The Cruel Economy of Soccernomics: Capital, Players, and Football in the 21st Century

In 2000’s The Many Headed Hydra, historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker explored the transnational revolutionary Atlantic world’s collection of working and enslaved peoples of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Linebaugh and Rediker present numerous examples of this burgeoning Atlantic world proletariat as it struggled against the crushing dominance of a nascent capitalism shedding its mercantilist restraints. The commoditization of labor and peoples, left sailors, slaves, and commoners as physical representations of opposition, providing tangible fervor and ideological depth to various uprisings, revolts, and revolutions from England to the West Indies to the United States. Acting as “nodes of revolution,” sailors and slaves carried ideas, plots, and oppositional violence against “the dictates of mercantile and imperial authority” targeting the property of the growing merchant class. (156) In the face of state sponsored violence of the period ranging from slavery to penal colonies to military intervention, revolution through piracy, slave revolt, and riot served as resistance to the formation of new capitalist order.

Strangely, 2009’s Soccernomics represents an interesting correlation to The Many Headed Hydra’s oncoming tsunami of free trade and “open markets.”  No, footballers are not, never have been, and are highly unlikely ever to be “nodes of revolution.”  Anyone who has followed recent sex scandals involving prominent players like England’s John Terry (likes 18 year girls and sleeping with his best friend’s former fiancée) or Wayne Rooney (allegedly cried after “performing” with an escort while his wife was in labor with their first child which makes him simultaneously ridiculous and despicable) knows that even getting them to be “nodes of decency” proves challenging. Yet, throughout Soccernomics three themes seem central to authors Simon Kuper (soccer journalist/writer) and Stefan Szymanski’s (economist) economically deterministic approach to football:

  • the rising dominance of European style/tactics over the past 30 – 40 years (the authors even argue that Brazil has diminished aspects of its “beautiful game” to adopt much of the European approach)
  • the role of capital flows in altering the modern game
  • Players themselves, most from working class populations (in the rich and developing world though differences between poverty in France and South Africa remain stark), serving as nodes of both developments.

The best soccer today is Champions League Soccer, western European Soccer. It’s a rapid passing game played by athletes. Rarely does anyone dribble, or keep the ball for a second. You pass instantly. It’s not the beautiful game – dribbles are prettier – but it works best. All good teams everywhere in the world now play this way. Even the Brazilians adopted the Champions League style in the 1990s. They still have more skill than the Europeans, but they now try to play at a European pace. (27)

As the above excerpt illustrates, Europe’s dominance extends from several factors. First, “The Continent” contains the worlds’ top leagues: The English Premiership, Spain’s La Liga, and Italy’s Seria A. Second, FIFA’s headquarters sit squarely in Western Europe dictating international rules and regulations while organizing the world’s most popular soccer tourney, The World Cup. Third, the financial resources of Europe and opening labor markets of the past 20 years have enabled the continent to import labor from Africa, Asia, South America, Australia and North America. Finally, the world’s most prestigious tournament The Champions League and its NIT-like cousin the UEFA League are fundamentally European entities. More recent evidence can be found extracted from the World Cup this past summer. Oft maligned Spain joined the ranks of Brazil with its victory in South Africa becoming only the second national side to have won a World Cup outside their hemisphere. Furthermore, four of the last six world cups were won by European sides.

Now there are many who might take issue with the assertion of European superiority. After all Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina hold multiple cups while South America has consistently produced football giants. Moreover, today Carlos Tevez, Lionel Messi, and Roque Santa Cruz serve as only three examples of dominant South American footballers, though each plays in Europe (which obviously furthers Soccernomics’ European argument). Still, I can think back to a series of soccer documentaries on PBS that covered the rise of international soccer from the 1950s to the current day in which several of the early South American stars, many of whom hailed from this year’s semi-finalist Uruguay commented on the rise of European footballing prominence. One former star in particular seemed incredulous arguing (and I am most certainly paraphrasing here since I can’t remember the player’s name or the documentary’s title) that these clumsy Europeans came and were able to use organization and passing to overcome their lack of individual skill or flair. The speaker’s disregard for this state of affairs came through clearly when he seemed to snarl indignantly through the word organization. Even Soccernomics acknowledges this discrepancy when it describes Brazil’s place within this football nexus. The authors admire the artistry of the Brazilian approach but privilege the stark replicable system and results of the European style.

