From its beginnings as a working-class pastime in 19th-century Britain, football is now the most popular sport in the world. But why?
The answer, according to Todd Cleveland, history professor and former striker, has to do with empire, globalization and access.
“What’s really interesting is the way that different communities have taken the game and given it a new meaning – they’ve made it their own, introduced their own styles and tactics,” Cleveland said.
Cleveland will discuss soccer’s rise to global prominence in his public talk, “Soccer,” available online via Zoom on Wednesday, October 19 at 5:15 p.m.
Cleveland’s presentation previews his Spring 2023 Honors College Signature Seminar, Soccer. Please fill out this online interest form to gain access to the lecture.
While it started out as a game for ordinary Brits, football today has audiences around the world. Cleveland explains that the game’s worldwide spread is inseparable from the history of colonization.
“The game was initially spread through the networks of empires,” he said, noting that the British brought football to various colonized peoples. “Sailors, soldiers, missionaries introduced the game, and not necessarily for altruistic reasons – they thought it was a harmless way to let off steam on colonized subjects.”
Cleveland notes that the British did not expect football to resonate with local people, who often incorporated it into existing sporting traditions. “They introduced a certain game and a way they felt it should be played,” he explains, describing how various communities have since made it their own. For example, various dribbling and deception techniques have become popular tactics for teams in Africa. For Cleveland, this ongoing customization adds an interesting dimension to the game.
Cleveland also credits football’s widespread popularity to affordability. Having lived in different parts of Africa for years, he remembers playing in different environments. “I’ve played with things that only vaguely resemble a ball – a bunch of rolled-up socks with rubber bands around them. Entry is basically zero and it can be played in alleys and fields pretty much anywhere.”
Investigation of a global game
Beyond Origins, Cleveland’s talk will examine how football reflects contemporary patterns of globalization. He points to the international connections of professional teams, for example where a player from Uganda could play in Germany or Spain.
“If you look at the elite European teams, every weekend they bring a global community together in the dressing room with players from Africa, South America, all over Europe and increasingly North American players.” He also notes that English has become one lingua franca for teams, since most players already speak it as a second language.
Despite its working-class roots, football today is an example of global trends in wealth and influence. Cleveland notes that many top franchises have been taken over by billionaires, some of whom are quite controversial.
“One of the most interesting and controversial owners is Middle Eastern sovereign wealth funds,” he explains. “Essentially, countries own teams, and that’s problematic because any public dissatisfaction about it isn’t allowed or suppressed.” Cleveland’s presentation will also discuss the upcoming World Cup tournament in Qatar, which is said to have killed hundreds of people building stadiums are.
Away from the international stage, Cleveland is excited about the continued growth of soccer in the United States. He attributes his popularity to safety concerns surrounding American football, as well as the country’s success at the 2019 Women’s World Cup. “The growth has been amazing,” he says.
About Todd Cleveland
Cleveland is a professor in the history department at the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences. His research mainly focuses on the interactions between Europeans and Sub-Saharan Africans during the colonial period and in particular on the labor and social relations between the Portuguese and the indigenous African population.
Cleveland’s research has additionally focused on the history of sport in Africa and is contained in six books including Following the Ball: The Migration of African Soccer Players Across the Portuguese Colonial Empire, 1949-1975 (Ohio University Press, 2017) and Sport in Africa, past and presentco-edited by Tarminder Kaur and Gerard Akindes (Ohio University Press, 2020).
He is currently working on a book project dealing with the history of Africa and the Olympic Games. He has a Ph.D. in African History from the University of Minnesota.
Signature seminars explore various topics
Football is one of three Honors College signature seminars scheduled for Spring 2023. Other topics to explore include Death and Art, taught by Lynn Jacobs, a distinguished professor at the School of Art, and The Science, Politics and Culture of Dinosaurs, taught by Celina Suarez, Associate Professor of Earth Sciences.
Deans of each college may nominate professors to participate in this program and those selected to teach become Dean’s Fellows in the Honors College.
Honors students must apply to attend and those selected will be made Dean-signed Scholars. Course registration is posted online on the Signature Seminars website. The closing date for applications is Monday 31 October.
About Honors College: Founded in 2002, the University of Arkansas Honors College brings together high-performing students and the university’s top professors to share transformative learning experiences. Each year, the Honors College awards up to 90 undergraduate scholarships that provide $80,000 and more than $1 million in research and study abroad grants over a four-year period. Honors College is nationally recognized for the high standard of admissions undergraduates and graduates. Honors students enjoy small, in-depth courses, and programs are offered in all disciplines tailored to students’ academic interests while encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration.
About the University of Arkansas: As the flagship Arkansas institution, the U of A offers internationally competitive education in more than 200 academic programs. Founded in 1871, the U of A contributes more than $2.2 billion to the Arkansas economy by imparting new knowledge and skills, entrepreneurship and workplace development, discovery through research and creative pursuits, while providing training in professional disciplines. The Carnegie Foundation ranks the U of A in the top 3% of US colleges and universities for research activity. US News & World Report ranks the U of A among the best public universities in the country. See how the U of A works to create a better world at Arkansas Research News.