Sun Never Sets on the British (Sporting) Empire

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 2/02/2008 08:04:00 PM
Here's a rather self-serving article by sports commentator Simon Kuper on how the British Empire has not really gone away--at least in the sports arena. With Super Bowl XLII soon upon us, he has taken to explaining why American sports haven't really caught on worldwide (basketball hasn't to the same extent as soccer, he says). This following passage makes the claim that the popularity of soccer, cricket, etc. worldwide stems from British imperialists hobnobbing with their subjects, whereas American ones kept them at arm's length:
The difference between British and American empires was summed up by an American lawyer who worked for the British government in Baghdad. He said that when American officials wanted an Iraqi to do something, they would generally call him into the Green Zone and, if necessary, “bawl him out”. Sometimes this worked. Sometimes it didn’t. But the Americans only summoned Iraqis when something needed fixing, the lawyer said. By contrast, British officials were always inviting Iraqis in, for parties or just for chats, even when there was nothing particular to discuss. This is how the British used to rule their empire: by making long-term allies.

“European imperialists spent large parts of their lives immersed in the cultures of the countries they had colonised,” explains John Gray, professor at the London School of Economics, “learning the languages and often forging enduring alliances with local rulers. As well as subjugating and exploiting their colonies, they also ruled and lived in them.”
But wait, there's more where that came from. Did you know Osama bin Laden was an erstwhile Arsenal fan? As if I needed more reasons to root for Aston Villa...
Soccer seems to possess a magic that no other sport has. Critics mock its paucity of goals, but in fact that is soccer’s strength. Fans wait so long for a goal that when one comes, it prompts an unloading of joy found in no other sport. Osama bin Laden, who watched Arsenal several times in London in 1994, remarked that he had never seen such passion as among soccer fans.
And then you've got "first-mover" advantages as well as a paucity of international sports figures in American professional leagues (nevermind NBA All-Stars Yao Ming, Tony Parker, Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobli, and MVP Dirk Nowitzki, eh?):
American sports suffer partly from having arrived late: the British empire got everywhere first. Kevin Alavy, an analyst at Initiative, says: “If people have been following the same sports for 50 or 100 years in a country, it’s hard to break into that.”

Furthermore, Alavy points out that, American football’s NFL has almost no foreign players, while baseball draws its foreigners almost exclusively from central America, Venezuela and Japan. Foreign fans elsewhere have no local heroes to root for. The British, by contrast, spread football so thoroughly that foreigners now generally outperform them. Consequently, English football’s Premiership features about 70 nationalities. Qiang Yan, Chinese author of a book on the Premiership, describes 100 million Chinese sitting up at 1am to watch two Chinese play in Everton v Manchester City. “That’s ridiculous, right?” he asks. The Premiership belongs to the Chinese, the French, the Israelis.

Kuper then makes the bolder claim that British culture is arguably more dominant than ever, not the American variety:

The US’s failure to spread its sports casts doubt on the notion that American popular culture has conquered the world. The British rule not just in soccer. The language of their empire, thanks to Americans, has gone global. The six bestselling novels of the past 100 years are all British: four Harry Potters, one Agatha Christie and one J.R.R. Tolkien. The bestselling band ever is The Beatles. And the world’s most popular soccer league is the Premiership. Mid-sized England has produced few great footballers, yet on a Saturday like today, people in Shanghai and Soweto will gather in bars to watch Tottenham play Manchester United rather than anything from Germany or Italy. That is why owners of American sports teams have begun buying Premiership clubs: they are recycling their domestic profits into sport’s biggest growth sector.
It's amusing reading even if I don't agree with a lot of it. Read it yourselves and see what you make of it. And oh yeah, Aston Villa rules.