Alexander Lynn

Jan 3, 2017

12 min read

Globalization of Football: Internationalism vs Cultural Imperialism

Alexander Lynn and Tarkpor Grupee

Introduction Football is the most popular sport in the world, and has been for over 100 years. Currently, however, this #1 status in world popularity is skyrocketing (Cork, 2014). Parallel to this time of hike in attention to football, the concept globalization has a use today that has reached common parlance for the everyday person. Globalization means many things to many different people, and this essay will identify two of these senses, and strictly adhere to one of the definitions.

Many social critics use the term globalization to explain the rise of football today. On the other hand, analysts from numerous disciplines — economic, political, social and cultural — are using the phenomenal rise in popularity of football as a prism through which to understand and explain the phenomenon of globalization (Dolles, 2005). This essay will employ the technique of these latter analysts.

Globalization and sport The media understanding, or the on-the-surface understanding, of globalization is connected to terms like “synergy,” cross-culturalism, “international integration arising from the interchange of world views, products, ideas, and other aspects of culture” (Albrow, 1990), “technologically-driven interconnectedness,” and “one-world.” The reference to Michael Jackson’s “We are the World” is apropos in this regard. The everyday usage of the term globalization is elastic and lacks substance to the same degree that the image of people eating McDonald’s burgers all around the world — allegedly proving that “we are all connected” — is vacuous and meaningless. This essay utilizes the following definition of globalization: A new term to cover a phenomenon as old as the era of history in which we are living. Globalization is another name for monopoly capitalism or imperialism (Lenin, 1916). By this definition, the vast majority of images associated with globalization are in fact symptoms or elements of the latest phase of capitalism wherein free competition has become a myth, and monopoly is the rule. The incredible technological advance represented by the age of cyberspace is taking place within the same historical period as the colonization of Asia, Africa and Latin America by Europe of the 1800’s — it has not moved humanity beyond the economic and political era of monopoly capitalism (Touolouse, 1998). The present day dominant political economy of the world is the motive force behind the growth and expansion of world sport and world football. This essay will address the rise of football as an element of today’s market economy.

Thesis There are doubtless numerous very positive social and cultural outcomes associated with the rise of football internationally. This essay addresses these positive contributions to human progress and human well-being. Meanwhile, the bottom line in the globalization of football is that it is a commodity. The labor of the football players are likewise commodities. There is social progress and internationalism represented in the popularity of football. On the other hand is the force and power of the profit motive, the motive to extend the reach of the most wealthy few over the vast majority of the people of the world — in this case through culture, sport, football. The tension, the contradiction between these two trends, represents the major social contradiction of our time. That is the thesis of this paper, and that contraction is between internationalism and imperialism.

Football and Globalization In an essay entitled “Soccer & McWorld,” social critic Frank Foer (Foreign Policy, 2009) offers the following image: “Two omens of apocalypse, or perhaps global salvation: During the 2002 World Cup, the English midfielder David Beckham, famed bender of the ball, styled his hair in a mohawk. Almost instantly, Japanese adolescents appeared with tread marks on their shorn heads; professional women, according to the Japanese newsmagazine Shukan Jitsuwa, even trimmed their pubic hair in homage. A bit further west, in Bangkok, Thailand, the monks of the Pariwas Buddhist temple placed a Beckham statuette in a spot reserved for figures of minor deities.” He concluded from these varied and allegedly interconnected scenes that, “It should surprise no one that this London cockney has replaced basketball icon Michael Jordan as the world’s most transcendent celebrity athlete. After all, more than basketball or even the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, soccer is the most globalized institution on the planet.”

His placing of Japanese professional women’s pubic hairs, the World Bank and a “London cockney” in one collage-image is a, partially facetious, allusion to the coincidence of football and globalization. The facetious element in the references tying women’s pubic hair styling to globalization through football, is a criticism of the liberal or “optimistic” business view that the private sector is the engine of economic growth associated with globalization. It caricatures the view that this new era leads to the shrinking of the size of its state bureaucracies. And it mocks the perspective which implies that globalization makes possible the elimination of domestic national monopolies (Quiggin, 2006).

