David Goldblatt’s The Age of Football shows the game’s global power

There are two great lies told about football: that it is only a game, and that it shouldn’t mix with politics. The Age of Football exposes both.

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At this summer’s African Cup of Nations, the stadiums were largely empty for games not involving the hosts, as has been the way of things for at least a couple of decades. But in that apparently banal detail is bound up an entire explanation of the impact of globalisation.

In many countries, there is no longer a culture of going to football matches. Because the best football is played in a handful of leagues in western Europe, watching it has become a televisual event. Local attendance has plummeted because the standard is so obviously inferior to that being broadcast from England or Spain. That creates financial problems for local clubs, which can no longer afford decent wages for local players, who probably already had their sights on a move to Europe anyway, and so the cycle spins on.

But as David Goldblatt’s extraordinarily wide-ranging new book makes clear, the situation is far more insidious than that. The stadiums are not designed for local fans, but for VIPs and television.

Indeed, this year the Egyptian authorities seemed to actively discourage fans from attending by setting ticket prices high and implementing a complicated and intrusive ID scheme. Stadiums in Egypt have often been a locus for dissent, and ultra groups were heavily involved in the movement that toppled Hosni Mubarak and in subsequent protests, something that almost certainly lay behind the deaths of 74 Al-Ahly fans after a game in Port Said in 2012.

The new stadiums are often built on the outskirts of cities, with little thought given to how local fans might get there. The worst example, perhaps, was the stadium built for the 2017 Cup of Nations, about 30 minutes’ drive outside the small town of Oyem in northern Gabon. It hosted seven games in the tournament but hasn’t been used since and is already being reclaimed by the jungle. If somebody should happen upon its ruins in centuries to come, they may remark on the fact that the instructions on the fire-extinguishers are in Chinese.

Aside from their emptiness, the most noteworthy aspect of stadiums at recent Cups of Nations is that they’ve been built with Chinese money, part of China’s diplomatic expansion into Africa.

And so the empty African stadiums are seen as emblematic of Chinese soft power, of states promoting their own image through football, and of the elite’s agglomeration of resources. But Goldblatt does not portray globalisation purely as a means of the rich further enriching themselves. In terms of both its technical and tactical level, and the drama it seems to produce on an annual basis, the Champions League is almost certainly the greatest football ever played.

The transformation of major clubs from centres of their community into global brands and the consequent obeisance before the great god of television is lamentable. But there is equally something oddly stirring in the knowledge that a Premier League fixture played in Leicester is watched, discussed and cared about almost everywhere, perhaps most strikingly in video halls across Africa. Goldblatt describes a village in Nigeria that had never previously had any need to tell the time with precision, adopting watches so they knew when games would kick off.

There are two great lies told about football: that it is only a game, and that it shouldn’t mix with politics. The Age of Football exposes both. Of course it doesn’t much matter that Sunderland won 2-1 at Rochdale, but as Goldblatt argues, it becomes important because football is the most universal cultural mode. To watch and think and care about football is to engage in a global rite. Football becomes a lingua franca, which in turn makes it a potent force and so attractive to politicians. From the Arab Spring to the leftist surge in South America, from prestige-building in the Caribbean to what Goldblatt refers to as the “Potemkin village” of Vladimir Putin’s World Cup in Russia in 2018, The Age of Football offers an exhaustive and at times exhausting survey of how football has been used for political ends.

In some cases it’s as simple as providing the latter part of the bread and circuses formula, as when Cristina Kirchner in Argentina brought the television rights for the domestic league under state control in 2009. In others – such as the investment of Qatar in Paris Saint-Germain, or Abu Dhabi in Manchester City – it’s about presenting the state as modern, non-threatening and essentially benign. Then there are the ultra groups of fanatical supporters whose organisation and experience of fighting makes them a useful way of getting muscle on the streets and, in some cases, leading revolutions.

Goldblatt’s 2006 work The Ball is Round remains by some distance the best global history of football from a political and economic perspective. The Age of Football is essentially a companion work, offering a painstaking survey of the game as it is now and leaving no doubt that football is both a tool of globalisation and representative of its paradoxes. It may be a game, but its extraordinary reach means that, for better and for (mainly) worse, it is far more important than that. 

Jonathan Wilson’s most recent book is “The Names Heard Long Ago: How the Golden Age of Hungarian Football Shaped the Modern Game” (Blink)

The Age of Football: The Global Game in the Twenty-first Century 
David Goldblatt
Macmillan, 688pp, £25

This article appears in the 11 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron’s legacy of chaos