Hofstra Conference Underlines Struggle For “The People’s Game”

Written by Ian Thomson

Hofstra University professors Brenda Elsey and Stan Pugliese spent two years planning an event to examine soccer’s historical, cultural, social, political and economic history and what the game teaches us about human nature.

Their endeavors resulted in this month’s “Soccer as the Beautiful Game” conference presented by Hofstra’s Cultural Center and Department of History – a three-day gathering of over 100 speakers from the sport, the media and academia.

Panelists presented topics ranging from fan culture to the use of soccer as a propaganda tool or means of political mobilization. The game’s history was explored from its earliest American hotbeds to its development in Africa and Asia.

A powerful, underlying theme emerged from many of the discussions – that soccer’s beauty and essence lies in the shared cultural experience that it provides. National and international governing bodies should not be allowed to trample on that essence of The People’s Game.

David Goldblatt delivers his keynote speech at Hofstra University's "Soccer as the Beautiful Game" conference (Photo: Ian Thomson)
David Goldblatt delivers his keynote speech at Hofstra University’s “Soccer as the Beautiful Game” conference (Photo: Ian Thomson)

English journalist and author David Goldblatt delivered a rousing keynote address in which he referred to soccer as a “collective enterprise” in an increasingly individualized world.

Goldblatt’s seminal tome “The Ball is Round” examines soccer’s development across every continent to reach its standing as the world’s game. Clubs represent a “collective cultural capital” built up by the significance that fans have invested in their narratives, he told the audience. This is a soccer team’s defining asset rather than temporary stadiums, players or coaches.

People have bestowed meaning upon the game, Goldblatt said, but a small minority has seized control over running it. A much more democratic form of governance is required as opposed to the current state where national and international federations have little transparency or financial accountability.

Goldblatt’s points were made at a macro level, but they apply equally to soccer in North America. Former CONCACAF president Jack Warner personally profited from dealings arranged through his travel company to sell tickets for the FIFA World Cup. Chuck Blazer served as a member of FIFA’s executive committee until last year when allegations surfaced that the American had received more than $20 million from CONCACAF during his time as the body’s general secretary.

Can American fans be confident that high-ranking officials within U.S. Soccer have not personally profited from travel dealings or other such conflicted business arrangements? Can they be confident that this country’s governing body and organized leagues reach their decisions in the best interests of The People’s Game?

Term limits should be established for board members to safeguard the sport, the author said, while proper independence is required to prevent regulation happening for the benefit of a narrow few.

U.S. Soccer falls desperately short of this Goldblatt standard. Sunil Gulati was unanimously re-elected as president for a third four-year term in March after running unopposed. Gulati is also employed as a special advisor to Kraft Sports Group to represent New England Revolution on the boards of Major League Soccer and Soccer United Marketing – a clear conflict of interest given MLS’ pre-eminence in America’s closed soccer pyramid.

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Soccer’s “Spectacularization”

It never used to be this way in American soccer. Gabe Logan, an associate professor at Northern Michigan University, delivered an enthralling talk about the Chicago-based Manhattan Brewing Company’s works team that rose to prominence in the late 1930s and reached the U.S. Open Cup Final in 1939.

Rutgers lecturer Thomas McCabe followed up by delving into America’s “first soccer neighborhood” known as Cooper’s Block in East Newark, New Jersey. The arrival of the Clark Thread Company from Paisley, Scotland and its immigrant workers caused a soccer boom in the town’s congested tenement-lined streets. Clark’s works team quickly developed into U.S. soccer’s first dynasty with a series of cup successes in the 1880s.

Today, franchises are granted Division I status based on television markets rather than sporting merit. United Soccer Leagues club Rochester Rhinos, for example, enjoyed spectacular on-field success in the 1990s and expansion talks were held between the franchise and Major League Soccer. No deal was ever struck and the Rhinos now seem forever destined to be stigmatized with “minor-league” status for being in the country’s 80th largest television market.

Goldblatt terms the move toward hefty broadcasting revenue as the “spectacularization” of the game, where its sanitariness for the massed TV audience trumps the spontaneity of fans in the stadium. He touched upon FIFA’s ban on musical instruments at this summer’s World Cup in Brazil, the home of Samba Soccer, and the recording of an official anthem by Puerto Rican pop singer Ricky Martin.

Attracting the entertainment dollar of the mainstream drives soccer’s controlling cabal these days rather than perpetuating the game’s cultural and social phenomenon.

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Could European Leagues Adopt The U.S. Model?

Major League Soccer’s single-entity model is one that its commissioner Don Garber frequently points out as being “admired globally” for its economic stability. Its likely exportation to Europe was covered by a couple of speakers during a panel titled “The (Big) Business of Football.”

Magnus Forslund from Sweden’s Linnaeus University began his presentation by stating that the IFK Gothenburg team that won four domestic championships, two UEFA Cups and reached a European Cup semi-final between 1982 and 1987 were semi-professional. Those players held regular jobs to supplement, or support, their wages from soccer.

