The wide world of soccer news, when you look at it, isn’t really all that wide. The bulk of the attention will, naturally, focus on wherever it is the best players are. England. Italy. Spain. Germany. France. The UEFA Champions League. The World Cup. The endless transfer rumors surrounding same, the dollar figures (usually in euros). The world beyond is often only referenced when the latter stages of World Cup qualifying comes around, when a major star exits the major leagues for a paycheck or semi-retirement, when a top prospect from overseas is being courted, or when it’s the country’s domestic league. It all, eventually, comes down to western Europe, and who is considered worthy of being in western Europe but for whatever reason isn’t.
And that’s fine. If you only seek to watch soccer as a sport, there’s nothing wrong with that. And I certainly watch my share (to get it out of the way now, you are dealing with an Aston Villa supporter). But to me, part of the appeal of soccer is in its envelopment of the entire planet, not just a small subset of it. Not only do many of the world’s top players come from outside that subset, but off the field, much of the world’s culture, and its issues, and its economy, and its conflicts, in some way converge on the ball. People often like to dismiss sports as some silly aside, a distraction from the more serious issues in the world, but what is culture but that which people do as a group? There is a music culture because people create and enjoy music, and subsets within music because different people prefer different genres. There is a car culture because people enjoy cars. There are national and ethnic cultures because groups of people live in certain places, and exist as different races together. And there is one all-encompassing culture of humanity, because we all exist on Earth together. Soccer is the same way.
Let me put it this way. Think of all the times that you can in which the entire world, or at least enough of the world to get away with saying ‘the entire world’ in polite conversation, stopped in its tracks and mutually focused on the same event, at the same place, at the same moment in time. It is a safe bet that every four years, the World Cup final will qualify as just such a moment. (The Olympic Opening and Closing Ceremonies come close to this as well, but are diminished some as American broadcaster NBC tape-delays the footage.) Outside of the World Cup and Olympics, can you find moments that captures the world’s immediate, undivided attention in a similar manner at least at the same quadrennial rate? I don’t think you can.
Something that draws the attention of this much of humanity cannot help but influence, and be influenced by, much of the rest of what makes the world run. Politicians have hitched their wagons, staked their agendas, staked their infrastructures on the well-being of the national soccer program. Families have staked their livelihoods on the skill of one soccer prodigy, and hoped that the agent that has come to sign them is equally skilled, and honest, in their intent. Underworld syndicates have staked untold amounts of money on their ability to rig matches without being caught, and the players and referees they approach stake their careers on the immediate payday the syndicates give them. Smaller communities have found fame and recognition, however fleeting, when their local club does far better than the size of the community would suggest.
And vast amounts of all of this occurs far away from the glamour competitions. It is that world which I prefer to inhabit; the world of soccer that is truly global, that concerns itself with the macro rather than the micro. Edinson Cavani may go to this club, or he may go to this other club. Premier League managers may flit in and out like the tides. These matter to the involved clubs, but only really for a short time. The suffering of migrant workers building stadiums in Qatar, and the stadiums themselves, and the impact on FIFA surrounding it all, that is far more lasting. The impact of Financial Fair Play, be it on European competition, the clubs it bars from same, or simply in its abstract effectiveness, that is more lasting. The usage of artificial turf, maligned for its presence in the Women’s World Cup in Canada- starting in June- that is more lasting. And knowing all those factors that go into what you see on matchday, even matchdays in the minnows of the soccer world, will go a long way towards knowing your planet as a whole.
Thus, the tagline: To understand soccer, understand the world.
Welcome to the Minnow Tank. Enjoy your swim.