Book Review: L’Histoire racontée par le Football, by Olivier Corbobesse

This latest effort by Olivier Corbobesse is also his most ambitious: to explore history through soccer.[1] The book does more than simply survey the names of soccer clubs borrowed from Greek mythology and historical characters and events. It also discusses the historical references, both written and visual, one finds on club badges and reports anecdotes of how, at times, the understanding, as well as misunderstanding, of some badges have had critical consequences in real life. Suffice to mention in this context the case of a British citizen kidnapped by Islamists in Yemen who was freed once his kidnappers saw the pennant of Portsmouth F.C. their prisoner had with him and interpreted the star and crescent on it as evidence that their prisoner must have been a Muslim. Finally, the book also offers a review of how soccer in more recent times has contributed to make history. The many examples from the conflicts leading to the disintegration of Yugoslavia stand out in this respect. The book covers 6000 years, from the riverine civilizations of Mesopotamia until today. In this review, however, I will concentrate on those parts of the book that concern U.S. history.

Plymouth Argyle F.C., currently playing in League One, the third tier of English soccer, reminds us of the country’s first settlers: the Mayflower features on the club’s badge and its nickname is ‘the Pilgrims.’ A key episode in the troubled relationship between the settlers and their mother country, which would eventually lead to U.S. independence, was re-evoked in a rather original way, in Lyons, France, during the semifinal of the 2019 Women’s World Cup. After scoring the second U.S. goal, which would prove to be the winner, U.S. Captain Alex Morgan mimed a sip of tea. The fact that the adversary was England and the game was played two days before July 4 led everyone to interpret such a peculiar goal celebration as an evocation of the Boston Tea Party. The relative clip went viral but Alex Morgan received a fair dose of criticism, which led her to denounce the existence of a double standard for female and male athletes’ celebrations and to state, somewhat unconvincingly, that she had only intended to mime the colloquial expression ‘that’s the tea’ (this is the latest bit of news) meaning under the circumstances ‘there, we are now winning.’

Olivier Corbobesse, L’Histoire racontée par le Football, Clichy: Editions Marie B., 2020.

The club New England Revolution celebrates the origins of the country while its major supporters’ groups call themselves The Rebellion, and Midnight Riders and usually occupy a stand called ‘The Fort.’ Philadelphia Union evokes other symbolic aspects of Independence: first of all the name but also its badge that has 13 stars, one for each original colony, and a snake evoking the evolution of that appearing in Benjamin Franklin’s 1754 cartoon entitled ‘Join or Die’ that was severed into pieces as a symbol of the disunion among the colonies at the time. The club’s colors, moreover, are blue and gold, the same colors as those of the Continental Army.

To recognize the French contribution to the War of Independence, the future capital of Vermont was named Montpelier, after the French city of Montpellier. In December 2017, Ligue 1 side Montpellier Hérault Sport Club ordered a batch of new shirts for sale to its supporters. Upon delivery, it was discovered that on the shirts Montpellier had been misspelled as Montpelier. Rather than discarding them, the French club decided to send them as a gift to the Mayor of Montpelier to distribute to the local schools.

The 1848 failed liberal revolutions in Europe left a trace in Cincinnati, where a fair number of central European liberals, mostly from Germany, emigrated. Usually referred to as the forty-eighters, they settled in a central area of the city that came to be called ‘Over the Rhine.’ To celebrate this heritage, the biggest group of supporters of Cincinnati F.C. calls itself ‘Die Innenstadt’ (meaning the ‘inner city’ or ‘urban core’) and at each match they display a banner with their name in German.

The Civil War finds its place in soccer not only because of the club Charleston Battery which plays in the USL Championship, and the two cannons it features on its badge, but also in a myriad of songs that have found their way into European soccer. Thus, Glory, Glory Man United echoes The Battle Hymn of the Republic while the supporters of Stade Malherbe de Caen have adopted When Johnny comes Marching Home as their hymn, the text having been modified to celebrate the Norman identity of the city: Normands, fiers et conquérants (Normans, proud and conquistadors).

