Why is football such a successful (and replicable) institution?

My visit to Australia and New Zealand has been full of discussion of fragile states – how might durable, effective, accountable institutions

Institutional Entrepreneur
Institutional Entrepreneur

emerge in the Pacific islands that are the focus of much of the aid (and thinking) here?

I’ll need time to process those conversations, but in the meantime, here’s a more immediate question, raised in a conversation with Ausaid’s governance guy, Steve Hogg. Why is football such a brilliant and replicable institution?

Think about it. Institutions are often defined as ‘the rules of the game’. The work of Matt Andrews, ODI and an increasingly large phalanx of other researchers argue that such rules have to emerge from local context. You can’t use a cookie cutter to graft Westminster democracy or any other institution onto poor countries.

Except for football (OK, soccer, for some of you). Now there is a perfect universal set of ‘rules of the game’. In fragile states such as Papua New Guinea, few people accept Western notions of governance, but they all accept the offside rule. A single set of rules is followed apparently by grassroots and elite alike in more or less every country in the world. Why is that?

Some hypotheses for you to shoot down

–          The incentives are brilliantly aligned – you can’t play soccer without everyone agreeing to abide by the rules. When someone insists on violating them (think William Webb Ellis picking up the ball and running with it) the challenge to the institution is so profound that a whole new institution (rugby) is born.

–          The rules are enforced both collectively and by the players themselves (just listen to the arguments in the local park kick about)

–          There is a collective acceptance (sort of) of an arbiter – the referee

–          They individual rules are not simple (ever tried to explain the offside rule?), but there are relatively few of them, compared even to a game of rugby, let alone running a government. Maybe soccer is the ultimate social franchise….

Some arguments that definitely don’t explain football’s success compared to other institutions

  • Absence of corruption (FIFA, match-fixing, dodgy transfer deals and the rest)
  • Efficient international governance (FIFA again), but there is a way for the offside rule to evolve globally (but not at national level) along as the game changes. That makes for interesting comparisons with more rigid international institutions such as different faith groups, which often have a lot more trouble accepting change (gay and women priests?).

But I feel like I’m missing a lot here, so over to you. What are the secrets of football’s replicability, and can they be applied to (with apologies to soccer fans) more important stuff?

Update: turns out Rakesh Rajani got there first – nice piece on soccer v development

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14 Responses to “Why is football such a successful (and replicable) institution?”
  1. chris

    I think as simple as the game is, it can be scaled to an even simpler level, all you need is someting remotely ball shaped, and THATS IT, it can be played in alleyways, fields, against walls, pretty much anywhere, playing 1 v 1, 2 v 2, practicing hitting a goal area, compared to almost any sport, it is just so Versatile. it is also a great leveler, in that you don’t need to be big and hench to play, being light and nimble can work too, and plus nowadays its one of the biggest global brands (world cup, IPL, champions league) so it can be watched almost EVERYWHERE

  2. Paul O'Brien

    1. Agree on rules. Soccer has less than 20. American Football has more than 50 different types of fouls!

    2. Costs almost nothing to start.

    3. Size doesn’t matter. (Maradona, Mia Hamm)

    4. Serves the team player and glory hunter.

    5. And most important, middle aged Gits who really know nothing about it, can be in charge and take all sorts of gratification when their teams don’t lose. My girls tied 2-2 yesterday, which was even more important than Man City not losing at Stoke.

  3. Well, the football match itself is simple and easy to organise and implement. It’s the governance of the game which is not, and where most of the dodginess you mention comes in. Perhaps it’s rather like christianity, another international concept, like soccer. The match (aka the chuch service and organised prayer)is rather similar around the world, give or take. But the way the national chuches are organised – their rules of the game – tend to reflect the prevailing governance norms there.

  4. There is no clues in your post about the specialty of football vs other games or sports. In every sport you have to play by the rules and if you change rules, a new sport is born (paddle vs. tennis for instance)The success of football lies in the interest of the game, how easy is to play it (you just need a ball) and probably its early development as a mass show in Europe

  5. Football’s both aspirational and accessible. That’s a potent combination.

    For a more development-related example, compare mobile phones to toilets: more people globally have the former than the latter.

    But if you insist on thinking of football as an institution rather than a product, I’m not sure the phones/toilets comparison helps much.