If one suggests Soccernomics provides an essentialist view of football one would have to disagree, in short, accusations of Eurocentrism fall flat. Szymanski and Kuper have few Europhile interests to promote as they spend plenty of pages outlining racism and discrimination that course through aspects of the game, examining the role of poverty on national sides (guess what, being a poor country with a low GPD makes it real hard) and devote an entire chapter to England’s “mediocrity” as a football power (for all its “disappointments,” the authors suggest the island nation didn’t underperform but when placed in the proper historical and demographic context rather over performed over the past three decades– more on this in another post). However, they also point out that football’s growth owed some of its expansion to economies of scale, industrialization, and transnational capital/labor flows from imperial reach. Football’s spread correlated not with British official colonization, but instead its “informal empire, the noncolonies: most of Europe, Latin America, and parts of Asia. Here [Brazil], it probably benefited from not being seen as a colonial ruler’s game. Brits in the informal empire were supposedly just businesspeople, even if in practice their commercial clout gave the British prime minister vast influence over many unlikely countries.” (159) In India and Australia official colonization brought administrators emphasizing cricket and rugby.

In contrast, America’s own “informal empire” failed to inculcate a love of American football or baseball in the same way that soccer expanded. For the authors, despite receiving the keys to the imperialist car in 1947, “the American empire was much less ambitious. It barely spread Americanism. Football the American empire’s most popular sport, still hardly exists.” (158) Though one might argue basketball and baseball have gained adherents abroad, American football has served as the national past time for many years now, but has not enjoyed much international popularity. Though one might take pause at the conclusions drawn by the authors namely that “Victorian Britons were instinctive colonists where today’s Americans are not,” the fact of the matter remains soccer’s reach occurred in large part due to the existence of informal empire. The importance of economics on who dominated soccer proved equally instructive when looking at the various cups and tournaments won in the 1970 to 2000 period note the authors: “the six founding members [Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg, West Germany, Netherlands, and France] of the European Economic Community dominated soccer thinking and won almost all the game’s prizes.” (292)

If sailors, slaves, and commoners of the eighteenth century nurtured ideas of opposition and freedom throughout the Atlantic world, acting as nodes of revolution, modern day players like Didier Drogba accomplish similar feats in spreading European football superiority. Absorbing the game initially as an unforeseen after effect of the capital flows of informal empire, Drogba, Tevez, and countless others absorb the tactics, style, and underlying logic of the European method. Playing within the professional leagues of Western Europe further facilitates this process. Coaches like the wandering Guus Hiddink contribute to this development as Szymanski/Kuper argue “he has been the world’s leading exporter of soccer know how from Western Europe to the margins of the Earth.” (292 – to be sure some readers might take issue with the metropole/periphery paradigm that the writers have employed, but for our purposes we’ll simply acknowledge this lens as potentially problematic). According to Soccernomics, Hiddink and other European coaches have brought the fast, physical, collective style of European sides to Korea, Japan, Greece, Turkey, and Australia, essentially slitting the throat of powers like Holland and England who the authors argue will no longer be able to compete with these new developing national sides.

