The Oval World - Anglo-Saxon Rugby and Global Soccer

To mark the paperback publication of The Oval World, this is the second part of my October 2015 talk about the book's themes at the Institute of Historical Research.

What can rugby’s international dimension tell us about the failure of soccer to become the dominant winter sport in the USA, Australia and other Anglophone countries, or, conversely, the failure of rugby to become the world's leading football code?

In the case of the USA, Markovits and Hellerman in Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism argue that soccer was ‘crowded out’ of the American sport space. Elite American universities preferred a rugby-style game because of the social prestige rugby commanded, in contrast to soccer’s plebian image. Ultimately, they attributes the failure of soccer to become the dominant form of football in the U.S. to a form of American exceptionalism.

But this analysis is based on a misunderstanding of the respective weights of the football codes in the last third of the nineteenth century. The relationship between the rugby and soccer codes until the mid- to late-1880s, in England and internationally, was the opposite of what it would later become. Rugby was the more popular of the two variants of football, both in terms of the number of clubs and the size of crowds.

This trend can be seen by looking at the dates when the governing bodies for the football codes were formed. Outside of the British Isles, only Denmark and the Netherlands had governing bodies for soccer before 1890. In the same period, governing bodies for rugby had been established in the British ‘Home’ nations, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, as well as for the rugby-derived codes in Australia and the United States. And, unlike soccer, international rugby matches were also being played across the hemispheres.

Soccer found it difficult to establish itself on a permanent basis in the nineteenth century Anglophone world beyond Britain. This was not because it was viewed as suspiciously proletarian, as is often claimed by historians, but because the Rugby School-based version of football carried far greater cultural weight for the British upper middle-classes who administered the empire - and also for those who wished to emulate them in the United States and France.

Thanks in large part to the huge international popularity of Tom Brown's Schooldays, rugby embodied Muscular Christianity and so for the middle classes of the English-speaking world, it was not only fun to play and watch - although whether it provided greater fun than other codes can only ever be in the eye of the beholder - but it also had a much more explicit ideological and cultural meaning. 

Although the original rules of the Rugby Football Union were quickly modified and in many cases abandoned by American football’s leaders, the cultural significance of rugby remained as part of the gridiron game. Soccer’s lack of a direct link with that ideology gave it much less resonance in the Anglophone world. And, paradoxically, it was that lack of an overt British nationalism that allowed the round-ball game to grow rapidly in the non-Anglophone world in the first decades of the twentieth century. 

So, in the period that American football established itself as the dominant winter sport in the United States, soccer had a considerably weaker international profile and cultural network. It was incapable of offering the strong and self-evident ideological framework desired by the rising middle classes of the Anglophone world who promoted the rugby codes as an educational and moral force. By the time that soccer had developed a strong international network and ideological profile in the early twentieth century, American football already dominated U.S. winter sport. 

A similar point could be made about soccer’s lack of prominence in the Australian sporting firmament. Echoing Markovits and Hellerman, Roy Hay and others have argued that it was the perception that soccer was a proletarian sport that caused Australian middle class sporting circles to embrace the more respectable Rugby School-derived codes of rugby union and Australian rules. But, as in the case of America, the popularity of Australian rules and rugby had been established in Australia in the 1860s and 1870s, well before soccer came to be associated with the British working classes. Even more so than in America, rugby and its variations offered a much more compelling narrative of British nationalism for the colonial middle classes who saw themselves as part of a ‘Greater Britain’.

Soccer’s inability to gain a foothold in the Anglophone world beyond Britain can therefore be traced to rugby’s deological and cultural prominence in the English-speaking sporting in the latter third of the nineteenth century, most prominently embodied in Tom Brown’s Schooldays. To put it simply, rugby ‘globalised’ across the British Empire before soccer.

Paradoxically, it was the very insularity of the British soccer authorities that would eventually allow the true globalization of their sport. Unlike the leaders of the rugby-derived codes who tightly controlled their sport’s international relationships, the intense parochialism, and huge domestic popularity, of British soccer meant that its leaders were largely uninterested in the spread of the game to Europe and therefore unconcerned by the formation of FIFA in 1904. This allowed soccer internationally to escape the control of its British founders and develop independently, based on a meritocratic ideology of a game open to all.

The legalisation of professionalism by the English FA in 1885 allowed soccer to be unshackled from the restrictive ideology of amateurism by offering an alternative ideology of meritocracy. The informal yet rigid social and cultural controls that prevailed in amateur sport were gradually dissolved by professionalism and English administrative dominance was undermined by the formal equality of professionalism, giving soccer an ‘open’ and meritocratic framework.

Put bluntly, soccer allowed anyone to play, whereas rugby union tightly controlled who was allowed to play thanks to its amateur regulations. This is perhaps most clearly seen in Argentina, where, despite being the leading sport of the 1890s, rugby union remained the sport of the Anglophile middle classes while soccer became the sport of the great mass of the Spanish- and Italian-speaking working classes.

Soccer’s global rise was therefore based on the eclipse of its British leaders by European and South American administrators - in short, soccer’s globalization required the defeat of Anglo-Saxon attitudes. And it was the reluctance of rugby’s British leadership to allow its game to spread beyond the narrow confines of the English-speaking middle-classes of the British Empire that enabled the round-ball game to overcome the early global advantages of its oval cousin.