“Football is truly the most extraordinary lens on society”

March 23, 2018

“Football is truly the most extraordinary lens on society” - Johan Cruyff Institute

David Goldblatt, British historian, sociologist, journalist and writer, says that women’s football is undoubtedly the next big thing: “In a decade, we will be wondering why we spent so long ignoring it; it’s the future”

He regularly attended the games of Tottenham Hotspur as the third generation of the Goldblatts, hand in hand with his father and grandfather. He grew up in the old stadium on White Hart Lane, among fervent London fans who cheered the idols whose posters hung on the walls of his room. David Goldblatt was one of those children hooked on football from a very young age and now, as an adult, he still enjoys it with avid eyes, but not so much for the goals but for the symbols and stories that he expresses in his books. “Football is really the most extraordinary lens on society”, he says.

This Londoner based in Bristol is the author of several books including ‘The Game of Our Lives: The Meaning and Making of English Football’, with which he won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award in 2015. He started as a writer in 2006 with ‘The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football’ and that first book was the product of his being able to dedicate himself professionally to the study of football, a sport that he analyzes wisely from his multiple perspectives as a historian, sociologist, journalist and writer.

We are going to learn a little more about David Goldblatt, whose talk the students of the Master in Football Business of Johan Cruyff Institute in partnership with FC Barcelona were able to enjoy and learn from. Intense, sharp, categorical and very clear in his opinions, his role as a teacher is the one he enjoys the most because, as he says, “what is the use of knowing all this if you can’t share it?” He feels fulfilled when he writes because “with writing, you have to put yourself on the line, there’s nowhere to escape”. That’s what he came to do in our Master: to teach, without hiding anything, about the football business.

How do you like to present yourself?

I am the David Goldblatt who writes about football; I wrote a book in 2006 called ‘The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football’, which is a comprehensive sociological, cultural, economic, technological, sporting history of the game around the world and that launched me on a career of writing, broadcasting and teaching about the history and sociology of football. Since then I published a book on the history of Brazilian Football called ‘Futebol Nation’ and I published a book on football in England called ‘The game of our lives’, the making and the meaning of English Football‘. Sometimes I’m a visiting professor of football history in the United States, at a college at Los Angeles, and I’m a journalist and a broadcaster, writing on football, politics and sport.

At what point did you decide that you want to dedicate your professional life to football?

I had wanted to write a history of the world, from since I knew it was such a thing as a history of the world and, with football, I suddenly realized: here is my way in, because football is everywhere and yet at the same time, football is different everywhere.  So, if what you are interested in is comparative sociology, football is just truly the most extraordinary lens and I realized it would allow me to study almost anywhere in the world. So, between 1999 and 2002, I realized, ‘this is the groove I’m going to be in for some time’.

Which of your professional profiles you enjoy the most?

What an interesting question! I enjoy being a teacher more than anything. That’s what gives me the most straight forward joy in my life. Because what is the point of knowing all this stuff if you can´t share with other people. So I find teaching the most fun. What bring me the most deep satisfaction professionally is writing. Nothing compares to writing, because it´s the hardest thing of all to do. Because with writing you really have to put yourself on the line, there is no way to escape. I find that both scary and incredibly satisfactory.

From who did you learn the most about football. Who was your teacher?

Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan writer and novelist, who wrote ‘Football in sun and shadow’. In England, for many years, football was not a subject that academics or intellectuals would bother to engage themselves with, whereas of course in Latin America, in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, for a hundred years, the very best writers and intellectuals, of course, have been engaged with football. Galeano, for me, was like, on one hand a total hero, because he showed the way for me and what was possible; and also a great challenge, because ‘Football in sun and shadow’ is a great book. There is no way it’s the history of football. So, it was kind of like a gauntlet being thrown down and saying, ‘Ok, Galeano, you’ve set the standard and agenda, now let’s see if I can match it’.

“If I had to pick one player, who for me just personally captures what I love about football, but who I also think it’s an interesting and enigmatic character, I would love to spend a day with Zidane”

If I ask you to choose a player, coach or president, for whom you would like to write his biography, what would you say?

That’s an interesting question. Biographies in football are amongst the worst books in the world. I generally don’t read footballers’ biographies because they are inauthentic, cliché and they never tell you the stuff you really want to know. I don’t mean in terms of scandal, I mean in terms of emotion. Because to express the emotions of a life in football, is really difficult and the caliber and the quality of the writing is not very good. So, I’m slightly like ‘do I really want to buy or write a biography of anyone? I tell who I’d really loved writing about is Zidane. If I had to pick one player, who for me just personally captures what I love about football, but who I also think it’s an interesting and enigmatic character, I would love to spend a day with Zidane.