Not many people know that the soccer team of Tacumbú, a neighborhood of Asuncíon, the capital of Paraguay, is called Club Presidente Hayes. Its players and supporters are known by the nickname of Los Yanquis (Spanish for ‘the Yankees’) and their colors are red, white, and blue. The club is practically unknown outside Paraguay because it has played for most of its history in the lower divisions (currently it plays in Primera Division C, the fourth tier of Paraguayan soccer) but it did win a national title in 1952. Founded in 1907 the club takes its name from Rutherford B. Hayes, the 19th President of the United States. Hayes might not have been a very popular President in the U.S. (his nickname is Rutherfraud) but in Paraguay he is basically a national hero. Besides the soccer club, there is a departamento (an administrative region) and its capital city, Villa Hayes, named after him. A postage stamp also bears his likeness. The popularity of Hayes in Paraguay derives from the fact that in 1878 he was called to arbitrate an Argentine-Paraguayan territorial dispute, which he decided in favor of Paraguay. The area under dispute, although at the time basically uninhabited, doubled the size of the country.

The industrial revolution plays an important role in the history of soccer. Even though early players hailed from upper-class schools, the game spread and became popular only once the working class embraced it. Mining, the steel industry, and the textile mills sponsored the first working-class teams in England. The same happened in the U.S., although a bit later, Bethlehem Steel F.C. being one of the strongest and most popular clubs in the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century. The club disappeared in 1930, long before the industry itself, but the name resurfaced, even if only for a few years, in 2015 when the Philadelphia Union decided to name its second team playing in the USL in Leigh Valley, Bethlehem Steel F.C. This year, however, in conjunction with its move from Leigh Valley to Chester, the team has been renamed Philadelphia Union II.

The Argentinian club, Atlético Independiente, based in Avellaneda in the Greater Buenos Aires area, claims to have its pennant on the moon. The story, not well known outside Argentina, appears to have gone like this. After the Apollo XI mission was announced, Hector Rodriguez, then in charge of Independiente’s public relations office, decided that it would be a publicity coup to make the three American astronauts, Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, honorary members (socios) of the club. He sent them membership cards as well as a kit and a pennant of the club. Armstrong wrote back a letter of thanks and promised that, if the mission went well, upon his return he would visit Buenos Aires. Apparently, it was during this visit that he revealed that he had taken the Independiente pennant with him to the moon for good luck. Some versions of the story add that he also planted it and left it there.[2]

The American conquest of space is linked to football also in another way. To prepare for its 1970 World Cup, the national team of Brazil hired as athletic trainer Claudio Coutinho, an army captain who had spent time in the U.S. and met Kenneth H. Cooper, the father of aerobics and inventor of the physical fitness test that bears his name. It appears that Coutinho applied the methods that Cooper had developed for the training of astronauts to footballers. It is difficult to say how much these path-breaking training methods contributed to the Brazilian victory in the tournament. What is certain, however, is that the 1970 Brazilian team is still remembered not only for its spectacular style of playing but also for its physical endurance (e.g. two-thirds of the goals the team scored in that tournament were scored in the second half of the matches).

The American Civil Rights movement has also left its mark on soccer. Suffice it to think of the impact that Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 has had on women’s soccer and American women’s soccer in particular. As is well known, Title IX prohibits sex discrimination in any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance, which goes a long way to explain the unparalleled success of the US women’s soccer team at the international level as well as the popularity of women’s soccer in the U.S.

This is not an academic book, but it is really well researched and written. Corbobesse not only shows he knows his history well but is also precise in summarizing controversial moments and events. As a student of international politics, I was particularly impressed by his correct summary of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 (22 November 1967) which not only recommends the “withdrawal of Israel armed forces from [the] territories occupied” but also calls for the concomitant recognition of Israel by Arab states, something that most historians, whatever the reason might be, forget to mention. The final section of the book can be used as a source of questions for a game of Trivial Pursuit among soccer aficionados. It contains 365 questions, the answers to which can be found in the body of the book.


[1] His previous books are: Culture Générale Football Club, 170 questions-réponses pour mieux comprendre le monde grâce au foot (basically a preliminary sketch of the work under review here), Histoire du football à Saint-Pierre et Miquelon, un autre regard sur l’archipel, and Le football au féminin en 60 questions.

[2] A report, in English, of this story can be found here:


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