The non-facetious, more direct element of this imagery is the reference to the World Bank and the International Monetary fund. Indeed, none of the “interconnectedness” takes place outside of the dictates of international finance capital. As Litonjua (2008:254) argues, “globalization is the global spread of the economic system of capitalism. Promoted by the ideology of neoliberalism, the goal is a wholly deregulated global market society”.

Football Fans This latter understanding of globalization at once explains the great success of football, and at the same time globalization viewed from this perspective can be understood by investigating this success of football. Reeve offers the following reasons why football is so popular: First, it is maybe the most accessible — you need a pair of sneakers. The average fan also can play. The fact that it is represented by an international league that includes more countries than any other sport in the world is another element of accessibility. The average fan has a team (country, nation) that competes worldwide. In this connection, Reeve points out that the average fan has role models with whom she can identify. “Soccer is not only the most played sport in the world, but also the most watched sport in the world. Soccer has surpassed the Olympics with the amount of people that come to watch the World Cup. It is bigger than American football, baseball, and basketball combined” (Reeve).

Reeve maintains that its longevity is another factor. Soccer is so popular because it has been around for a long time. It evolved from different countries and was spread around fairly quickly. Because soccer has spread to so many countries, so long ago, it makes it a very special sport to the individual countries.

Football Players Perhaps the most salient presentation of evidence of the thesis of this paper is the labor market of football. It is played all over the world. Players specifically in Europe and the United States are making serious money. Of the top 18 highest paid players in the world, fully 14 of them are playing for European football teams: 3 represent Barcelona, 3 Real Madrid, 3 Manchester United and 3 Manchester City. China is moving up in terms of its pay to the top players, as three of the top 18 play for Chinese professional teams. This is the “globalization” aspect. The hierarchy in salaries and nationalities playing the sport is the imperialism aspect. The majority of the players in the top European leagues are from Asia, Africa and Latin America. Richard Giulianotti and Roland Robertson (“The globalization of football: a study in the glocalization of the ‘serious life,’” 2004) explain this labor market phenomenon as the “economic globalization in football…[,] considering the world’s leading clubs as ‘glocal’ transnational corporations.”

In a study called “Africans’ Status in the European Football Players’ Labour Market,” Poli presents statistical evidence to prove his thesis that international football is the cultural reflection of colonialism. Thousands of players from Asia, Africa and Latin America play for comparatively tiny salaries for European football leagues (2006). In the five levels of European football leagues, African players are disproportionately represented in the bottom four, that is, those players whose pay is on a semi-starvation level. “The relative over-representation of African players in the last four levels of European competition indicates the need of less well-off clubs to recruit ‘low cost’ players abroad. This occurs also in the context of a strategy based on speculation, in which financially weak and middle-ranged European clubs aim to buy young footballers in Africa in order to resell them at a higher price to richer clubs.”

In the chart below, Poli documents the appropriation of labor from Africa, Latin America and Asia to play football for European leagues.

Table 1 Foreign players per team in the most ‘abroad orientated’ top European leagues (season 2002/03)

League/ # of clubs/ # of foreign players/ Foreign players per team

English Prem./ 20/ 320/ 16.00

German Bund./ 18/ 239/ 13.28

Russian Prof. FL/ 16/ 196/ 12.25

Scottish Prem. Div./ 10/ 118/ 11.80

Belgian Jup. Lg./ 18/ 212/ 11.78

Portuguese Sup. Lg./ 18/ 210/ 11.67

Greek Eth. Katig./ 16/ 147/ 9.19

(Poli, 2006)

Further Poli argues: “The relative over-representation of African players in less well-off European Leagues such as in Romania (53.3 per cent of the players recruited abroad came from Africa), Malta (52.6 per cent), Belgium (43.4 per cent), Switzerland (33.7 per cent) or Albania (33.3 per cent), supports the hypothesis of the rule of ‘low cost’ labour force” (2006), filled by players of this continental origin.

