World at their Feet: The World Cup and History

By Tom Smith  (@TomEtesonSmith)

For any football fan, and even for many who don’t usually indulge in the ‘beautiful game’, the arrival of the World Cup every four years provides pure escapism. Even in England, the disappointment of a predictable penalty shoot-out defeat is assuaged by the tournament’s association with long hot summer days, the colours and sounds of packed stadia, and the creation of iconic images on the pitch below. Simply put, the World Cup seems to exist in a vacuum which transcends any given moment in world history. This year’s tournament perhaps exemplifies this fact – at a time when tensions between Russia and ‘the West’ are at their highest since the Cold War, representatives from all over the world can gather on Russian soil to play football. Murmurings about corruption, boycotts, and hooliganism bubble under the surface, but in the build-up to kick-off excitement about the sport itself takes over, along with a shared sense that the show must go on.

Perhaps it is the unusual ability of sport to apparently exist outside of politics which renders it a marginal site of analysis among professional historians. Of course, politics have occasionally bled into the World Cup. We might think about Italy’s victorious ‘blackshirts’ offering a fascist salute prior to games at the 1938 World Cup in France, for example. Sport was an integral part of Mussolini’s propaganda machine, and legend has it that Il Duce sent the team on their way with a simple instruction: ‘Win or Die’. The World Cup can also conjure up strange microcosms of international tensions – see West Germany v East Germany in 1974, or the U.S.A. v Iran in 1998. Indeed, nations have been known to boycott World Cups when they threaten to compel a team to share a stage with a sworn enemy: Turkey, Indonesia, Egypt, and Sudan didn’t even enter the qualifying stages of the 1958 World Cup in protest against Israel’s participation; the U.S.S.R. refused to play Chile in a qualification play-off in 1974 after a right-wing military junta took power in Santiago; and there was serious talk that the home nations should pull out of the 1982 World Cup to avoid facing Argentina against the backdrop of the Falklands War.

For the historian, it might be difficult to see what analytical work can be done with such episodes: they are, perhaps, merely superficial manifestations of deeper-rooted processes, which occasionally rear their head on a stage that remains otherwise resolutely apolitical. Having said that, we don’t need to look far back to see how sporting events might actually reshape international relations – the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, of course, marked the jumping-off point for a thaw in relations between North and South Korea and, ultimately, for last week’s historic talks between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.

There are some professional historians, however, who have thought more profoundly about where the history of football fits into our understandings of global culture.[1] Football, more so than any other sport, has been deeply enmeshed in the processes of globalization, creating a sense of shared global culture, radiating outwards from Europe in particular, as television broadcast rights and merchandise for the top leagues are sold around the world. FIFA and the World Cup themselves are products of an age of internationalist thinking in the early-twentieth century, and the rise of the World Cup from a tournament of just 13 teams in 1930 to one attracting 210 entrants in 2018 mirrors remarkable shifts towards a globalized world over the past century.

Events like the World Cup do more than just make manifest these broader processes: they reformulate them, offering alternative ways of thinking about where power resides, and allowing segments of the global population to engage with the world in ways that are different to those of their political leaders. They might also shed light on big historical issues of class, gender, and nationalism: Who consumes football? Who plays football? How does football reinforce or challenge class, gender, or national divisions? How have things changed over time?

In other words, an event like the World Cup might offer professional historians new answers to familiar questions. Perhaps instead of leaving sports history at the margins, a broader range of historians should take sport seriously as offering an alternative lens through which to view our historical sense of the global.


[1] For example Paul Dietschy, ‘Making Football Global? FIFA, Europe, and the Non-European Football World, 1912-74’, Journal of Global History, Vol. 8 (2013), pp. 279-298; Barbara J. Keys, Globalizing Sport: National Rivalry and International Community in the 1930s (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013); Bill Murray, The World’s Game: A History of Soccer (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1998); Matthew Taylor, ‘The Global Spread of Football’, in Robert Edelman and Wayne Wilson (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Sports History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 183-195.

Image: ‘FIFA World Cup 2014’ by Mariya Butd (licenced for reuse under this Creative Commons licence)

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