Some might argue that the spread of Euro styles and tactics have flattened the game to reflect the same kind of social/political/economic leveling of globalization where once distinct cultural and regional identities are reshaped to fit into more cookie cutter like models. The authors express this clearly when discussing Turkey’s recent international successes: “in short, globalization saved Turkish soccer. Turks came to the realization that every marginal county needs: there is only one way to play good soccer – you combine Italian defending with German work ethic and Dutch passing into the European style. (‘Industrial soccer’ some Turks sulkily call it.)” (299) The football playing world of Soccernomics places little to no faith in the power of culture in terms of successful football sides, “national styles don’t work … in soccer ‘culture’ doesn’t matter much,” note the two writers. (299) Instead, the “industrial” approach provides the most tangible successes. For Szymanski and Kuper, the strength of Turkey, Greece, and Portugal was their ability to “jettison [their] traditional soccer culture,” which Soccernomics described as “dysfunctional indigenous styles.” (299)

One might suppose the question that remains involves the teleology of the argument that Symanski and Kuper promote. Granted, one should not feign surprise when a book titled Soccernomics adopts an economically deterministic viewpoint. Yet, the book treats soccer style/tactics as complete, no new developments in the works, European dominance secured. Moreover, considering the clear influence of capital flows, imperialism (whether formal or informal), and globalizing entities like the EC or EU, the authors might have tempered some of their somewhat positivistic logic. While the European leagues draw talent from the world’s “four corners” (wherever they may be), it fails to give much agency to international players like Drogba. They appear to be empty vessels whose indigenous styles are to be corrected and filled with starry ideas of European organization and attack. No negotiation occurs, no Hegelian tropes of dominance/resistance. If these largely working class footballers operate as nodes of anything, its capitalism. National styles have been carved down to an archetype that is perfected, reducing redundancies and inefficiencies, while finding export through grizzled European coaches who carry this new “industrial style” to Korea, China, and elsewhere. Sound familiar? One of the questions that emerges regarding “industrial football”is this: is it truly more efficient or simply benefiting from institutional and financial advantages that make it seem more successful?

Soccernomics is a great read. Informative, well written and thought provoking, but for all its focus on Europe, powers like Brazil and Argentina often seem secondary. How would they explain Argentine successes? As one fellow writer related in a recent email, “Perhaps Argentina is the most European of Latin American nations?” Second, writers like Arjun Appadurai (Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization) have cautioned academics and others about how they view progress in the non European world imploring anthropologists, sociologists and historians to avoid imposing western historical models of capital development or democracy, noting that these new developments require more flexible and insightful analysis, since the growth of such concepts need not occur identically to European or American examples. Furthermore, Appadurai’s discussion of labor flows sounds eerily reminiscent of European football’s magnetism for players in the developing world as Appadurai argues “globalization brings laboring populations into the lower-class sectors and spaces of relatively wealthy societies, while sometimes creating exaggerated and intensified senses of criticism or attachment to politics in the home state.” Appadurai continues noting how “alienation (in Marx’s sense) [is] twice intensified, for its social sense is now compounded by a complicated spatial dynamic that is increasingly global.” (42) Certainly, Drogba and others, once ascending to the professional ranks probably don’t seclude themselves in low income communities of their fellow immigrants, yet, as Szymanski and Kuper detail, most clubs spend very little on relocation services for non Europeans leading to culture shock and sometimes poor play from imported footballers. The authors argue the dearth of Brazilian players in the English Premiership or the failure of temperamental Nicolus Anelka at Real Madrid were due in large part to failed relocation efforts by Europe’s top clubs: “The challenge of moving from Rio de Janeiro to Manchester involves cultural adjustments that just don’t compare with moving from Springfield, Missouri to Springfield, Ohio. Yet, European clubs that pay millions of dollars for foreign players are often unwilling to spend a few thousand more to help the players settle in their new homes.” (59)

In the end, there can be no doubt that the logic of capital influences global football, how its played, who plays it, and what it means for the future of the game. Soccernomics provides a valuable service in exploring this dynamic, but readers should reserve some skepticism when thinking about how specific styles and methods come to dominate. It remains a frighteningly complex transnational process, one mitigated in large part by burgeoning globalization and Western capital flows, but a process that will certainly change in ways that observers cannot always predict. Sometimes past performances on the pitch and in the markets are just that past performances, ones that fail to necessarily dictate the future.

Ryan Reft

[Editor’s Note: For those of you interested in football more generally check out