The Unbearable Whiteness of Soccer

Thursday, June 24th, 2010

Watching the World Cup, it’s hard not to notice what Steve Sailer calls the unbearable whiteness of soccer:

I’ve been following the World Cup since Pelé went out with a bang in 1970. Over the decades, the rhetoric that quadrennially accompanies the soccer championship has grown ever more strident in its insistence that the reason most Americans find soccer less than galvanizing as a spectator sport is that they… fear diversity!

In reality, soccer, both at the international superstar level and at the park league level in America, is whiter than football, basketball, or baseball.

For example, the last World Cup was won by Italy’s all white team. In America, this would be considered scandalous.

Let’s look at ESPN’s list from earlier this year of the “Top 50 players of the World Cup.” The five best players in the world — Lionel Messi of Argentina (who is of Italian descent), Christiano Ronaldo of Portugal (a Tim Tebow-lookalike), Wayne Rooney of England, Kaka of Brazil (who is from an upper middle-class family), and Xavi of Spain — are white.

Out of the top 10, eight are white and two from West Africa. Out of the top 50, the proportions look similar. Judging from their pictures, I would say 10 are black, one is mostly white but clearly part black, and the other 39 look more or less white. None of the top 50 are East Asian or South Asian, and I don’t see any that are as mestizo-looking as, say, Diego Maradona, the star of the 1986 World Cup.

In contrast, only one American-born white guy has been selected to the NBA All Star game in the last half dozen years. Most of the prestige positions in the NFL other than quarterback are dominated by blacks.

Of the soccer top 50, 24 are white guys from the six sunny powers of Spain (9 of the top 50), Italy, Portugal, Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. In other words, almost half of the global soccer superstars are Southern Europeans. As baseball discovered back in the days of Joe DiMaggio, it doesn’t really hurt your sport’s popularity to have stylish Mediterranean guys as stars.

Whiteness is even more predominant in American soccer participation rates. From the late 1960s onward, white middle-class parents started to notice that soccer was a fine sport for their children to play, especially now that football and basketball were coming to be dominated at the highest levels by, well, by… uh, you know… And at this point countless conversations I’ve had over the years with very nice liberal white soccer parents typically break down into uncomfortable gesticulations as they try to not quite come out and say that soccer in America has been, to a large degree, White Flight in Short Pants.


  1. John says:

    Ehhh… no. Looking at a created Top 50 list seems rather subjective. Maybe that reveals the biases of who put that list together. But let’s look at the World Cup squads themselves.

    The Italian team from ’06 was all white? But what proportion of the population there is white? 95%? 98%? How many non-white players would one expect?

    On the US squad, by my reckoning, 8 out of 23 are at least partially black. Maybe that seems pretty small compared to the NFL or NBA, but it’s a greater proportion than the population they’re representing.

    France also provides a striking example. I think the “score” there is 14 out of 23.

    Then there’s the England squad. Again as I see it, 8 of 23 players are at least partially black, representing a nation that is, what 5% black?

  2. Isegoria says:

    I agree that tallying off of someone’s Top 50 list is arbitrary, but it is striking how white soccer is, at least compared to major American sports. It’s also striking how white the Latin American teams are — which is perhaps a comment on our North American expectations of what Latin Americans are supposed to look like. Argentinean and Chilean soccer players don’t look much like the poor mestizo Mexicans, Guatemalans, etc. who come to the US to work manual labor and then stand out as foreign; they look European.

  3. John says:

    For what it’s worth, American baseball players definitely skew white too. You don’t notice it so much looking at MLB rosters, because there are so many foreign (i.e. Latin American) players now. But if you look at an American roster (e.g. the US roster at last year’s World Baseball Classic), it’s even more white than the World Cup squad — something like 22 of 29 players.

    I think the whiteness of Latin American teams is more a commentary on North American expectations. I think Argentina is overwhelmingly white, and Chile is majority white. I’m not too sure that the compositions of the those squads are significantly whiter than the nations they represent.

  4. Javier says:

    As someone born and raised in Argentina I’d like to point out at least two things that might shed some light on the apparent “whiteness” of our team (more so about our ethnical composition).

    First, the fact that around the time my country formed — the early 1800s — there weren’t that many slaves to begin with, and they were mostly confined to the area around the city of Buenos Aires, the one major international port of the time. Inland, labor was mostly comprised of half-breeds between Spanish settlers and the sparse local native populations (the origin of the “gauchos”).

