What is football?

Succinctly described by the great Brazilian Pelé as ‘the beautiful game’, football is the only sport in the world which can be accurately defined as a global phenomenon. In 175 countries, football is considered the national sport, representing roughly 90% of the world’s nations. This nominal commitment to football is matched by the world population’s dedication, with statistics indicating a cumulative audience of 30 billion plus for the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany, and well over a billion tuning in for the Final between Italy and France.

Moreover, football’s popularity is by no means a modern development. Writing in 1928, J.B. Priestley eloquently defined its appeal to previous generations by stating ‘to say that these men paid their shillings to watch twenty-two hirelings kick a ball is merely to say that a violin is wood and catgut, that Hamlet is so much paper and ink’.

That said, the development of globalisation and modern means of communication, coupled with the natural progression beyond its roots in Britain, means football today possesses a status beyond that of a mere pastime. It reflects the modern world, with no national restrictions on players at club level. Indeed, even in international football, foreign coaches are common and have had much success, most notably Otto Rehhagel, the German-born coach who led Greece to glory in the 2004 European Championships. Football also frequently plays a role in the arts, with films like ‘Escape to Victory’ (1981), ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ (2003) and ‘The Arsenal Stadium Mystery’ (1939) and books such as Nick Hornby’s ‘Fever Pitch’. The sport’s growing centrality in film was illustrated in 2007’s ‘Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait’, which showed Real Madrid’s match against Villarreal, but with 17 cameras trained on the great French midfielder Zinedine Zidane.

Even religion and politics are not exempt from football’s sphere of influence. The former is clearly evidenced in the creation of the Iglesia Maradoniana in Argentina; a Church devoted to the legendary Diego Maradona (who led Argentina to the World Cup in 1986) and now counts 15,000 people as members. Similarly in political affairs, the Football War between El Salvador and Honduras in June 1969 was so-called because it followed rioting which broke out after El Salvador eliminated Honduras to reach the 1970 World Cup finals.

However, football’s popularity and far-reaching significance can fundamentally be explained by its beauty as a spectacle, stemming from some very basic rules and an ocean of intricate details which add something extra. To properly get to grips with all of this and get into the beautiful game, read on and enjoy!