13 November 2010

Why is football (soccer) so popular?

I enjoy practicing this sport but I don’t really like watching it on TV and, following the latest World Cup I found myself wondering what makes this sport so popular.

There are fairly obvious reasons that come to mind, for example, its simple rules and the fact that anyone can play, with the only things required being a ball, a rather small group of people and goals which can be symbolized by simple objects placed on the ground. This makes football easy to take up among younger people who will retain an interest for this sport when growing up. It is different for basketball for example where you need baskets at a certain height. It is worse for tennis where you need several balls, rackets and nets, and I don’t need to mention windsurfing and even car racing.

In contrast, Football surprisingly lacks any serious action on the field. The games are rather long, offer few interesting actions and very few successful ones. This already makes the game fairly frustrating to watch but it gets worse when half the players spend their time simulating faults and injuries and thus killing the little action there is.

In comparison, tennis and basketball (and most other ball sports) provide sustained levels of action and no shortage of twists. Motorsports offer spectacular views, thrilling actions and impressive technology. The Olympic Games offer variety, etc.

So why on earth do people love football so much?

I will put forward a possible argument, among many others, and which probably does not tell the whole story in itself but which I think is relevant.

The results of a football game are very random. The great difficulty with scoring goals in football means that many goals are the combined result of talented players (of course) but mostly of a good amount of luck. Often a goal is reached as a result of a gross error, or fatigue, or simply a momentary chaotic disruption. In effect, a single little random mistake can lead to a goal and a victory.

This has the effect of creating two major problems. One is that the goals are the result of a lottery and the other is that goals are rare.
Imagine for a second that a tennis match would end after scoring three points. Knowing how tennis works you would think with reason that the results are rarely representative of the quality of the players. Why? Because with only three points, chances are that the wind, the sun, a damaged soil and whatever else, can easily change the results. Too few scores leave too much room for chance.

The lack of goals added to the randomness of their occurrence means that the outcome of a football match is highly unpredictable.

What are the consequences of this unpredictability? Well it means that any team, as long as it meets a team of similar level, always has a chance to win a match at one point or another. And that is what's great for the fans because it allows them to have hope in the fact that their team can win.

If the results are too predictable, where is the interest in watching the game when the outcome is easy to anticipate? In a way this is the problem with tennis or athletics. If the athlete that you support isn’t the best you already know against whom he or she will lose the advantage, with little hope in things happening differently.

Olympic Games compensate for this problem by having a variety of disciplines and increasing the chances that there is a sport in which your country excels.

In conclusion, a sport in which chance plays an important part gives fans a greater chance of seeing their team win, even against better teams, and thus more efficiently keeping its supporters loyal.


  1. Hi Sylvain
    I'm just speculating here , but I think that luck and faith are important factors of the lives of a large part of humanity. Many people live in places where long term goals (forgive the pun) and plans are stymied by poverty and corruption. In this way, the very randomness of soccer mirrors the lives of many people around the world.
    Another factor is that soccer is a game where you do not have to be very big or tall to reach the top levels. Of course positions such as central defense and goalkeeper are dominated by tall players, but for midfielders and strikers, there is every chance that you can succeed even if you are small. From the latest world cup winners Spain, their star players Iniesta and Xavi for example. In the past there have been players such as Michael Owen and Maradona to name but two.
    I think that the games' randomness and the fact that with hard work and skill, even small undernourished players from the streets can succeed in the game, gives soccer a winning combination.

    p.s There are other factors I haven't even mentioned such as strong links between clubs and religions and/or class. For example Real Madrid (establishment) vs Barcelona (community owned), Glasgow Celtic (Catholic) and Glasgow Rangers (Protestant unionist)

    1. Just realised I never replied to you Leo. Sorry !
      You are making very good points here. Likening the randomness of football with the randomness of life seems very relevant as people often relate to players just like one would relate to a the hero of a movie facing chaotic challenges.
      And yes, the other point you make would reinforce this feeling.
      I also see similarities with what Taz said below.

  2. Always interesting reading your thoughts. There probably is some interesting psychological variable (tolerance of ambiguity comes to mind) here.

  3. Taz.

    Interesting article Sylvain, I would like to argue and add a few things as well.
    One of the advantages I think of a team sport is that fans are able to relate to specific players, players that they find an affinity to and hence build a personal relationship. Surprisingly from experience with friends it's not always the most talented player on the pitch that they build this bond with. These bonds though superficial on the surface makes the fans invest in the game, it's no longer just about whether the team wins or loses but the theater played out on the grass.

    In regards to luck, all sports when it reaches the height of perfection, where each party is almost if not equal in talent and ability boils down to chance, a slip here an error there and the car who was leading the race for 49 laps is against the wall. The blistered foot that throws a tennis players concentration. This is why you will find that most sportsmen are very superstitious, Nadal one of the greatest Tennis players in the world can't serve a ball without picking his ass.

    Luck is a universal attraction to all sports, a final throw of the ball as the buzzer goes, and the crowd are on their feet as they watch a three pointer steals the game for good. Essentially what I am saying is, all sports are a game of chance when the players are equal, whether you have a score of 1-0 or a score of 101-100.

    1. Thanks for your comment Taz.

      Good point. When teams are of a similar level and scores are very close, then luck plays a significant role too. When running a 100m, having a good or a bad night sleep can change everything, even for a 100th of a second.

      With regard to the bond, I feel there are many sports where this bonding effect can happen, what most interest me here is to know what actually makes football different.

      But you're right to insist that luck is important, if sports were too predictable they would just be boring.