Why is football such a successful (and replicable) institution?

September 16, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

My visit to Australia and New Zealand has been full of discussion of fragile states – how might durable, effective, accountable institutions

Institutional Entrepreneur

Institutional Entrepreneur

emerge in the Pacific islands that are the focus of much of the aid (and thinking) here?

I’ll need time to process those conversations, but in the meantime, here’s a more immediate question, raised in a conversation with Ausaid’s governance guy, Steve Hogg. Why is football such a brilliant and replicable institution?

Think about it. Institutions are often defined as ‘the rules of the game’. The work of Matt Andrews, ODI and an increasingly large phalanx of other researchers argue that such rules have to emerge from local context. You can’t use a cookie cutter to graft Westminster democracy or any other institution onto poor countries.

Except for football (OK, soccer, for some of you). Now there is a perfect universal set of ‘rules of the game’. In fragile states such as Papua New Guinea, few people accept Western notions of governance, but they all accept the offside rule. A single set of rules is followed apparently by grassroots and elite alike in more or less every country in the world. Why is that?

Some hypotheses for you to shoot down

–          The incentives are brilliantly aligned – you can’t play soccer without everyone agreeing to abide by the rules. When someone insists on violating them (think William Webb Ellis picking up the ball and running with it) the challenge to the institution is so profound that a whole new institution (rugby) is born.

–          The rules are enforced both collectively and by the players themselves (just listen to the arguments in the local park kick about)

–          There is a collective acceptance (sort of) of an arbiter – the referee

–          They individual rules are not simple (ever tried to explain the offside rule?), but there are relatively few of them, compared even to a game of rugby, let alone running a government. Maybe soccer is the ultimate social franchise….

Some arguments that definitely don’t explain football’s success compared to other institutions

  • Absence of corruption (FIFA, match-fixing, dodgy transfer deals and the rest)
  • Efficient international governance (FIFA again), but there is a way for the offside rule to evolve globally (but not at national level) along as the game changes. That makes for interesting comparisons with more rigid international institutions such as different faith groups, which often have a lot more trouble accepting change (gay and women priests?).

But I feel like I’m missing a lot here, so over to you. What are the secrets of football’s replicability, and can they be applied to (with apologies to soccer fans) more important stuff?

Update: turns out Rakesh Rajani got there first – nice piece on soccer v development

September 16, 2013
Duncan Green