Photo by Rodrigo Soldon Souza, Flickr CC
The FIFA World Cup is in full swing in Russia, and fans from all over the world have been traveling or tuning in to catch their favorite teams and players. The World Cup may seem like fun and games, but for social scientists all over the world, soccer — or “football,” as most of the world calls it — is Exhibit A in the argument that sport and its mega-events are a powerful social force on the world stage.
Sport elites and enthusiasts often celebrate the positive, community-building dimensions of soccer’s social power, highlighting soccer’s role in building national unity and fostering international cooperation. Across various geographic boundaries and historical periods, soccer can and often does bring people together through shared traditions, social networks, and goals. International sports can even shape international politics and diplomacy.
As TSP co-Publisher Doug Hartmann has insisted for years however, even as sport builds community and social connections, it simultaneously crates differences and distinctions, some of which can lead to conflict or inequality. Global soccer exhibits these social dynamics as well. For example, the popularity of sports and competition in many parts of the world can be connected to historical processes of colonialism and imperialism. Another common theme in the social scientist’s playbook is the racism and violence that so often accompanies soccer in both national and international settings.

All this might help explain why some scholars have been cautious and critical of the Russian World Cup, such as Jules Boykoff, who warns against the presence of bigotry and ultranationalism in an op-ed with the LA Times. The complicated intersections of sport, power, and race means that there are times when it’s not all fun and games.


For more, check out this NBC Think article on “sportwashing”– using mega-sports events to elevate a country or politician’s reputation and distract from their negative human-rights records.