Why Soccer Is the Most Popular Sport in the World
Two famous quotations attach themselves to soccer, football in English parlance, and its status as the biggest and best sport on planet Earth.
The first is that football is "the beautiful game," a phrase attributed to Pele. The Brazilian, the greatest player of the 20th century, entitled his 1977 autobiography "My Life and the Beautiful Game."
Pele was correct in that football, more than just about any other sport, can produce moments of supreme aesthetics. But the “beautiful game,” or jogo bonito, to use the Portuguese that was used for a 1998 Nike advertising campaign, pinpoints only one facet of football.
Beauty and Beasts
There is just as much ugliness in soccer as there is beauty. The game can give rise to some supreme skulduggery to match all the skill and athleticism on show.
Even Pep Guardiola, manager of Manchester City, perhaps the best coach in the world, has generated criticism with his teams playing the most expansive football.
Guardiola’s Barcelona teams that won the Champions League in 2009 and 2011 may have featured Lionel Messi, but they were notorious for the tactical fouls that stopped opponents’ attacks.
More Entertaining Than a Telenovela
Modern football is drenched in intrigues and plot lines that would be considered too preposterous by the writing team of a Netflix miniseries. In fact, a current Netflix show called "Club de Cuervos," or "Club of Crows," is the network's first Spanish-language original series.
But in soccer, truth can be stranger than fiction. We're talking about financial scandals, geopolitical soft power, mass movements, the scourge of hooliganism, and the sport being used as a cipher for all types of political and social points of view.
Such a state of affairs brings to mind the words of Bill Shankly, whose management of Liverpool Football Club in the 1960s and 1970s helped turn a fading concern on the furthest fringes of Western Europe into the dominant force on the European continent.
"Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude," he said. "I can assure you it is much, much more important than that."
Shankly, speaking on a TV chat show, said that with a smirk but was not entirely joking. Here was a man whose idea of a birthday treat for his wife, Nessie, was to take her on a scouting mission to a lower division club.
And he was someone who after resigning from the Liverpool management role could not keep himself away from the club’s training ground. The club’s executives eventually, with heavy hearts, had to bar Shankly, in fear of him distracting the players with his presence.
The Simplicity of the Game
Football is the only team sport that stretches to every corner of the globe. Rugby and cricket are played across what used to be the British empire. The NBA and NFL may pull in huge worldwide TV audiences, but nothing competes with football.
English-speaking countries like Australia and the United States have their own versions of football, but both of them are undergoing booms in the original game. Its rise appears impossible to stop.
The key to such enduring and burgeoning popularity is the game’s simplicity and the ease of playing it just about anywhere with the most rudimentary implements. In Britain, they call it "jumpers for goalposts," while the favelas of Brazil are filled with makeshift football pitches constructed from whatever comes to hand.
All that is is required is a ball. And few things feel more natural than kicking a ball.
It's a Working Man's Sport
The game’s roots are as blue collar as they come. England is the country that gave football to the world by codifying the game and creating in 1871 the world’s first competition in the FA Cup and the first league in the Football League, inaugurated in 1888.
The latter was forged in the country's industrial heartlands. All of the 12 founding clubs were from the North or Midlands where the country’s Industrial Revolution took place.
The ruling class preferred games played at their public schools like Eton Fives. Rugby is named after the Rugby School itself. Rowing competitions like the Boat Race still take place between Oxford and Cambridge Universities on London's Thames River.
The picture is much the same across the world. Even those clubs with bourgeois roots, like Argentina’s River Plate, Brazil’s Fluminense and Spain’s Real Madrid were sustained by a groundswell of working-class fans filling their stadiums until television money began to pay the way.
To quote the former England international and Chelsea midfielder Alan Hudson, football was the "working man’s ballet," where people went to be entertained after a hard week.
These days, the game may be patronized by His Royal Highness Prince William, current president of England’s Football Association. LeBron James might profess his love for Liverpool. And celebrities like Rihanna and the Kardashians attend matches at Paris Saint-Germain.
But the game’s roots always will lie in those workers who founded and sustained the game.
The World Cup
The Super Bowl grips the United States and much of the globe for one night, and the Olympics still are a pinnacle of so many sporting dreams, but nothing challenges the World Cup for being the greatest sporting show on Earth.
According to Variety Magazine, a TV audience of 24.2 million people in the United Kingdom watched the BBC’s coverage of England versus Croatia in the 2018 World Cup semifinal, while 32.3 million tuned in to see England's 4-2 triumph over West Germany in the 1966 final, out of an estimated population of 54.7 million.
Even China, a country that has qualified for the World Cup final just once (in 2002), managed to pull in an audience of 56 million for the 2018 World Cup, the country’s largest sports TV audience since Beijing hosted the Olympics in 2008.
And for the players themselves, nothing can touch the World Cup. Club football may be where the money lies, but a player’s reputation truly is made at a World Cup. Messi is the greatest player of this age, but he likely will retire without being a world champion with Argentina. He will be 35 when Qatar 2022 comes around, and the chances are dwindling of him emulating Pele, a three-time winner, and Diego Maradona, who inspired Argentina to victory in 1986.