You’ve talked and wrote a lot about racism in football. Is there too much politics in football?

There is not enough politics in football, on the contrary. The illusion on the which the football industry is operating for the last hundred years is somehow sport and politics do not mix. And let me just say now: this is not true! The people who have said for the last hundred years that sport and politics do not mix, what they really mean is ‘your politics don’t mix, but mine are ok, because I come from a position of unreflected privilege, so my stuff isn’t political. Let me give you an example on this. The Olympics, the classic example of ‘sport and politics don’t mix’. What is actually the Olympics originally all about? From Pierre de Coubertin, who says ‘the Olympics are a display of manly virtue’, for which our reward is the polite applause of women. So, you think sport is a way of which we are expressing masculine aristocratic dominance over the world. That’s not political, but other people who want to say ‘how about women and people of color and the disabled being part of sport?, they are political. It is the worst and most appalling form of hypocrisy from the powerful and the privileged designed to make sure that the marginalized and excluded don’t speak. And I would say, we need more of that. Look at the nature of the global football industry. Where are fans in that? Who is representing their interests, the people who actually make football happen, without which it’s all just a ball in the back of the net? How come we don’t have a say? Where is our power in there? Where is the politics of that?

“The illusion on the which the football industry is operating for the last hundred years is somehow sport and politics do not mix. And let me just say now: this is not true!”

Why is there suddenly so much talk about the growth of women’s football? Do you think it’s a reality or a marketing product?

It’s both. On the one hand, there really is a surge in women’s participation and interest in football globally. I just think that is a sociological fact; if you look at the number of women actually playing the game at a grassroots level… In England, for example, the fastest growing sport is women’s football, particularly amongst young women. We now have professional leagues, in many places around the world. We have a level of television coverage for the women’s World Cup and the European Championships and its equivalent. Just walk into a football stadium these days! I’m not saying that they are 50/50, but it’s clearly shifting. In Britain, from 5-7% of the audience being female to -if you go to a club like Crystal Palace or Leicester- at least a quarter of the crowd. Even more amazingly, I went to see the Portland Timbers in the United States and 40% of the crowd are women. I’ve never been to a men’s professional game where women are 40% of the crowd.

What is going on here?

When you study the history of football, you find that when a group of people who have not been playing football before suddenly get the chance to, you get football fever, people go mad for it! This happened among young boys in Spain at the turn of the 20th century, it’s happening among the English working classes in the 1880’s. I think that whenever women get the chance to play football, football fever will start building. So, it’s the real thing and it only just began. Let’s have this conversation in another decade and no one will go ‘why are we bothering with women’s football?’ It will be like: ‘how did we spending so long ignoring it?’ It’s the future.

Football is the most popular sport in the world, the sport that generates the biggest volume of business. Should it be an example of management for other sports or should football adopt better models of management?

It’s a big question. Generally, football is badly managed. Obviously, there are clubs and football associations that are all well-managed, it’s not 100%. Looking at a global rather than an European perspective, football is riddled with malpractice and corruption. Right at the moment, we have senior executives from Conmebol and from the leading Latin American Football Associations, as well as Senior Executives from Torneos y Competencias and Fox America who are all on trial in New York for a wide variety of forms of bribery concerned with TV rights and so on. And as we know, that it’s just the tip of the iceberg. I would be here all day if I went through how bad football management, particularly at the level of football associations is. So, football seriously needs other models from other places. Is sport the place to go? There is a lot of very badly managed other sports as well, which are also full of terrible forms of corruption; volleyball is notorious in this regard, global cricket is riddle with match fixing… Where does one go for an alternative? One has to look to the best of what there is in football, rather than going outside of it, as far as I can see. Because, German clubs are very well managed, the German football association although we know that its involvement in getting the 2006 world cup was bending the rules beyond bending. But broadly it’s a pretty well-run FA, clubs are not in debt, there is proper licensing. There is something to be learned there, rather than going to other sports which to me are not offering much of an example to us.


in partnership with FC Barcelona

The main objective of the Master in Football Business in partnership with FC Barcelona is to educate with in-depth and up-to-date knowledge and insights from the football industry. Students will analyze the core theories and relevant case studies that will help them visualize the behavior of the football business. Students will also have the opportunity to learn, interact and contribute with FC Barcelona business strategy and operations.

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