyed the international aspect of fútbol. The first example of this was my admiration for Michael Essien (Ghanaian Chelsea midfielder from 2005–2014) and how that turned into my admiration for Ghana. I began following the Ghanaian national team and their most successful players — Kevin Prince Boateng, Asamoah Gyan, Kwadwo Asamoah, and others. As I got older, I began to ask deeper questions… Why does France have so many Black players? Do colonial relationships shape the makeup of certain teams? What are the stories fútbol can tell?
These “global studies” dynamics along with my love of the fashion and culture encompassing the game grew my interest. Now, I don’t just see teams competing on a field, but (in some cases) also migration and sociopolitical context as well.
Fashion & Culture
Part of what I really enjoy about fútbol is the fashion that surrounds the game. Each team has a different look. Innovative, classic, colorful, muted. Fútbol has it all, it just depends where you look. European football clubs, such as Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), have even released their jerseys during fashion week.
Some squads, such as the Nigerian 2018 World Cup team, are remembered more for their kit than what they accomplished on the field. In 2018, Nigeria didn’t advance past the group stages, but their jersey that year is widely recognized as the freshest fútbol jersey ever worn. However, when teams accomplish something great, like winning the World Cup or a treble, this can instantly make their jersey iconic. People who don’t even watch fútbol are able to recognize Brazil’s famous yellow home jersey. Their remarkable success (5 World Cup wins) has cemented their place as the best footballing nation of all time. These 5 World Cup wins are symbolized by the 5 stars above the crest on their jersey.
Regarding the relationship between a country’s culture and fútbol… it’s complicated. Blanketing an entire country’s fútbol community with national stereotypes is wrong. However, as Professor Stanislao Pugliese has put it, “if we accept the premise that soccer is part of culture, then how could a nation’s culture not inform the soccer that it plays?”
Going back to Brazil, we can look evaluate fútbol on a deeper level. The Brazilian way of playing, Joga Bonito or “the beautiful game”, is the most famous way of playing. It emphasizes ball control, skill moves, and creativity. These characteristics are consistent in some of Brazil’s best — Pelé, Ronaldinho, and Neymar. Historically in Brazil, acceptance or rejection of a particular style of play depended on the community it originated in. Originally, fútbol was reserved for Brazil’s elite. How did this change? Industrialization in the early 20th century enabled the formation of teams associated with a specific factory or industry. The workers who made up these teams also carried with them the culture of their community. Despite the formation of working class teams, division along racial and socioeconomic lines persisted. In São Paulo, the large Italian community’s Palmeiras sports club resisted including Black players in their team by simply shutting down the soccer program. In Port Alegre, the dominant German immigrant community excluded non-Germans from the local team, Grêmio.
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Many of these racial and socioeconomic dynamics are still at play today in rivalry games between local teams. Two notable rivalry games are Corinthians vs. São Paulo and Flamengo vs. Fluminense. Corinthians and Flamengo are both associated with the working class while São Paulo and Fluminense are identified with the elite. Although the lines regarding fútbol fan bases are more blurred now than they were in the past, the culture surrounding the teams can still be felt.
It’s no surprise that futbol cultural clash is present in other parts of the world too. Arguably the most famous rivalry in all of sports, FC Barcelona vs. Real Madrid, has a deep rooted cultural component. Real Madrid has historically been associated with the monarchy. In contrast, Barcelona is located in Catalonia — a region considered to be politically and culturally different than the rest of Spain. FC Barcelona’s motto, mes que un club (more than a club), is a direct refence to the club being a vehicle for promoting regional identity. So, whenever FC Barcelona and Real Madrid play (El Clásico), it’s inevitably more than just a game.
The fashion and cultural components of fútbol have given it a dynamism that I haven’t found replicated in other sports. It seems to add to the passion both players and supporters have. Moving forward, I’m interested to see how the culture surrounding the game, whether it’s in Brazil, Spain, or elsewhere, changes with time.
“Global Studies” in Fútbol
For people who follow soccer, it’s obvious that France currently produces the most fútbol talent in the world. A total of 50 players in the 2018 World Cup were born in France. However, only 21 of these players represented France with the other 29 playing for other countries. Looking at the French national team (also known as Les Bleus) specifically, 17 of the 23 players on their roster are the sons of first-generation immigrants. For example, Kylian Mbappé — the best young player in the world. His father is from Cameroon and his mother of Algerian origin. We can think of France as the prime example of how colonial relationships has shaped the flow (including human trafficking) of fútbol players around the world.
In France, this is not felt just on the national team, but in Ligue 1 (the French domestic fútbol league) as well. Of the 258 foreign players in Ligue 1, roughly 40% (102 players) represent former French colonies. France is the most drastic example, but a similar story can be found throughout Europe. Several Nigerians play for club teams in the English Premier League, analogous to Argentinians playing in Spain’s La Liga or Italy’s Serie A. Where diaspora communities are located, footballing links soon follow.
Going back to France though, these diasporic links originate in the massive migration that took place after World War II. To rebuild after the war, France recruited hundreds of thousands of laborers from North Africa. As France’s economy continued to expand in the 1960s and 70s, they began recruiting laborers from West Africa as well. The migrants settled primarily in the suburbs (in France, suburb implies the “hood”) of Paris, Marseille, and Lyon. Concurrently, the French soccer system was going through a revitalization. Academies were established and investment poured into fútbol. Additionally, underfunded schools and inadequate economic opportunities in the suburbs further pushed migrants’ children into fútbol. All these factors came together in France’s first World Cup victory in 1998. In that World Cup, instead of being known as Les Bleus, the French national team was referred to as Black, Blanc, Beur (Black, White, Arab) — a spin on the three colors of the French flag. This however made white nationalists angry.
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Many whites in France never accepted the migrants or their children (many of whom were born in France!) as French. This sentiment is still prevalent today. Black and Arab footballers are often judged more harshly in the media than their white teammates. This is a global problem and rampant across sports. It needs to stop.
As I said earlier, I love the fashion and culture of fútbol, but my favorite aspect is the “global studies” and stories that players embody. When I think about it like that, it’s more than just a game.
I hope after reading this, the next time you watch a fútbol match you’ll be looking at it as more than just a game, but rather a place where many stories are told. Lookout for my next two articles discussing racism and human trafficking in fútbol.