Sports June 2006

Non-Native Sons

The globalization of soccer has distanced players from national fan bases—which is why the World Cup provokes such identity crises

When Germany and Costa Rica kick off the World Cup in Munich on June 9, a large part of mankind will be in a state of acute expectancy. Many of these fans will also have had to make a drastic switch of identities—to national sides composed of their compatriots, and away from nearby club teams that may include none of their compatriots at all. Things were much easier when you could support your local club and, if there were players on the team good enough to play for their (and your) country, you could support them in national colors every four years, wearing the white shirt of England rather than the red of Liverpool, or Spanish red and yellow rather than Real Madrid all-white. The globalization of soccer creates something of a quadrennial psychic trauma—though one that Americans may find difficult to understand.

Although there are plenty of Latin American baseball players, and European and African basketball players, has there ever been a Major League Baseball or NBA game without a single American citizen on a team? Consider the plight of the English soccer fan. At the beginning of March, to take one random example, Fulham played Arsenal (Arsenal winning 40, thanks to another entrancing performance by Thierry Henry, a Frenchman). Three players that day were odd men out: Zat Knight, Tony Warner, and Liam Rosenior. They are actually English. The other nineteen players who started the game were foreigners—from a total of fourteen nations.

This is a poignant outcome for what may be my country’s greatest single gift to mankind. Pigs’ bladders were hoofed about in villages throughout England beginning in the Middle Ages, and ball-kicking games were immemorially held in English towns. English public schools played their own arcane games, with the Rugby School giving its name to a species of football from which the NFL game ultimately descends.

To escape the confusion, a group of sportsmen met at a London pub in 1863 to draw up a common code for Association Football. Before long, the gruesome Oxonian line in diminutives—“Cuppers” for a cup match and “Divvers” for a divinity exam—compressed the name from association into soccer. As A. J. P. Taylor said of this game, “By it the mark of England may well remain in the world when the rest of her influence has vanished.”

At first soccer was played by amateurs, patrician and proletarian alike. In its early years the famous Football Association Challenge Cup, or FA Cup, was competed for by upper-class teams—the 1875 final was between Royal Engineers and Old Etonians—while many of the great clubs still with us began life as “works’ teams,” factory hands playing in their spare time. Manchester United was one such, and Arsenal was originally what its name implies: the club from the arsenal, or ordnance factory, in London.

The game quickly spread throughout Europe and then beyond, carried by English businessmen and colonial officials. Distant echoes of the game’s origins are still heard far away. Inter Milan, one of the two teams in that Italian city (both of which reached the final eight of this year’s European club tournament), was called “Internazionale,” which distinguished it from the other club, founded and managed by expat Englishmen, even if there isn’t anything very inglese about AC Milan nowadays. And while Newcastle or Spurs players call the coach “Boss,” players from Spanish and Portuguese clubs still call him “Mister,” a relic from the days when he would have been an English exile.

When the World Cup began, in 1930, its specific purpose was to bring together what were by then the two great centers of the game: Europe and Latin America. While the English were too snooty to take part in that first competition (held in Uruguay), or the next two either, the United States was there, even beating Belgium and Paraguay before the Argentines brought it down to earth, 6–1, in the semifinals.

But international contests were only a bit of honey on the bread and butter of club football, which used to be almost parochial. Fifty years ago most players on Italian teams were Italian, as most on English teams were English—and quite often they were hometown boys. The exceptions proved the rule. In my remote boyhood in the 1950s, Newcastle had the Robledo brothers from Chile, who were unmistakably exotics, and Manchester City had Bert Trautmann, who was a distinct oddity—a German prisoner of war who had stayed on in England, joined the club as goalkeeper, and entered the pantheon of his adopted country when he played through the 1956 FA Cup final with a broken neck.

Presented by

Geoffrey Wheatcroft is an English journalist and author. His books include The Controversy of Zion, Le Tour: A History of the Tour de France, 1903–2003, and, most recently, The Strange Death of Tory England.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In