Teaching Historical Thinking through Soccer
In June the (men’s) World Cup began. Soccer, the world’s most popular sport, is rich with history and closely entwined in the politics of the 20th century. For five years I have taught a spring colloquium at New York University that uses the game to teach historical thinking. There is no prerequisite aside from knowing that soccer is a game played primarily with the feet. Some students come to the class with little interest in the sport but curious about applying historical thinking to a topic usually perceived as existing outside of history and politics.
Always full, students learn (or at least I hope they do) to look at the game using the five C’s—change over time, context, causality, contingency, and complexity—outlined in “What Does It Mean to Think Historically?” by Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke. It’s one of the first things students read—and the only piece that is not about the game. The idea is to get students to pick up the skills outlined in the article and learn to apply them to the game and, more broadly, to other topics.
Each week we share common readings and sometimes a film, all of which relate to a single theme, such as class, economy, gender, identity, loyalty, nationalism, politics, racism, war, and women. One or two students volunteer each week to present the common readings and two additional “uncommon” readings to the class. The readings are sometimes by historians, but more often by social scientists or journalists, as well as by authors such as Eduardo Galeano and Nick Hornby, who are better known for their fiction. The films are a mixture of documentaries and feature films.
Students are surprised to learn the military history of the game. The British Army in World War I thought it instilled teamwork and creative thinking.
Students are surprised to learn the military history of the game. The British Army in World War I encouraged the game as a way to instill teamwork and creative thinking. Official war artists included it in their work, as John Singer Sargent did in Gassed. Soccer players also formed Football Battalions in the British Army in World War I. It was Walter Tull, a former player in the battalions, who became the first Afro-Briton commissioned officer in the British Army.
Another week centers on the infamous 1942 Death Match in Kiev, a soccer game during World War II that is so shrouded in myth that it has overwhelmed the facts of the actual occurrence. A German Luftwaffe team lost to a team made up of local residents, many of whom had played professionally. According to legend, the Germans executed their opponents in retaliation. This story forms the basis of the 1981 John Huston film Victory, starring Sylvester Stallone and Michael Caine, which I show in class. The film uses Germans versus Allied POWs and changes the location to Paris. The film and related readings providing conflicting accounts of the match and its aftermath force students to engage in historical thinking across space and time.
A film student, for example, wrote her weekly response on Victory. Spinning off the fact that a Swede played the German camp commandant and that a naturalized Yugoslav (who was also the real-life captain of the famed New York Cosmos) played the captain of the German team, she discussed the typecasting of Arabs in US media. I asked her to share it with the larger class, and the ensuing class discussion flowed into the “hidden” history of Arab Americans in American media, from Tony Shalhoub (whom most recognized) to Marlo and Danny Thomas as well as Casey Kasem (whom most did not recognize). What was listed on the syllabus as a discussion of an event in 1942 invariably became a wider discussion on gender, identity, memory, nationalism, politics, and racism—and, of course, the five C’s of historical thinking outlined by Andrews and Burke.
Another topic that prompts rich class discussion is the weak effort toward gender equality by the sport’s governing body, Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). For a significant portion of the 20th century, women were banned from playing the sport in many countries. While the amount of funding that FIFA provides for women has increased, it is still significantly less than what it provides for men. Fans pay more attention to their men’s national team than their women’s teams, which are often coached by men. This is true even in the United States, whose Women’s National Team (USWNT) is the best in the world and has won three of the seven Women’s World Cups. Moreover, they have never finished lower than third, a feat the men only achieved at the very first World Cup in 1930.
For a significant portion of the 20th century, women were banned from playing soccer in many countries.
Yet the National Women’s Soccer League attracts considerably less attention and has significantly lower salaries than the men’s Major League Soccer. But why are the USWNT so dominant? Part of the reason, as we discuss in class, is the impact of Title IX on school sports in this country. To keep the questions of gender and identity central to the conversations, we read a fantastic piece by Brenda Elsey on Lionel Messi and masculinity in Argentina, which argues that notions of gender in Argentina are responsible for the player’s diminished popularity there. (I am sad to note that when I poll the students about interest in the women’s game, most—men and women—openly admit to not caring.)
There is a great deal more that could be taught about the sport, such as the changes over time in location, size, and cost of the World Cups. The size and composition of the men’s World Cup has changed markedly since the first one in 1930. In 2026, when the tournament will be hosted jointly by Canada, Mexico, and the United States, it will include 48 teams. What hasn’t and will not change is its close relationship with global politics and economy. Part of the significance of the awarding of the 2026 World Cup to Canada, Mexico, and the United States is that FIFA required a promise from President Trump that teams and fans from everywhere would be admitted to the United States. Economics, history, and politics play a large role in soccer; I am lucky to be able to share my passion for the game with my students.
Andrew H. Lee is a curator at Bobst Library and an affiliated faculty member of the History Department at NYU. He is on the AHA’s Digital History Working Group. A historian of Spain, he is rooting for Spain, France, Senegal, or Mexico to win the World Cup.
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