Barry McNamara  |  Published November 21, 2022

The Anthropology of Soccer

World is focused on ‘football,’ and so is Monmouth College class studying the sport while a World Cup is being contested.

WATCH PARTY: Monmouth student Brontë De Zwart takes in action on the second day of the World Cup,... WATCH PARTY: Monmouth student Brontë De Zwart takes in action on the second day of the World Cup, when the United States and Wales played to a 1-1 draw.MONMOUTH, Ill. – The World Cup in Qatar is underway.

Sunday’s opening game between the host nation and Ecuador began the quadrennial event that will capture the world’s attention for the next month, leading up to the World Cup Final on Dec. 18.

Read Petra Kuppinger’s commentary on the World Cup – “Morocco, a World Cup sensation, is challenging Euro-South American dominance” – published Dec. 12 in the Chicago Tribune.

A small but devoted group of Monmouth College students is closely following the event through the course “Anthropology of Soccer,” taught by longtime faculty member Petra Kuppinger.

“I’ve taught it here before,” said Kuppinger of the half-semester course. “I taught it the year that Brazil hosted the World Cup (in 2014) and one other time. I’ve had students with zero knowledge about soccer all the way up to absolute soccer nuts. As I do with a lot of my courses, there’s a heavy dose of social science involved.”

“I’ve had students with zero knowledge about soccer all the way up to absolute soccer nuts. As I do with a lot of my courses, there’s a heavy dose of social science involved.” Petra Kuppinger

In the “absolute soccer nut” category are a pair of current students, James Azzi ’23 of Sydney, Australia, and Zach Browning ’26 of Ogden, Utah, who both play soccer for the Fighting Scots.

“My ‘expert opinion’ on the two teams that will meet in the final is Brazil and Argentina,” said Azzi. “Both have powerhouse squads, which will make for one of the fiercest World Cup Finals we’ve seen in a while.”

‘Futbol in the Park’ and ‘Soccernomics’

In addition to a variety of articles, Kuppinger’s class focuses on several books, including Futbol in the Park: Immigrants, Soccer and the Creation of Social Ties by David Trouille, which tells the story of “a park in a white neighborhood of Los Angeles that’s been transformed into this multicultural space through soccer,” said Kuppinger. “It’s a microcosm of soccer culture. You have Arabs, Africans, Mexicans playing together. They work the lowest of low jobs, but when they play in the park, they get a social life and respect and recognition.”

'FUTBOL IN THE PARK': Professor Petra Kuppinger is using several texts to accompany her t... 'FUTBOL IN THE PARK': Professor Petra Kuppinger is using several texts to accompany her teaching, including this book about various ethnic groups coming together to play soccer in a white neighborhood of Los Angeles.Another book the class is studying is Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski. A teaser for the book reads: “Why doesn’t America dominate the sport internationally … and why do the Germans play with such an efficient but robotic style? These are questions every soccer aficionado has asked. Soccernomics answers.”

“Two journalists make sense of soccer using data,” said Kuppinger. “One example they use is that suicides go down every four years during the World Cup cycle.”

Kuppinger said the authors also “establish three criteria for countries being strong in soccer: Does the country have a long history with soccer, is it a large country – giving it a large talent pool – and does it have money? The United States is situated well for the future. The money is there and the talent pool is there. The authors also predict that Iran (one of the countries that the U.S. will meet in pool play in Qatar) will be one of the strong soccer nations in the future, because it’s a fairly large country and the money is there.”

That is in contrast to African nations, said Kuppinger.

“Many of them have a long history with soccer and a sizable talent pool, but the money is just not there,” she said. “Why do the poor nations lose in soccer? There’s not enough money.”

There’s also not an established club system in Africa as there is in richer nations.

“The moment someone is good enough to play major club soccer, they leave,” said Kuppinger. “None of the Africans play at home, but they do return for international events like the World Cup.”

Labor exploitation in Qatar

The course also touches on the staggering loss of life in Qatar in the decade-long buildup to the World Cup.

“There’s no worker safety,” said Kuppinger. “These migrant workers were out there 12 hours a day in the heat of summer (which can reach 110 degrees or more). … Many haven’t seen a paycheck. It’s really a modern form of slavery. That was a fact that was well-known. Everybody who cared to know, knew.”

Azzi is writing his senior thesis about the issue.

“All in all, I’m not sure if this World Cup will be remembered for the right reasons, but I hope the electrifying football adds some light to the disheartening headlines that have come from FIFA and Qatar.” James Azzi

“Migrant labor exploitation has always been an issue in the Arab Gulf countries with their very loose laws built around the Kafala system, which allows employers to basically control the workers,” said Azzi. “However, over the past decade since Qatar was awarded the FIFA World Cup, there have been many reports estimating the migrant labor deaths to be around 6,500, if not more. It was bad enough that Qatar was awarded the World Cup given its history, and it is even more horrible to see the state that the migrant workers live in and the conditions they have worked in for over a decade.”

The 2022 World Cup

Azzi acknowledges the labor issues will cast a dark shadow on the event.

“All in all, I’m not sure if this World Cup will be remembered for the right reasons, but I hope the electrifying football adds some light to the disheartening headlines that have come from FIFA and Qatar,” he said.

Even though the World Cup was moved from its traditional summer slot to a cooler time of year in Qatar, it will still be warm in the Middle Eastern nation. But in much of the rest of the world, not so much.

“My experience in Germany is that people like to watch it in public,” said Kuppinger. “But it’s going to be too cold for the street life that normally accompanies a World Cup, when bars put out big TVs, and people gather to watch.”

But one way or another, Kuppinger will be tuning in, and she’s working on finding spaces on campus so that the Monmouth College community can watch together, too. Several people turned out Monday in a Wallace Hall classroom to watch the United States play Wales, which ended in 1-1 tie.

In his opening remarks at the event, FIFA president Gianni Infantino said, “Football unites the world.”

Kuppinger was asked if she agrees with that sentiment.

“I think it does,” she said. “In a funny way, it does.”

Watch …

Story by WQAD-8 about the class.

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