  6. CR

    Anthropologist Will Rollason would have it (or at least as I understand it!) that football is appealing in PNG because it allows players to appear like white people and achieve ‘development’. This means no longer being the subjects of development(i.e. different), but equal with the whites who appear from time to time and do ‘development’ in PNG. So this is not cultural adaptation (nor transformation, nor ‘resistance’), but trying to rework ones place in the world out of the box marked ‘in need of development’, to being on the same terms as white people and development – by playing football. In short, it’s not about aping what ‘developed’ white people do, but about trying to be engaged with on the same terms…

    There’s lots of room for anthro debate about ‘culture’ in all its various conceptual forms, but it does rather open up for question what is going on with football in PNG, and exactly how much ‘transformation’ is happening with it in the instrumentalist sense.

    You can see see bits of his book on Amazon: Rollason, W. 2011. We are playing football. Sport and postcolonial subjectivity in PNG.

    There’s a JRAI article with the same title too, but it’s behind a paywall…

  7. Alun

    That’s alright as far as it goes but it does not address key issues of ‘modern’ football – power and control. Same issues as in other key areas of countries of the south (and north). Who owns the assets? How people are exploited by the rich minority eg ticket prices in English Premier League, where most clubs are owned by oil interest billionaires. Alternative ownership models eg Barcelona and many German clubs show other models can look after interests of majority. So it’s not just about the rules of the game but who owns the game?

  8. The game of football is an illustrating example of an institution being not the Fifa rules, the rules of the individual game etc. but, like indicated in your list, a dynamic complex of rules, beliefs, expectations, norms and organisations.
    Hence, I think you’re missing a vital part in your list: That players are self-disciplined/motivated by their personal beliefs – you don’t just play to win or follow the rules or avoid penalisation (by the book or the crowds). You play, in part, to be Bernd Schuster, Lineker, Rooney, Ronaldo etc.
    Hence, my guess is that the global success and replication of football is inevitably linked to mass media making the idols global. Which, unfortunately, is difficult to transfer to public administration.

  9. Tito Bianchi

    I don’t think the comoparison is meaningful, forget me if I don’t play along this interesting metaphore.
    The institutions of economic development are something that EVERYONE has to accept and enforce for the system work. It is enough that the noncompliant population exceeds a certain threshold (what can it be 20-30%)for the process to fail. Fooball is exciting for some who decide to practice it. But the rules can be accepted only by those who play it, for the time they decide to play.

  10. Ken

    Note that in the 1970s and 80s the USA altered the rules, i.e. adapted the institution to local conditions. The offsides rule was modified, as was the mechanism for breaking ties. These efforts were unsuccessful and, eventually, abandoned.

  11. Martin

    Brilliant blog and agree with many of the above comments.

    Although ‘the rules of the game’ are broadly the same worldwide and offer a universal set of regulations, much like in development ‘how the game is played’ differs depending on the local context. In the past 30 years, France, Spain and more recently Germany have been offered up as the definitive ‘model of change’ to emulate. So even if the rulebook doesn’t change, the tactics and philosophies do and the ability to decipher these shifts and respond to them quickly and intelligently dictate who wins and who loses… much like advocacy, campaigns and programmes, in fact.

    Active Citizenship’s just as relevant to football as it is development. Manchester United fans’ Green and Gold campaign, which aimed to remove the Glazers as the club’s owners, boomed when United were losing but bombed when results improved. It was undeniably well-intentioned but a lack of a proper power-analysis, confusion about which levers would most effectively deliver change and an over-estimation of people’s engagement meant while it delivered some impressive coverage and noise in the short-term its long-term impact was negligible. That’ll sound familiar to anyone who’s ever worked in advocacy and campaigns as will the more radical actions of disenchanted fans forming breakaway clubs like FC United of Manchester and AFC Wimbledon. Rip it up and start again.

    The rise of the rest could apply equally to the BRICS’ more prominent place in the geo-political pecking order as it could to Manchester City, Paris St Germain and Monaco’s new-found competitiveness and assertiveness in the transfer market. As in football “turning up your television” to drown out “the noisy neighbours” (as Sir Alex Ferguson had it) is unlikely to be sustainable for the traditional global super-powers. A multi-polar world is playing out in Manchester as much as Moscow.

    In 2011, Deloitte produced research which claimed that Barcelona and Real Madrid generate 19 times more from TV deals than the smallest clubs in the Spanish top division. And that’s before the tax breaks… it’s not just in the world of global elites where extreme wealth entrenches inequality.

  12. Silke

    Any thoughts about gender bias? If there are more women empowered in societies, will it diminish the importance of football as an institution, simply because they are, on average, not as familiar with its rules, nor is it culturally as important to them?