“For the rest of our lives, we'll regret having those chances, and not being able to put them in,” Messi said in 2015, reflecting on the 2014 World Cup final Argentina lost to Germany.
Football as a Geopolitical Tool
Big business has had its claws in football for decades, with Coca-Cola having a business relationship with world governing body FIFA since 1950. But recently, the game has become an arena for geopolitics.
Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, a friend of Russian president Vladimir Putin, has owned Chelsea since 2003, with the club giving him respectability and acceptance in London society.
Manchester City’s 2008 takeover by a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family, with resources as deep as a trillion dollars, completely has altered the hierarchy of English football. Without that foreign money, Pep Guardiola would not be working in Manchester alongside star players like Sergio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne.
A similar situation is taking place at Paris Saint-Germain, owned by Qatar Sports Investments, like City’s owners, an operative of an entire Arabian Gulf state.
Qatar’s ownership of PSG since 2011 and securing the rights to host the 2022 World Cup are examples of "soft power," where a sports club is used to gain cultural and social influence. Football has become the sport wealth seeks out to gain influence, as globalization has taken hold.
The Premier League, the world’s most-watched and richest league in terms of TV revenue, has 13 foreign owners of its 20 clubs, including five Americans, two Russians, two Chinese and one each from Italy, Thailand, Iran and Malaysia.
This has been a football era dominated by two very different players in Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. The differences between them remind us that football is a game that can be played by people of all shapes and sizes. Messi, small and slight with a low center of gravity, is just as deadly as Ronaldo, tall and powerfully built.
The contrast between them is as pronounced as it was between Maradona and Pele, with 1980s star Maradona in Messi’s mold and Pele, with a middleweight boxer's build possessing the brute strength to survive the fierce defending he faced in the 1950s until the early 1970s.
Messi and Ronaldo are names on the lips of people across the world, their cachet even bigger perhaps than the clubs they play for. Forbes Magazine places them as two (Messi) and three (Ronaldo) on the list of 2018’s highest-paid sportsmen in the world, behind boxer Floyd Mayweather.
The two soccer superstars have set standards unmatched in the game’s history as Messi approaches 600 total career goals and Ronaldo, 550.
There is little letup in being a follower of football. No sport holds the attention for the 365 days a year that the game now does. There might have been a month between the World Cup final and the start of the Premier League season, but in between that came lucrative club tours to America and the Far East, and a transfer window in which billions of dollars were spent on fresh talent.
English comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb explained it best in a sketch that satirized U.K. television coverage of the game. Mitchell, dressed as a TV commentator, delivers an impassioned advertising slogan. "Thousands and thousands of hours of football, each more climactic than the last! Constant, dizzying, 24-hour, yearlong, endless football! Every kick of it massively mattering to someone, presumably. Watch it all, all here, all the time, forever, it will never stop, the football is officially going on forever! It will never be finally decided who has won the football!"
Even if the football might never be decided, the game will not stop being popular.
“Without fans who pay at the turnstile, football is nothing,” said Jock Stein, legendary manager of Scottish club Celtic. “Sometimes we are inclined to forget that.”
In these technological times, where a match from anywhere across the globe can be viewed at the touch of the button, fans can be forgotten, and many have been priced out by clubs seeking to pay the huge wages players now command. But a game without the color and noise that fans bring is barely worth watching, and perhaps more so on TV.
Only the NFL, with its short season and huge stadiums, brings in higher average attendances than Germany’s Bundesliga and the Premier League. Football fans, especially those in Germany and England, are known for a fanaticism which includes them traveling across their country and even Europe to watch their teams wherever they might play.
The best atmosphere, the loudest songs and the most fervent support is to be found among away fans. Yes, there can be hooliganism, but compared to 30 years ago, it is all but nonexistent.
Manchester United is the most successful club in English football, pulling in more revenue than any club in world football, and it is owned by the Floridian Glazer family. How did it end up in those hands? The answer is not simple, but it involves Sir Alex Ferguson, the club’s greatest manager, falling out with some bloodstock investors over the ownership of a racehorse named Rock of Gibraltar.
Those investors, two Irish businessmen by the names of John Magnier and J.P. McManus, bought up more and more shares in the club until they held the balance of power. Once their dispute with Ferguson was ironed out, they were happy to cash in their shares, and in May 2005, the Glazer family became owners, paying for their new purchase with a hugely unpopular leveraged buyout.
Such tales of intrigue are not uncommon across football, a sport in which the tales behind the deals are often labyrinthine, complicated and shadowy. Football is a game which embraces a dark side well beyond the bitterness that can take place on the playing field.
When Saturday Comes
Television dictates that top-level matches usually are not played in its traditional slot of a 3 p.m. Saturday kickoff in England, but for fans of the sport, the near two hours that follow — 90 minutes plus the halftime break and time added on for injuries and stoppages — are sacred.
Going to the match is a pursuit that endures and is passed down through family generations.
Fans used to crowd around radios to find out the latest scores from elsewhere, or caught them on teletext in the bar, but now mobile phones and the internet do the trick.
The ritual is not dead yet. Despite all the big business and the creeping influence, football remains the greatest game in the world.