    Then as early as 1813, sons of slaves were declared free. Both the War of Independence and the subsequent Civil Wars took a toll on population in general, but it was the War of the Triple Alliance (around 1865, shortly after remaining slaves were freed as per the recently signed Constitution) that the enforced levy on the underclass, combined with the high death toll of the conflict (on par with the Crimean and the American Civil War) did away with any remaining population of African descent.

    And second, immediately after the war, in order to repopulate, the goverment favored European immigration. This wave of immigrants was mostly composed of Spanish, Italian, and Eastern European people, with some traces of French, English and German nationals. Our first recorded census gave a population of 6 million, out of which 2 million were of the aforementioned places.

    Hope this clarifies a little.

  5. Isegoria says:

    Gracias, Javier, for the history lesson. The slave situation in Argentina played out very, very differently from, say, Brazil.

    While I already knew that Argentina had a large Spanish and Italian population, the Argentinean team (a) appears to have almost zero “native” blood, and (b) isn’t even particularly Italian-looking by New Jersey shore standards. That is, they look like Castilians or Lombards, not like mestizos or Sicilians.

    I thought the same thing of the Paraguayan team, so I looked up the demographics for Paraguay, and the country is supposedly 95 percent mestizo. Looking more closely, I see that some of the players appear to have “native” blood. While watching them play I didn’t notice anyone who seemed Guarani, and I noticed only one fellow who seemed maybe southern Italian.

  6. Javier says:

    Funny. You’ve just described like three-fourths of my family tree. Half of my great-grandparents were from Italy (the Troiani from Piedmont, and the Barbieri from Calabria). The remaining half were from Old Castille (Rodríguez), and the last half, were mixed-locals (Gomez Cuitiño, Portuguese via Uruguay), and the DuFreachou, another mixed French-native couple. My grandpa had a great-grandmother who was native. When I do the math, that puts them somewhere in the late 17th century! (At which point it all becomes myth and old-wives tales). All Europeans settled here in 1914. Given all that, I’ve been asked on rare occasion if I was Armenian. Friends and acquaintances often joke that I should never attempt to cross the US border without a clean shave.

    As for Jersey-shore Italians, you got me there. The only example I can think of is James Gandolfini, and I’m not exactly sure is he is from Jersey.

    Thing is, you probably already have seen both mestizos and guaraníes: it’s right there on the team. But you probably have not heard them, which is where the guaraní heritage really lives on. It’s in the Paraguayan accent. If you ever get to hear a Paraguayan speak Spanish, you are really listening to how the original inhabitants spoke their language. It’s in the tune. Even so, Guaraní is still a very alive language. Many Paraguayans speak both, so you can even make direct comparisons, and truth be told, there is no diference. Bear in mind also, that it’s been 400 years of mixing, and that the region was sparsely populated even when the Spanish arrived.

    The densest population of aboriginal peoples were in modern day Perú (seat of the Incan Empire), Ecuador, and Bolivia. Same way with Mexico in Central America and the Aztec Empire. In those places, it’s very easy to find and see the Old Face of América. Take for example, Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia. He’s clearly native blood. Should Bolivia or Perú qualify for the World Cup, there would be a clear example natives and mestizos all mixed up together.

    I apologize for the rather lenghty post — I was striving for a short answer — but like I wrote earlier, it’s over 400 years of history compressed into a couple of anecdotal evidences. Thanks for taking your time to read through.

  7. Isegoria says:

    Most (US) Americans expect Latin Americans to look “Armenian,” as you say. Anyone who can cross the border without a clean shave is not really Latino. Of course, most Americans expect Spaniards to look this way too. Even to an American who knows better, a player like Torres comes as a bit of a shock — he looks quintessentially American.

    Understandably, Americans expect Italians to look like Italian-Americans, whose grandparents were southern Italians. The cast of The Sopranos matches the stereotype, of course: olive complexion, black hair, strong nose, etc. The “Guido” sub-culture of the New Jersey shore tends to accentuate this, with super-dark artificial tans, “blow out” hair styles, and a very non-WASP emphasis on bare skin and gold chains.

    The Bolivian president, Morales, actually looks too native to match (US) American stereotypes, which aren’t of true natives so much as of mestizos. The Peruvian pan-flute players who suddenly appeared in Manhattan (and elsewhere) a few years ago don’t look Latino; they look Peruvian.

    By the way, I’ve discussed Argentina a few times before:

    Empires of the Atlantic World
    Argentina: The Superpower That Never Was
    Thoughts on Urban Survival

  8. Javier says:

    I don’t remember having read the first link. Thanks.

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