Non-Native Sons

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

By Geoffrey Wheatcroft

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.

Then the first great European team entered our lives, in the shape of Real Madrid. What distinguished the club in the late 1950s and early 1960s was that it was a team of many nations, the two greatest players being the Hungarian Ferenc Puskas and the Argentine Alfredo Di Stéfano. At that time an English club like Manchester United extended its reach no farther than the extremities of the British Isles, with the Irishman Billy Whelan playing alongside the brilliant Englishman Duncan Edwards on the wonderful young team. (Both were killed when a plane carrying the team crashed in Munich in 1958.)

The globalization of soccer since the 1960s is epitomized by two matches: one on May 25, 1967, and the other on December 26, 1999. In the first of these, Celtic of Glasgow—led by “Jinky” Johnstone, a great-hearted five-foot-four winger who died in March—beat Inter Milan to became the first British winner of the European Cup. (Scotland has always had both a separate national team and a separate domestic league from England’s, and Celtic was a year ahead of Manchester United, which, in 1968, became the first English club to win the cup—with a team that was “international” only in that it included the Scotsman Denis Law and the Ulsterman George Best.)

Most or possibly all of Johnstone’s teammates were Catholics, since the city was notoriously divided on sectarian lines; at the time of Celtic’s victory, and for years after, Glasgow Rangers, the Protestant club, had never had a Catholic player on the team. But there was something even more remarkable about Celtic then: not only was the team entirely Scottish, it contained no player who had been born more than thirty miles from the club stadium at Parkhead.

Now fast-forward to 1999, when Chelsea, playing Southampton, became the first club in the history of the English League—formerly the First Division, now pretentiously called “the Premiership”—to field a starting team without a single English player. (On February 14, 2005, Arsenal improved on this record, fielding for the first time an entire team of foreigners, substitutes as well.)

Far from being confined to soccer, globalization affects many sports, reflecting patterns of migration and flexible definitions of nationality, though with some quite strange effects. South African and New Zealand rugby players pop up in Europe not only for clubs but for national teams, and some years ago, at Lord’s, England fielded a cricket team of eleven that included three batsmen born in southern Africa and three bowlers born in the West Indies. And, in a Test match played at Mohali this March, there were two Sikh bowlers: Harbhajan Singh, playing for India, and M. S. Panesar, playing for England.

Now the story has taken more ominous turns, in national as well as in club sports. There have been cases of African track athletes suddenly turned into representatives of Arab countries, having changed names as well as nationalities. Money talks—and nowhere more than in soccer. The most unappealing aspect of the game at present is the way the rich European clubs scour Africa for talented boys of fifteen or younger and whisk them away from home, a trade with unhappy overtones. It will be gratifying to see those kids in Germany playing in their national colors for Ivory Coast, Ghana, and Angola. The day should not be far off when an African team wins the World Cup.

Plenty of Latin American countries have already won the World Cup, from Uruguay at home in the first cup in 1930 to Brazil taking its fifth in 2002 in Japan. But nowadays this is the only opportunity for fans from those countries to identify with their heroes. When the immortal Pelé helped Brazil to victory in Sweden in 1958 and in Chile in 1962, he was playing his club soccer for Santos FC—in Brazil in front of Brazilians. Now, most Latin American internationals—and almost all Brazilian players of the front rank—earn their living with European clubs. The extreme case is Villarreal, the Spanish club that was a dark horse among the final four of this year’s European club cup: it has reportedly signed fourteen Argentines since 1998, and at present has six members of the Argentine national squad on its roster. And so while the World Cup is for Europeans a sharp reminder of how much of their club entertainment is provided by condottieri, for Latin Americans it is a rare chance to identify directly with their finest native sons.

Local patriotism or club loyalty is one thing, but there is nothing better than national sporting contests, especially when the underdog wins, from America beating the Soviet Union at hockey in 1980, to England taking the cricket series against Australia last summer, to Ireland beating England at rugby any time. In words too often quoted, George Orwell said that “sport is an unfailing cause of ill-will.” That was not the way it felt in France eight years ago, when a “rainbow team” led by the sublime Zinedine Zidane won the World Cup and made the French feel good about themselves, at least for a while. Something like that just might happen again in Germany this summer.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2006/06/non-native-sons/304880/