A final image of football as a reflection of imperialist culture is Major league Soccer in the wealthiest country in the world, a country which does not love football in the same way as do people all over the world. In an article titled, “The Aging Stars of Major League Soccer,” Gavin Cleave asks whether “A flood of highly paid, past-their-prime European players are coming to the U.S.,” helps the American game or hurts it. The teams in this league are littered with former great players from Europe, who are given gigantic salaries for the purpose of promoting the sport in America with their names, rather than their play, since they are long past their prime.

Football Owners In a study called Globalized Football, Nina Clara Tiesler and Joao Nuno Coelho argue that the sport is “bound up with international corporate power” (2008), and that nothing of significance takes place beyond the gaze of this power. While a proscribed few players make obscene salaries, the real money is at the top with the owners. The owners determine the flow of capital from one league to another, and from one football hosting country to another. The marketing, financing and media coverage of the sport is owned and controlled by a relatively few giant multi-national corporations.

Connected to direct ownership of the football teams through interlocking directorates is the corporate media whose profits are massive and such which is shared with the direct owners of the clubs. The following images are from the 25th edition of the “Annual Review of Football Finance” published by Great Britain’s Premier League, the most profitable of all FIFA football leagues, followed by statistics for revenues of the top five European leagues (provided by Deloitte, 2016):

Finally regardng ownership is the internationoal governeance of the sport — FIFA. Botton-line, FIFA is a corrupt organization. The harshest critics of FIFA, and indeed, of the weakness of institutional power face-to-face with FIFA corruption, tie its financial practices to the basic nature of market economics. The most powerful US banks such as Citigroup and Bank of America, have each been implicated in the laundering of tens of millions of dollars for FIFA. A report from Al Jazeera (by all accounts a manifestly independent analyst), sub-titled “Fifty accounts in Switzerland identified through which corruption money is supposed to have transited as well as international financial institutions based first of all in Switzerland,” states that “FIFA is suffering the worst corruption scandal in its more than 100-year history, with 41 entities and people including football bosses from throughout the Americas charged by US prosecutors, and FIFA President Sepp Blatter suspended from his post pending a full investigation” (2015).

FIFA and Finance Capitalism These same social analysts understand this corruption to be in the nature of market economics. In an article entitled, “FIFA was the perfect global monopoly — and its crisis is a parable about the future of capitalism” (the Guardian, 2015), Paul Mason argues that FIFA operates like most monopoly financial institutions. He argues that at the start of what is now being called the era of globalization — an era which is dominated economically by monopoly corporations — “it was assumed that, given time, most countries would become less corrupt and more democratic, because the market can only function under the rule of law.” In this era, global consumer brands emerged, which were premised on the assumption that even if they did business with crooks, they themselves were a civilizing force against corruption. “But the FIFA debacle only dramatizes a general problem now for global capital. The world’s elites are fairly happy with corruption, and prepared to see it rise — alongside the rise in censorship and TV propaganda channels, and militarized riot policing.” That FIFA’s corruption is internally connected to military dictatorships, to money laundering, to drug scandals, according to critics like Mason, is a very widespread understanding (Lima, 2011).

Another analyst, investigating FIFA from the perspective of political economy, insists that, “Founded on corruption, FIFA is as shady as any bank on Wall Street. Given the sheer amount of profit a World Cup host country can exploit from workers in construction, advertising, tourism, entertainment and other sectors, the top FIFA brass wield tremendous power in global finance capitalism. While bribery for hosting rights is merely business as usual, the current scandal represents a new battleground for U.S. and Russian bosses in their escalating competition for global dominance” (Challenge, 2015).


