The Dreaming Fields: Football, Life and Labour in an Orwellian Global Economy

The Dreaming Fields: Football, Life and Labour in an Orwellian Global Economy

Chanzo Greenidge[1]

One of the grand paradoxes of empire, association football (Soccer), a sport introduced to modern industrial life by Europe’s imperial-colonial elites, has become one of the major social currencies of workers, migrants, and Diasporas throughout the world.  Today, excellence as a footballer represents for many a rare means of accessing citizenship, education, employment, leisure and social mobility, especially in Europe.  Indeed, the beauty, history and immense popularity of the sport have often overshadowed the industry’s current involvement in the gendering and globalisation of poverty and inequality.  This article discusses the confluence of gender, migration, race and international relations, identity discourse and capitalism in the cultural industry of Soccer and addresses the argument that World Soccer, as a Eurocentric economic and cultural exercise, replicates and legitimates the dynamics of the Global Plantation.

Keywords: Football, Soccer, Political Economy, Diaspora, Cultural Studies


O futebol profissional, sobre tudo no  Sul, representa hoje o acesso à cidadania, educação, emprego e mobilidade social.  Mais seria possível que este mesmo fenômeno, o futebol, serve para replicar e legitimar a dinâmica do capitalismo neo-liberal?  Este artigo explora o argumento que a popularidade, história e beleza do esporte têm servido para ofuscar o rol do futebol na globalização da pobreza e da desigualdade.   A partir desta polêmica, discutimos a confluência do gênero, a migração, o racismo, as relações internacionais e o capitalismo no contexto da indústria cultural do Futebol Global.

Palavras-Chave: Futebol, economia política, globalização, diáspora, cultura.

The Dreaming Fields

Football, Life and Labour in an Orwellian Global Economy


Despite the scant attention paid to the role of sport in global cultural and economic processes, scholars such as Hobsbawn credit Soccer or (Association) Football as the only competitor to American popular culture as a universalising agent in the 20th century (see Maguire, 1999).   This article will introduce the intricate and multi-levelled drama of global football as an alternative means of investigating the cultural, political and social dynamics of globalization and the World System.

Global Football: Race, Class, Sport and Freedom

The dream of success in football, in my view, is based on a deeper human obsession with ‘level playing fields’.  Besides the extraordinary commercial success of media spectacles such as the FIFA[2] World Cup series, the attraction of global football as contemporary popular culture lies not only in the relative low cost of participation and its multiple billion-dollar industries, but in its image as a meritocracy- a space where status is determined by individual and collective creativity, integrity and skill.

“The dream of a just society…seems to haunt the human imagination ineradicably and in all ages….”


Beyond the field of play, however, the dream clashes violently to Earth.  In surveying the surrounding political and economic realities of global association football, it rapidly becomes clear that ‘while all fields are level, some are more level than others’.  Despite the façade of democracy at the level of global football’s governing body, FIFA, there remains a pronounced difference between the quality of pitches, equipment, media coverage and training facilities available in the Western (European and North American[3]) game and the rest of the World, especially in Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean.

The success of ‘developing countries’ such as Brazil and Argentina in international competition suggests an enduring capacity for the reversal of global roles on the field of play.  However, in practice, world football’s uneven geography establishes an almost permanent state of brain/human capital drain from the periphery to the centre.  The situation threatens to worsen as celebrated UEFA-based academies such as Ajax Amsterdam, Udinese and Olympique Lyonnais now recruit talented players as young as 12 from the global South, making offers that even prominent clubs in the global South can seldom refuse.  Is professional participation an escape from poverty, or a contribution to the entrenchment of dependence and unequal distribution of resources among clubs, nations, and regions. Or both?

“Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. In other words: it is war minus the shooting. “


Global Media, Gender and Nationalism: The Impossible Challenge?

As a sublimated martial art, football competition at the inter-national and even the inter-club level has been the focus and expression of nationalist aspirations and international conflict.  The game has also been a factor in reducing internal tensions and promoting national/regional unity.  Contemporary footballers’ style and quality of play create international goodwill and highlight (both positive and negative) elements of their country’s culture and history.

