For better or worse: how football explains us

The religion of the masses: monks watch football in Cambodia in 1999. © John Vink

A new children’s book called Football School: Where Football Explains the World sets out how football is a reflection of every aspect of life. Is this really a good thing?

Pope John Paul II once said: ‘Of all the unimportant things in the world, football is the most important’. Back when John Paul was a young Pole named Karol Wojtyła, he played as an amateur goalkeeper. Later his reputation as the ‘keep-fit Pope’, in contrast to his predecessors, was one of many reasons for his wider popularity.

This is just one of the small, but important ways in which football has shaped the modern world. Many others are related in a new book by Alex Bellos and Ben Lyttleton. It offers lessons on a series of school subjects through football, explaining how the world’s most popular sport is linked to each one.

The book tells us about history through studying the Maya people’s ancient version of football called Pitz. Here, instead of pillorying the players in the newspapers after a defeat, the Maya would simply behead the losers. We learn about politics through the toxic, vicious rivalry of the Old Firm in Glasgow, and about geography by studying how the difficult terrain of Brazil leads to their footballers becoming some of the most skilful in the world.

Football School has many echoes of a book entitled How Soccer Explains the World written in 2004 by an American, Franklin Foer. His work is a travelogue that uses football as a medium to shed light on world events, especially the effects of globalisation.

Foer wrote that the persistence of tribalism and rivalry in football is a ‘failure of globalisation to erode ancient hatreds’. One example of this is the Serbian team Red Star Belgrade, whose hardcore nationalist fans became ‘Slobodan Milosevic’s shock troops’ during the Yugoslav civil war of the 1990s.

A review in The New York Times of How Soccer Explains the World said that, while Foer’s observations were engaging, they would only ‘add ammunition to those who loathe football’.

So if, as these books argue, football really does explain the world, how does that reflect on the sport itself?

The world game

Very badly, say some. No other sport carries the same historical and cultural baggage as football. Cricket, rugby and tennis do not contribute to wars. Why would they? They are simply sports, played and followed in good faith by enthusiasts. Football, by contrast, has managed to become synonymous with many ills: inequality, violence and bad sportsmanship. It brings out the very worst in humanity.

But a sport with such an enormous following cannot possibly distance itself from the world in which it takes place. Football, being a traditionally urban, working-class sport, is bound to reflect society’s problems. However, through the solidarity, bravery and comradeship for which it is treasured, football also brings out the best of humanity.

You Decide

  1. Can football explain the world?
  2. Does sport bring out the best or the worst in humanity?


  1. Think of an example where sport can be used to explain something topical in the news, and say why.
  2. Write a piece about the ways in which a hobby of yours explains the world.

Some People Say...

“The world would be better off without competitive sport.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t like football. Why does this matter?
The world is so interconnected that you can make a good argument that something other than football can reflect the state of the world. One could think of ways, for example, that chess explains the world, or fruit. It is interesting to examine the state of the world through something small, as a microcosm.
Can sport really cause war?
In 1969 Honduras and El Salvador faced each other in qualifying for the 1970 World Cup at a time of heightened tensions between the two countries. They played three matches in quick succession, with fans fighting each other and attacking players. Less than three weeks later El Salvador invaded Honduras, and it is widely thought that the football matches escalated the conflict.

Word Watch

The Maya civilisation developed in Central America from around 2000BC until its decline, which started in around the 9th century AD and ended with the Spanish colonisation of the region. They developed the only known writing script of the pre-colonisation Americas.
Old Firm
The rivalry between Celtic and Rangers in Glasgow, where Celtic represent the Irish Catholic community and Rangers are the Protestant team.
Bellos and Lyttleton explain that Brazil’s wet climate, which makes grass pitches hard to maintain, as well as its urban poverty, provides an environment where children have to improvise more. To describe the phenomenon they use the term ‘the advantages of disadvantages’.
Support for many football clubs in Europe carries with it nationalist connotations. These include Real Madrid, Lazio and Dynamo Kiev.
Slobodan Milosevic
The Serb president of Yugoslavia was responsible for the worst genocide in Europe since the Holocaust. He died while on trial for war crimes in 2006.


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