The political world map is one very familiar to us all, but you’ll find it looks a lot different if each country is sorted by the most popular sport of that country. You’ll notice that most of the sporting globe is dominated by association football with only a few countries dotted around representing any other sport at all.
But why does association football have such a large reach? First of all, it was created by the British during the time of the British Empire which has huge implications. As Britain colonised the world, we took our culture along with our sports with us. This can be seen with the hotspot of cricket around India, introduced to that region of the world by the British. But football benefitted from this introduction of new cultures the most, having a truly world-wide spread.
Another factor is that it is such a cheap and easy game to play. All you need is a (fairly) flat surface, a round ball and a few jumpers to act as goal posts and you’re good to go. There is no extra equipment needed such as padding or sticks or bats, just a ball. It means that kids from any background can play as they don’t have to pay to travel to and use expensive facilities as some athletes have to for sports such as ice hockey. This is especially shown in Africa, statistically the poorest continent on the planet, which only shows football on the map. Although other sports are represented, football is always going to have the widest reach due to its ease of access for all.
It’s also very interesting that out of the big four sports played in the USA (American football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey), American football is the only one not represented on the map outside the US despite being by far the most popular within the country’s borders. This may be due to the fact, as already mentioned, that America did not colonise but was a colony and so did not have the chance to spread its culture and sports across borders as much. However, the influence of American culture can be seen in the Caribbean and Central America where baseball has gained popularity.
So association football has its grasp firmly planted on the number one spot for the most popular sport in the world, but is it always going to be like this? Maybe China, whose most popular sport is table tennis, as it rises to greater and greater economic power, will lead a shift to another sport be it table tennis or one of a number of growing sporting scenes in China such as basketball or ice hockey. Or will it adopt football as the popular sport? Although the big four sports in USA are still firmly at the top, the introduction of Major League Soccer has shown that even in America, an already flooded sporting market, there’s room for a little footy.
This article wouldn’t be complete without a special mention to Gaelic football in Ireland, wrestling in Mongolia and Archery in Bhutan. All showing off just a sliver of the diversity of the sports around the world that all sports fans can enjoy.