While C.L.R. James’ temperament and epic approach in Beyond a Boundary[4] may not have permitted him to explore questions of ‘dollars and cents’ (or ‘pounds and pennies’), the flipside to the realisation of nationalist ideals was no doubt economic development and the management of wealth.  What are the implications of a league and a team that pools the resources of CARICOM member states for effective participation in the Game of Billions?  Is success in the footballing arena of any real value to an underdeveloped Caribbean?  Indeed, the returns in terms of travel, media exposure and sustainable tourism may well prove superior to those realised from the massive investments made in preparations for hosting the International Cricket Council (ICC) 2007 Cricket World Cup.

The deepening commercialisation and inequality of football competition has led some to cynically but quite accurately brand Pelé’sjogo bonito (the beautiful game) “The Winning Game”.  This attitude, however, begs the question: has global football ever enjoyed the innocence that many of its followers remember so fondly?  Mangan (1989: 17) traces the development of professional football and commercial public competition to the Industrial Revolution’s reorganisation of labour around the urban factory.  As industrialists recognised the value of emotional release among their working masses, the social technology of Saturday football competitions emerged as the perfect diversion.  Engaged to entertain employers and fellow workers, the professional sport labourer was subject to severe limitations on mobility and earning power.  Indeed, many professional footballers, like the gladiators of ancient Rome, were “virtually bonded men.”(Mangan, 16).

The idea of unionisation came much later and much slower to fruition in the football industry, with the first, the Association Football Players’ Union, attracting only 7% of the almost eight thousand professionals operating in 1910. Today, while excellence as a footballer represents for many a rare means of accessing citizenship, education, employment, leisure and social mobility, the football labourer continues to operate in a market quite different from that of other occupations.  The spectacular fees which footballers, especially elite professionals, now command were partially[5] the result of the 1995 ruling by the European Court of Justice, commonly known as the Bosman Ruling, to finally allow players to move more freely among professional clubs, a right taken for granted in most other professions. (see Lowry et al, 2002) Despite these belated developments, a lamentable lack of transparency remains in the international club transfer market[6].

In addition, while the economic viability of sport as industry merits close attention, other significant questions of the relationship between sport, media and identity present themselves.  As Scraton and Flintoff (2002) note in Gender and Sport: A Reader, ethnic and cultural identities are constructed and reproduced through physical activity.  The filtering and interpretation of this activity by global media is also a key element in (re)constructing contemporary identities.  Even to the detached observer, there is much in the image of football that would mark it as a ‘male preserve’. The power of the media to produce and globalise footballing icons has serious implications for race, gender and labour.  For example, as the media-led blossoming of the market for branded equipment, replica jerseys and other athletic paraphernalia continues, few have noticed the ironic return of the football industry to its ‘roots’ in the cramped urban factories of the industrial world.  Stories of Asian women and children stitching soccer balls for poverty wages leads one to question whether the industry represents a real and sustainable escape from poverty or a continuation of gendered and racialised hierarchy.

Several scholars have dared to investigate other elements of the global media-sport-gender nexus.  Laura Robinson’s Black Tights: Women, Sport and Sexuality, for example, delves into the issues of the sexual objectification of women in and around sport.  Gill Lines’ study of the 1996 Olympic Games and European Soccer Championships also notes the connection of masculinity, especially Black masculinity, to sporting prowess.  In her view, this phenomenon not only marginalises women, but entrenches racial specification and delimits the bounds of African male endeavour[7].  Nowhere is this phenomenon more starkly evident than in Brazil.  Though much has changed since 1923 for Afro-Brazilian footballers[8], much has remained the same.  Now in the grips of debate over the introduction of ‘affirmative action’ legislation to favour the entry of black Brazilians into institutions of higher learning, similar obstacles to entry are to be found in the higher levels of the local footballing industry. As Brazil’s second chance at hosting the FIFA World Cup approaches, Brazil has begun to take note of the limited participation of Afro-Brazilians in club ownership as well as technical and administrative positions at both the club and national level (Awi et al., 2005).  While participation in sport by women, especially those in the global South, may be emancipatory (see Bolly, 2003), it is perhaps a more important and more difficult challenge to change the gender and racial identities and/or interests of those who manage and shape the image of the sports we play and witness.

