Importance of Soccer

Five young friends playing soccer

Soccer players at a quarter-billion strong, joined by soccer fans in the additional hundreds of millions, create a community of enormous solidarity worldwide. A Fiorentina shirt worn by an American tourist in Tuscany, much like a Reggae Boyz jersey sported in Jamaica or a Kaizer Chiefs shirt worn in South Africa, creates instant conversation and bonding with local residents. The reach of soccer can be seen on rattletrap buses in Honduras that pick sides: stickers for either Real Madrid or Barcelona, teams half a world away, peek from the back window. Soccer’s importance eclipses that of any other sport given the exceptional scale of its popularity.

Importance to Economies

Soccer fans are more than willing to spend on their favorite sport. In the 2009-10 season, for example, Manchester United’s revenues reached $428 million, notes, while Barcelona pulled in $488 million. Man U profits from league wealth-sharing, team-specific media contracts and loyal fans who help it to be the most valuable franchise worldwide in any sport. Man U has an estimated 333 million supporters globally and 9.5 million Facebook fans. World Cups also are big money spinners, with FIFA, the international governing body of soccer, generating an estimated $3 billion from the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, according to economist Dennis Coates of the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

Importance to Understanding Others

The bond of soccer has been a means to defuse hostilities since its late 19th century spread around the world. For example, in World War I, a famed truce on Christmas Day resulted in a number of soccer “kickabouts” between German and British soldiers on the front lines. At one impromptu game, British soldiers produced a soccer ball from the trenches, a German soldier recorded in his diary, and the German team won 3-2. And at the 1998 World Cup in France, Iran’s team brought white flowers as a symbol of peace to the captains’ exchange of gifts before Iran’s match with the U.S.

Importance as a Force of Change

Cheering on Iran’s 1998 team bought pride to the nation, and women joined as unequal fans. Not allowed inside Iran’s stadiums, women express their support by enthusiastically following local league games from nearby rooftops. Elsewhere, soccer has acted in profound ways to create change. A 1960s-era soccer league in South Africa’s prison on Robben Island for political prisoners opposed to apartheid taught organizational skills to black South Africans, including future colleagues of Nelson Mandela. The evident intelligence of the black athletes also moderated the white guards’ views of black Africans as inferior. In the current era, FIFA, the international governing body of soccer, works to develop soccer programs in poorer nations as a means of promoting girls’ athletics and improved nutrition as well as love of the game.

Importance to Women

Teams from the U.S., Germany, Sweden, Canada, Australia, Nigeria, Ghana and Japan dominate international women’s play and inspire pride in the athletes themselves and young players who view them as role models, as well as interest from viewers, male and female alike. The U.S. television audience for women’s soccer is 66 percent male, writes Ronald B. Woods in “Social Issues in Sport.” He notes the huge effect players like Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Kristine Lilly and Michele Akers have had on interest in soccer in the U.S. Men’s soccer might be more popular worldwide, Woods writes, but “in the United States no soccer team has ever captured the attention of the nation as these women did.”