The origins of football is shrouded in mystery, but folklore credits the English for inventing the beautiful game. What is not in doubt though, is that it’s the world’s most popular sport.
From the smallest villages of Africa to football capitals of Europe, football rules the roost. The 2018 edition of the Fifa World Cup was watched by 3.572 billion people. That’s more than half of the world’s population!
But why is the sport so popular? It’s because football is a very simple game - in concept, rules and requisite tools. It doesn’t take much for a troop of lads to put together a football game.
Growing up, we kicked balls at home, school and anywhere in between. We had no meaningful equipment to write home about. Waste paper, polythene paper and nylon rope is all we required to make a satisfactorily round ball.
Few of the grounds we played on had clearly marked out perimeters, centers or ‘D’ area and Lack of goal posts and cross bar did little to deter us from indulging in our favourite game.
The most peculiar aspect of our game back then, was that we often played without a referee, inviting a lot of disputes and contestations over goals, corners, hand balls and foul play but at the end, there was never any doubt which team had won. Any feelings of unfairness and injustice would just provide extra impetus for the aggrieved team to seek ‘revenge’ in a rematch.
At its core, football is that simple, hence its allure. Yet, like everything in life, football keeps evolving; largely due its commercialization.
A whole new economy worth billions of pounds has been created around the sport. The football value chain supports a variety of professionals and enterprises.
This business has created multimillionaire footballers, agents and coaches. Other spin-offs like football merchandise and betting have ridden on the sport’s global appeal to attain immense commercial success.
Digital broadcast technology has enabled fans across the globe to enjoy live matches played at the world’s top football arenas; further growing the sport’s reach and popularity.
But this commercial turn is presenting a hidden threat to the enjoyment of the game. Big money has raised the stakes and competitiveness of the sport.
Winning has become the ultimate goal of every football match and its pursued at all cost. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that any team would take to the pitch without a care as to whether they win or lose. No! My point is that when winning is pursued to the exclusion of all else, then we invite practices that are neither fair, nor exhibit sportsmanship.
Players have been known to take performance-enhancement drugs, feign injury or deliberately get booked to give them a competitive advantage in a match or tournament.
It is tempting to think that what’s required is better mechanisms to ensure fairness as is evidenced by Fifa’s introduction of Video Assistant Referee (VAR).
Yet, technology has its limits and if the pursuit of fairness only furthers raw competiveness then we are caught in an endless loop.
Commercialisation has grown the sport, but it has had an unintended consequence of robbing it of some of its charm.
The contestations we had as boys, playing our rudimentary version of football was quaint and delightful, to say the least.
And even at a more professional and competitive level, devoid of big prize money, football was more authentic, charming and fascinating.
Muganda is an ITC Consultant and sports enthusiast.