The beauty, lore and immense popularity of the sport have often overshadowed the football’s current and historical involvement in the gendering and globalisation of poverty and inequality.  However, the implications of arguing that World Soccer replicates and legitimates the gender-, language- and colour- codes of a ‘global plantation’ are far-reaching and fairly dangerous.  In an Orwellian paradox of empire, football, introduced to the global South by Europe’s imperial-colonial elites, has become one of the major social currencies of workers and migrants in developing countries and their Diasporas.  The dream of freedom and social mobility through sport is jealously held by many in the playing fields of the global South (as well as by those who would sell them that dream).  Meanwhile, many in academia may scoff at the value of global sport as a microcosm of the confluence of key issues such as gender, race, migration, international relations and global media capitalism.  As Galeano noted so eloquently in his classic work ­Fútbol A Sol y Sombra (2003), football has at least two things in common with God: the love and reverence of the masses, and the fear and distrust of intellectuals.


Awi, Fellipe, Rogério Daflon and Tadeu de Aguiar. 2005. Sem voz na boca do túnel.  Jornal O Globo[online]. 24 April 2005

Besson, Sherwyn. 2003. Rationed Freedoms Bloomington, IN: 1st Books.

Bolly, Moussa. 2003. Awa Coulibaly “Mamah”, joueuse de football: “Le football contribue à l’émancipation feminine.” Amina, June 2003, 62.

The Economist. 2003. Beckonomics. The Economist, June 14th 2003, 53.

Galeano, Eduardo. 2003. El fútbol a sol y sombra. 2nd ed. Madrid: Siglo XXI.

Hoberman, John. 1997. Darwin’s Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved The Myth of Race. Boston, Mariner Books.

Lines, Gill. The sports star in the media: The gendered construction and youthful consumption of sports personalities. In Power Games: A Critical Sociology of Sport edited by John Sugden and Alan Tomlinson. London: Routledge, 2002.

Lowrey, James, Sam Neatrour and John Williams. Fact Sheet 16: The Bosman Ruling, Football Transfers and Foreign Footballers[online] Centre for the Sociology of Sport, University of Leicester.  August 2002  Available from Internet: <>

Maguire, John. 1999. Global Sport: Identities, Societies, Civilizations.
Cambridge: Polity Press

Mangan, John A.  Introduction: Sport and Industrialization.  In Pleasure, Profit and Proselytism:British Culture and Sport at Home and Abroad edited by John A. Mangan.  London: Frank Cass, 1992.

Robinson, Laura. 2002. Black Tights: Women, Sport and Sexuality. Toronto: HarperCollins.

Scraton, Sheila and Anne Flintoff, eds. 2002. Gender and Sport: A Reader London: Routledge.

[1] Chanzo Osei Greenidge

Doctor of the Institute of International Relations

[2] FIFA- Féderation Internationale de Football Association (International Association Football Federation); UEFA- Union Européenne de Football Association/ Union of European Football Associations.

[3] See Sherwyn Besson’s Rationed Freedoms (2003, 1st Books)

[4] C.L.R. James’ Beyond a Boundary testifies to a dream of West Indian nationhood and international recognition realised through arguably the most ‘British’ of sports, cricket.

[5] Other factors include the rapid growth of the television licensing market, itself due to the explosion of Pay-per-View television services.  (The Economist, 2003)

[6] Young players in particular are often prone to unscrupulous club officials and players agents who siphon money by several means, including the failure to declare transfer fees.

[7] A thesis developed by John Hoberman in several works, including his controversial Darwin’s Athletes (1997).

[8] In that year, Vasco de Gama, a Rio-based club founded by Portuguese diasporans, defied regulation and accepted practice by presenting a squad composed of black, pardo (brown-skinned) and mulatto workers that went on to win the Rio de Janeiro State Championship.