Q & A: Soccer Scholarship

June 1, 2010
European domination: Finals of 2006 World Cup pitted

European domination: Finals of 2006 World Cup pitted France against Italy. Stephane Reix/For Picture/Corbis

Laurent Dubois

Laurent Dubois: Professor of Romance studies and history. Megan Morr

Laurent Dubois spends most of his scholarly energy researching and writing about the colonial Caribbean, but for much of the past year, he has devoted time to another pursuit: international soccer. In a book published this spring, Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France, Dubois examines the sport through the lens of political and social issues like multiculturalism and the legacy of colonialism. In the fall of 2009, he co-organized an academic conference on sports and politics at Duke and taught a class on the World Cup. As the 2010 tournament approaches, Dubois offers his thoughts on the Cup's significance, soccer's appeal, and what to watch for this summer.

What's the significance of the World Cup being held in South Africa?

Around the time of African independence, FIFA [Fédération Internationale de Football Association], soccer's international governing body, was still in European hands, and African nations weren't guaranteed a spot in the World Cup. In 1966, Kwame Nkrumah, the president of Ghana, led a boycott of the Cup with African nations, with the aim of gaining greater access to the tournament.

Today, for a variety of reasons, Europe has thirteen spots and Africa has six, even though they have about the same number of member nations. So it's still the case that it's twice as hard for an African team to actually get into the World Cup as it is for a European team, just in a statistical way.

Underlying all of this is that African nations are much poorer and that having sports programs there is more complicated. So the difference between Africa and Europe is more than, "Oh, they have more slots than we do," but it's also that Europeans have a lot of money and they're the center of the global football economy.

FIFA has been pushed to prove that they are going to respect and grant equality to African nations. Having the World Cup in Africa is a very strong statement to that effect.

What about the more recent history of South Africa's role in global soccer?

During apartheid, FIFA did not allow South Africa to send teams to the World Cup because they refused to send an integrated team, but in 1994, they began fielding integrated teams, which was an incredibly important part of the post-apartheid process.

Now, the burden on South Africa to have a successful World Cup is enormous, because since the very beginning there have been people saying they can't do it, it won't work, it's an outrage the state would spend all this money on sports when, next to the stadiums, there are townships filled with incredible poverty.

Never too early: New Year's Eve Joburg Carnival kicked off

Never too early: New Year's Eve Joburg Carnival kicked off festivities in South Africa, 2010 World Cup host country. Kim Ludbrook/epa/Corbis

Beyond the political elements of soccer, what do you find to be so interesting about the sport?

I'm always telling my students that soccer is kind of a perverse sport, and I mean that in a playful sense. But there are things about it where you would think, "Why is that sport the most popular one in the world?"

Why's that?

First, you can't use your hands. Our whole evolutionary history as human beings is about being able to use our hands and then we invent this sport where you can't use them. That makes for a lack of control because kicking a ball with your feet is not as effective as throwing it around with your hands. You'll see even the greatest players sometimes fail to control the ball. There's a level of surprise. We like sports that create a challenge.

Another, and perhaps the biggest, thing about soccer is its relatively frequent unfairness. You can see games in which one team is clearly outplaying the other, and yet loses. It is a low-scoring game, and one goal is often the margin of victory—and that goal can happen after a penalty was called that people think shouldn't have been called or after one tiny mistake by a defender.

What's maddening about soccer is that it's unpredictable. In the World Cup, there's almost no match that can't go either way.

What does that mean for fans?

Things like luck, theater, and gamesmanship are vital to the game. And that's something that people who dislike the sport tend to focus on. But I think that's precisely what makes it so great for so many other people. The fact of it being unfair, and being this space of incredible moral ambiguity and complexity, is partly what makes watching the game so exciting.

There's a French anthropologist, Christian Bromberger, who writes about this really well. He writes that soccer is this inexhaustible terrain of interpretation. It's very hard to know where a play begins or ends. I would show clips from games to my students, and I would ask myself, "Where do I start the clip?" You can keep going back and back. You could say, "Well, if that defender hadn't done that, then that wouldn't have opened this," and so on. There's an accumulation of tiny events that lead to a goal, or not.

It's certainly a sport that generates a lot of philosophizing and reflection, intellectual activity. And that's not to say that soccer is the only sport that does this, but it does it on a global scale.

Why has the sport been so successful internationally?

I think there's a kind of clarity to it. On its most basic level, it is fairly straightforward and can be played almost anywhere. It doesn't require a lot of infrastructure, just a round thing and some space, and it can be played in unorganized ways.

But what I find interesting is that it's still something of a mystery. The sport was taken up very quickly by different people who turned it into a means of cultural expression.

Meaning some national teams play in certain ways?

Right, but there's a lot of mythology about this. Still, it's been interesting to look at in the class. We read a book about Dutch soccer that makes a very strong argument for a correlation between a certain kind of Dutch relationship to space as expressed in architecture and urban planning and then the way that the soccer team plays. And then we read somebody that critiques that. And then we watched the Dutch play. So I asked, "Is this totally invented? Could you see any of what he was talking about?"

 The very fact that soccer creates the space for people to talk about who they are as a community or a nation is one of the reasons for its power. It depends on what country you're talking about, but in a place like France, where symbolic nationalist performance is relatively rare, there's a way in which the French nation exists only during the World Cup. Those are the times when large numbers of people make their nation the primary form of their identity.

Do you have any predictions for a winner?

I think that people have underestimated the strength of the group the U.S. will play in, especially the strength of Algeria. The England-U.S. matchup is exciting, and it will be interesting to see whether England will fall apart as they sometimes do. The U.S. has a fairly good chance of getting into the next round, but they are certainly not a shoo-in.

I'm certainly hoping for a less-traditional configuration in the final rounds, where the European teams plus Brazil basically play against each other. To have a couple of African teams pierce through and maybe knock out some of the European contenders in order to make space for other teams would be nice, and it can happen. Maybe a different setting will also allow for a different outcome.

Of course, Brazil, Italy, Germany, and Spain need to be in the conversation, but if Ivory Coast manages to get out of their group, I think they could potentially go far into the tournament, and Ghana is always a strong contender, too.

But if I have to watch a Germany-Italy final, I'm going to take up watching golf and will swear off soccer forever.