This paper has provided evidence to support the thesis that through the prism of football, the phenomenon called globalization is nothing more than a new name for an age-old phenomenon. The age is that of imperialism (Magdoff, 1969). The internationalization of the game, that it is the most popular sport in the world, and it is viewed by possibly over one billion people during the course of a year, makes it, according to the promoters of the concept, the “ambassador of globalization.” However, despite the pretty picture painted by the promoters of globalization regarding the “bringing together of nations,” “the coming merger into one world,” and the cross-cultural victory which football allegedly has and is providing to an otherwise fractured world, the facts are that the world is still just as fractured as before by class and nationality (and gender, given the vast disproportion in resources allocated to the women’s leagues, Robinson, 2016). International corporate organizations are at the heart of this fracture. It is the social system of monopoly capitalism within which football is flourishing, and it is the era of imperialism for which globalization is the cover story.


Albrow, Martin and Elizabeth King (eds.) (1990). Globalization, Knowledge and Society. London: SAGE Publications Ltd; 1 edition.

Al Jazeera. (2015). “Millions frozen in FIFA’s bank accounts: Fifty accounts in Switzerland identified through which corruption money is supposed to have transited.”

Challenge. (2015). “FIFA: Playing ball with imperialism.” Progressive Labor Party.

Cleaver, Gavin. (2015). “The aging stars of Major League Soccer.” The Atlatic.

Darby, Paul. (2007). “African football labour migration to Portugal: Colonial and neo‐colonial resource. Soccer & Society.

Deloitte. (2016). “Annual review of football finance, 2016.”

Dolles, Harold & Sten Söderman. (2005). “Globalization of Sports — The Case of Professional Football and its International Management Challenges.”

Foer, Frank. (2009). “Soccer vs Mcworld.” Foreign Policy.

Gaines, Cork. (2014). “Soccer popularity is on the rise in the US, but English football is benefiting more than MLS.” Business Insider.

Giulianotti, Richard and Roland Robertson. (2004). “The globalization of football: a study in the glocalization of the ‘serious life.’” The British Journal of Sociology 2004 Volume 55 Issue 4. London School of Economics and Political Science.

Giulianotti, Richard and Roland Robertson. (2004). “The globalization of football: a study in the glocalization of the ‘serious life’.” The British Journal of Sociology 2004 Volume 55 Issue 4.

Gem, Gerald and Gertrud Pfister. (2013). “Sport and globalization: power games and a New World Order.” Movement & Sport Sciences 86, 51–60.

Lima, Alwyn. (2011). “Globalization and commitment in corporate social responsibility cross-national analyses of institutional and political-economy effects. American Sociological Review.

Litonjua, M. (2008). “The socio-political construction of globalization.” International Review of Modern Sociology. Vol. 34, №2, pp. 253–278 Littlewood ,

Martin, Chris Mullen & David Richardson. (2011).Football labour migration: an examination of the player recruitment strategies of the ‘big five’ European football leagues.” Soccer & Society, Vol 12.

Mason, Paul. (2015). “FIFA was the perfect global monopoly — and its crisis is a parable about the future of capitalism.” The Guardian.

Lenin, V.I. (1916). Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism. New York: International Publishers.

Poli. Raffaele. (2006). “Africans’ status in the European football players’ labour market.” Soccer & Society 7, issues 2–3 : 278–291.

Poli, Raffaele(2006). “Africans’ status in the European football players’ labour market. Soccer & Society: 7, issues 2–3 : 278–291.

Quiggen, john. (2005). “Interpreting globalization: Neoliberal and Internationalist views of changing patterns of the global trade and financial system.” United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.$file/quiggin.pdf

Robinson, Joshua. (2016). “U.S. Women’s Soccer Team Stars Allege Pay Discrimination: Complaint says players earn a fraction of their male counterparts despite superior achievements.” Wall Street Journal.

Thibault, Lucie. (2009). “Globalization of sport: An inconvenient truth. Journal of Sport Management, 23, 1–20. Human Kinetics, Inc.

Tiesler, Nina Clara and Joao Nuno Coelho. (2013). Globalised football: Nations and migration, the city and the dream. Routledge.

Toulouse, Chris. (1998). The politics of cyberspace. Routledge.

Yeretzian, Krikor. (2016). “Why American Major League Soccer still has a long way to go.”

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.