Football originated in the UK and is now a sport played in more than 200 countries. Interest is so widespread that international football tournaments, such as the World Cup, are broadcast to billions of people worldwide.
Football players are even so popular that they became celebrities and influencers. Leagues often hire footballers’ filming production for a more dramatic and hyped-up introduction of new or transferred players.
But why has football conquered indigenous cultures from Australia to Zanzibar? Economists are often quick to point out that if a culture can invent a game, it must be useful.
But this explanation raises questions: how did Europe come up with many popular sports, while no other continent has any real claim to them? What is the reason for Europeans’ unique gift of sporting creativity? The answer might lie in Europe’s unique history and culture, particularly feudalism:
1. A Comparative Lack of Centralized Authority
Under a feudal system, power was split among many local rulers including kings, princes, and dukes rather than concentrated in a single capital city. Because they were less powerful than emperors or despots found elsewhere in the world at this time, these nobles had limited ability to suppress their subjects’ leisure activities.
This decentralization meant that Europe’s regions did not develop a single cultural hegemony. Nobles living in Europe’s various regions would have been surrounded by a variety of different cultural influences. The United States, for example, was mostly colonized and ruled by people from the UK, France, and Holland18. But these groups never blended into a single culture as the British did in India.
Europeans’ lack of centralized power also enabled local rulers to grant rights to commoners or peasants often forbidden from owning property. This meant some Europeans enjoyed greater personal freedom than those elsewhere.
Those living under feudalism might have had limited political rights, but they had more opportunities to develop new games since they could practice without fear of reprisal. In this respect, Europeans’ unique culture can be attributed to historical circumstances.
2. Long-Standing Religious Traditions
The medieval Christian culture also influenced Europeans, and this religion believed that life should be divided between work and leisure. Monks of the Order of Saint Benedict founded many European universities in the eleventh to twelfth centuries, where students would study for fun as well as learn a trade.
Stunts like juggling or performing on stilts are still found at festivals today, showing how habits formed during Europe’s Middle Ages have remained embedded in its culture. Religious beliefs also held that people were not created equal. Rather, they were born into order from God. Life under feudalism was highly stratified, and this inequality might have contributed to a greater acceptance of sport as an activity for the lower classes.
Europeans also borrowed ideas from other cultures in their pastime activities. For example, football is influenced by games played across the Middle East, and basketball was inspired by Native American ballgames. But these alternative sports were either ignored or never gained popularity in Europe probably because feudalism provided fertile ground for more uniquely European cultural developments.
3. The Rise of Capitalism
Feudalism began to break down between 1100 and 1450, triggering dramatic changes throughout society, such as improved communications and ultimately the development of capitalism.
The power of kings increased along with their wealth, providing them with more resources to pay for sporting feasts. These events became harder to stage because of the need to fit elaborate decorations into increasingly cramped spaces.
In fact, many European festivals can be traced back to these elaborate banquets, and people often fight today over whether their town actually held the original feast. Whatever the truth about these legends, it is clear that rituals developed during this time have been passed down through history.
4. Show of Physical Strength
Amid the parties and tournaments, the Middle Ages still remains one of the most difficult periods in European history, especially among those under feudalism. They spent most of their time toiling lands that would never be theirs.
However, the games flourished for two reasons. One, the village or town needed men who were prepared for any battle. Physical games that included jousting, archery, and even ballgames like simple football all trained the players’ bodies and even their mental skills.
Among the peasants, who played more diverse games, these forms of entertainment helped them forget about their daily troubles and gave them an opportunity to show off their physical strength and skill.
Football is deeply ingrained in Europe not because it’s a fun game to play. Its history is also intertwined with that of the continent’s culture.