Widgets Magazine


Why Stanford should globalize its football fever

As Rome had gladiators and Spain has matadors, Stanford has footballers. Perhaps because Stanford was not founded as a seminary the way Harvard was, American football has become the civil religion and Stanford Stadium the sanctuary for the catharsis of its overworked students.

Few students cared much for football at my alma mater, and I still don’t know whether to wear red or blue at the University of Pennsylvania’s Franklin field. In contrast, I got a free Stanford football shirt during my first week here, and watched the whole campus bloom with Cardinal red on game day.

Although my failure to appreciate the nuances of American football after a decade in America is deplorable; equally problematic is the canonization of an insular sport as the hegemonic celebration of community solidarity. Herein lies the dissonance between Stanford’s roots as a modest Californian institution and its growth into a world-renowned academic powerhouse, and it is about time Stanford espouse the real “foot”ball.

While American football is invisible outside America, naked torso of Portuguese footballer Cristiano Ronaldo and avuncular face of Argentinian superstar Lionel Messi are ubiquitous. I have played soccer in the savannahs of Kenya, deserts of Israel and mountains of Vietnam, and I have played against the Japanese and French students on campus with my Korean soccer team. Although attending a Super Bowl would be a blast, I don’t think it will match my adventures at the Brazil World Cup.

Americans have become infamous for their cultural provincialism, and soccer can serve as a cosmopolitan antidote. Billions around the world infuse “the beautiful game” with their national flair. Brazilians dribble as if swaying to samba, the conquistadors tiki-taka to the rhythm of flamenco, and Germans bulldoze with brutal efficiency.

Despite all its local artistry and grassroots passion, soccer has not been immune to the encroachment of global capital. With the exception of F.C. Barcelona, which is still owned and operated by its supporters, a growing number of big-name European soccer clubs are falling into the hands of American, Russian and Middle Eastern billionaires.

The corporatization of soccer may provide an opportunity for ambitious Stanford students, however, as aspiring entrepreneurs can woo their soccer-crazed billionaire angels by being conversant in soccer. Even the Chinese President Xi Jin-ping is a well-known soccer aficionado, and he has decreed soccer a mandatory part of the national curriculum.

Although soccer’s governing body, FIFA, has become more corrupt than crook billionaires and rogue regimes, soccer remains democratic on the field. Soccer players come from every nation, gender and size. Viking striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic towers over his former 5’7 teammate Messi at 6’5. Ursine German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer weighs 203 pounds; ethereal Spanish playmaker Andres Iniesta glides around with just 143 pounds.

As I’m 5’7 and 143 pounds myself, I doubt I could survive a game of American football. Perhaps because I could never be that commander quarterback, I have tremendous respect for Stanford football players. Their training demands the commitment of a full-time job, and I admire their fortitude in tackling academics through frequent concussions.

I am not proposing that we abolish American football the way we dropped our racist Indian mascot for a tree, but that we weave international football into the fabric of our community life. To many of us international students, American football is as bizarre an American tradition as Scientology. If Stanford were serious about multiculturalism, it should offer a more universal civil religion in the form of the beautiful game.

Stanford has already been christened as a mecca of soccer. Stanford Stadium hosted the 1994 Men’s World Cup and the 1999 Women’s World Cup, and it will host Copa America Centario next year. Stanford is also a proud alma mater of two heroines of the 2015 Women’s World Cup Champion Team USA, and of junior Jordan Morris who joined the USMNT to face Brazil’s Neymar this month.

If the students and the administration could transfer some of their enthusiasm for the egg-shaped handball to the perfectly round football, international students will feel more at home here, and American students more at home while abroad.


Contact J.Y. Lee at junyoub ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

  • JG

    Eh… My reaction to soccer/football is akin to your reaction to American football. I think it’s a great sport but I don’t 100% understand the religiosity espoused by many other countries over it. I completely support it being played and talked about, but I just love American football more because of my own cultural connection to it. I welcome you as an international student and wanna make you feel comfortable here, so I’ll gladly talk to you about the little I know about soccer, but I’m not gonna shift my passions for your comfort…

  • maddogsfavsnpiks

    JG, your passion for a brutal blood sport, which is also our cultural metaphor for war, akin to the gladiatorial conflicts viewed with blood-curdling passions by packed crowds at the fabled Coliseum, at the heart of the Roman Empire.. all that and more can be re-conditioned with time and commitment, into passions for more peaceful games shared by a world-wide appeal.
    PS – IMO A brilliant article by C.Y. Lee.

  • maddogsfavsnpiks

    Correction, J.Y.Lee, pardon me.

  • JB

    Despite being well-written, this article recycles (especially in its rewrite for Linkedin) the old clichés of Americans as global dorks that miss the dazzling superiority of global football, or soccer. I am not defending American football or headache-in-a-can beer. Both versions of “football” are just games, and often dull to watch or play. College football in the United States has a decent amount of provenance on its side, but every game cannot be a Rose Bowl. After decades of foamy self-promotion of soccer in America to our grandparents and parents (plus some actual team experience on this writer’s part), this variant of kickball is still as overblown and dull as watching an NFL huddle.