The Scandinavians have been left behind by the televised revolution. Sweden’s 16 Allsvenskan first-division clubs generated a combined turnover of €127 million in 2012. Real Madrid alone earned €512 million in the same period.

Sweden’s Football Association aims to double the income of its top-flight teams by 2017. New stadiums have been built to increase matchday revenue and clubs have trended toward developing local talent rather than spending on transfer fees.

The focus on fiscal matters has already found opposition among the “Against Modern Football” movement, Forslund revealed, as Swedish soccer fans grapple with the game’s meaning.

Is it really about consuming bland, corporate-controlled entertainment? Should clubs be rediscovering their historic ties to their communities? Is there any value in paying players who have no heart and soul for the club?

“Fans are increasingly ready to accept poor performance if the identity of their club is strong,” Forslund said.

Proposals for closed breakaway leagues in Europe have been mooted in the past. Katarina Pijetlovic, a visiting scholar at St. John’s University in New York who has lectured on sports and European Union law at Tallinn Law School in Estonia, discussed A.C. Milan president Silvio Berlusconi’s desire for 18 elite European teams to form their own competition in 1998.

UEFA responded by enlarging its Champions League. The former G-14 club group including Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United and Bayern Munich has since expanded into the 214-member European Club Association.

Europe’s legal system presents restraints that any future single-entity proposals would need to overcome, Pijetlovic stated, while moves away from a traditional open soccer pyramid also fail to satisfy the wishes of fans.

“How can Americans watch the same 20 or 30 teams all the time with nothing changing?” she asked.

That question is becoming increasingly prevalent among American soccer fans as they become accustomed to the global game, ironically aided by Soccer United Marketing’s annual slate of summer exhibitions featuring Europe’s top clubs.

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De Bontin Challenges America’s Soccer Media

The Hofstra conference concluded with a plenary session featuring former New York Red Bulls general manager Jerome de Bontin. The 56-year-old Parisian studied economics at Amherst College in Massachusetts when the original North American Soccer League was in its heyday. He served as a director with A.S. Monaco before joining the Red Bulls in 2012.

De Bontin wondered why so few people cared for America’s domestic leagues when there are 30 million residents playing soccer and 60 million claiming to care about the sport. Only five million people proclaim to care for MLS despite all the efforts that have been made, he said.

America’s soccer culture is bland and unchallenging, according to de Bontin. Nobody really cares about it as a result, and the U.S. soccer media fails in its duty to pressurize those within the game.

“If writers don’t challenge us, imagine how difficult it is for us to stimulate the audience,” de Bontin said.

“I would encourage the press to be braver.”

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Hofstra’s Next Steps

“Soccer as the Beautiful Game” brought together individuals from around the globe with a shared passion for the sport. Fascinating aspects of its history in the U.S. and abroad were revealed, but the most profound message was that The People’s Game should be doing far better to serve the people.

There is a vast amount of exceptional work on U.S. soccer being carried out by scholars that deserves to reach a wider audience. It is rarely unveiled as the soccer media travails over the latest games, player signings, coaching changes and endless speculation over trivial matters.

Co-directors Elsey and Pugliese suggested that another event could be staged a couple of years down the road. That should give the American soccer community time to reflect and reconsider what really matters to our clubs, our leagues and our game.


Comments: 2

  1. Thanks for this, Ian.

    deBontin’s quote is interesting. Brian Straus was condemned by many for his scathing report of infighting on the national team, yet the article was a catalyst for the team jelling in 2013.

    As for the soccer media pressuring the league and teams, the national and local sports media 19 years in, leave MLS hoping for time and coverage. When more sports editors allow for more MLS coverage, the pressure will increase.

  2. apmullaly says:

    The national media coverage of MLS is just as bland as the franchises themselves. And the fact that they are mostly just franchises and not true clubs is the most damning aspect of MLS teams. A very few have true ties to their local communities and the lack of promotion/relegation compounds the problem.

    MLS is trying to make American soccer a national sport by building its league on the NFL model. This ignores the fact that soccer is an international sport and that the MLS is not competing for American sports fan, but has to attract American soccer fans who love the international game.

    I consider myself a soccer fan and am a Tottenham supporter. I also follow the international game and keep up on the Bundesliga, Serie A, La Liga, etc. The rise and fall of clubs makes for gripping stories that keep your interest, every game matters. I try to follow the MLS as well (mostly the Galaxy and Portland) but the storylines are tepid and weak. The games don’t matter until late in the season and by that point the losing clubs are already playing for next year, not in a tooth and nail fight for survival.

    The USSF needs to implement a policy regarding relegation and promotion. It is the arbiter of the sport in the United States and needs to be separate and independent of MLS for soccer to truly grow and succeed here. The groundwork is there but as the MLS continues to add “franchises” and fill television niches, the soul of the game here in the US will continue to be tattered and the international game will continue to be more closely followed.