Soccer and Diversity

I won’t call soccer (Association Football) football. In Australia, football is “footy”, which is Australian Rules Football in most of the country except in parts of NSW and Queensland where it is Rugby League. In the USA, football is American Football. There are many who dream of a day when everyone in the world will call soccer football, but I hope that day will never come.

Soccer is a fun game. It is good exercise, not as dangerous as rugby and doesn’t require such large, specialised grounds as Aussie Rules. I played it as a child and enjoyed it very much. My daughter enjoys playing it and I enjoy watching her, win or lose. But other games are fun and exciting as well: Rugby Union, Rugby League, Aussie Rules, American Football, Ice Hockey, basketball etc. These each have strongholds in different parts of the world, and the diversity that comes from that is part of the larger cultural diversity that makes the world interesting.

Soccer’s most zealous boosters and acolytes seem determined to evangelise the world until Soccer is the only form of football played anywhere. Insisting that it be called ‘football’ is part of that mission – it attempts to de-legitimise other forms of football by claiming exclusive rights to that name. This determination seems to come from a misplaced belief that Soccer was the original form of football, from which all other s are descended, with those descendants seeking to usurp the primacy of the original game.

But does Soccer have exclusive rights to the name football? From a historical perspective the answer is ‘No’. There is nothing to indicate that what is now played under the rules of Soccer was the original form of all types of football. The history seems pretty cloudy but it seems there were a wide variety of games played in eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain involving balls that could be, depending on the rules or customs prevailing in that location and the time, kicked, thrown, pushed, pummelled or carried, and involving varying degrees of hand to hand combat in search of possession or territory.

The different practices coalesced over a period into fewer practices with more codified rules, and these rules often differed between countries. The rules for soccer may have been codified somewhat earlier than those of other types of football, but that doesn’t make those others descendants of football, any more than humans are descendants of spider monkeys. They have common ancestors, not clearly identifiable, but known to exist nevertheless.

Soccer is a passionately followed, almost native, sport in South America, Europe and parts of Africa, with the former perhaps being the place where it is most passionately followed. In a tourist visit to Brazil (or Britain, or Italy) attendance at a soccer match is an integral part of the cultural experience. Who would wish to miss it, or to see it die out from that cultural landscape?

But equally, in Melbourne, Aussie Rules Football is akin to a religion in how passionately people follow it. Going to the Aussie Rules in Melbourne is as much a part of absorbing the culture there as going to a soccer match is in Rio. I have heard that similarly religious fervour attaches to Rugby Union in Wales, New Zealand and some Pacific Islands. And North Americans of course have their own form of American Football, a fascinating and highly complicated regional game that inspires a passionate following, but which is largely neglected outside the continent where it was invented.

How sad it would be if these local differences in colour disappeared under the juggernaut of a global multi-billion dollar business. All the enchanting local practices would die out, just more victims of that insatiable beast – globalism.

So, play soccer, watch it live or on telly by all means, wear team colours and sing rousing tribal songs, all the rest of whatever you find fun about it. But please, have mercy on those of us endangered species who have our own quaint little local ways, our own customs and enthusiasms and varieties of football. Don’t try to force us to join you, to use your names, your labels, to pay homage to the “world game”. Soccer would be still be great fun to play if it were only played in Iceland, and it is no better to play or to watch just because it is played by far more people than any other form of football.

Vive la difference!

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