Friday, March 16, 2012

Your Game Wasn't Stolen, It Was GIven Away

The World has their game and the British want it back. Or so says Dave Richards, Chairman of the English Premier League.

Speaking at a conference on sports and security this week, Richards went on what can only be described as an ill-advised and misinformed rant about soccer and its governance, saying:
England gave the world football. It gave the best legacy anyone could give. We gave them the game. For 50 years, we owned the game . . . We were the governance of the game. We wrote the rules, designed the pitches and everything else. Then, 50 years later, some guy came along and said you're liars and they actually stole it. It was called FIFA. Fifty years later, another gang came along called UEFA and stole a bit more.
One can easily perceive Richards' diatribe as a misguided call for some order in soccer's governing bodies, where decisions regarding the location of the next multi-billion dollar extravaganza are seemingly based on which suitor has the willingness or ability to line the decision-makers' pockets. It's a point that has merit, and when made usually falls on deaf (or lucre-stuffed) ears. But he didn't specifically identify the problem and didn't really address the solution, other than presumably a return to the "good old days" when the English controlled all aspects of the sport.

But setting aside for a minute the absurdity of the notion that in this day any nation has exclusive rights to a sport, his history is completely wrong. I don't mean about soccer being an English game (Chinese claims to the contrary, Richards is correct that the English invented the game in close to its current form), but about others stealing it from them. In fact, in their arrogance, the English gave it away.

Soccer is the World's game because the English exported it to their vast imperial outposts in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Europe, Africa, the Middle East, South America -- almost anywhere that soccer became the sport was because the locals learned it from British teachers, engineers, entrepreneurs, and, more often than not, soldiers and sailors.

But the English refused to allow the World to share in the governance of the sport. As David Goldblatt explains in his seminal history of soccer "The Ball is Round" the British founded the International Association Football Board (IAFB) to serve as soccer's law-making body. The IAFB was solely comprised of representatives of the four "Home Nations" (England, Scotland, Wales, and, at the time, Ireland). Twenty-two years later, the rest of the world created the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) without any British involvement.

England's initial refusal to recognize FIFA, and its reluctance to even allow the rest of the world a role in the IAFB, ultimately led to the irrelevance of the IAFB and the dominance of FIFA as the governing body of the sport. I'm sure that the irony isn't lost on Richards, or the English, that the ruling body in soccer has a French, not an English, name.

Now we are stuck with FIFA and its Gallic soul, to paraphrase Goldblatt. But make no mistake, we are stuck with it not because it stole soccer from Great Britain, but because the English gave it away.

No comments:

Post a Comment