“Soccer clubs almost never disappear,” authors Stefan Szymanski and Simon Kuper observe in Soccernomics. In fact, as they point out, 85 of the clubs that played in the four English professional divisions in 1923 still existed in 2008, and 75 of them still played in the top 4 divisions. Szymanski followed this up with similar stability stats covering over 60 years in England, France, Italy and Spain in a blog post last year.
As a soccer fan I’d noticed before that clubs playing today were often founded before World War II if not World War I- not just in Western Europe but in Argentina, Peru, Guetemala, Turkey, etc. So let’s run with this idea…
If clubs are almost never replaced and forgotten, then a glance around the domestic leagues of the world today should allow us to recreate history: Like ice cores drilled in Antarctica revealing a frozen record of the climate changing, the foundation dates of the clubs still playing today can show us when soccer enthusiasm spread across the world to make it the global sport. Simply put, if your country’s league is filled with teams formed in the 19th century (as in England and Germany), you were early to the party- if it took until the 1990s to form a league (as in Myanmar) then your clubs’ short histories likely reflect a slow increase in soccer spectatorship in your country (political and economic extremities aside).
Drag the slider below to walk through the history of soccer’s expansion, and hover over a country to see totals and then click the links in the Tooltips for the full list for each country.
Notes on sources, data and compromises made are below the visual.
- Where club foundation dates were not available I used each country’s list of champions as a proxy (trading in season years for club foundation dates)- this was only for a handful of countries so I think it preserves the directional story at a global level
- Soccer has a tortured history in North America. To avoid giving the impression that we picked it up in 1894 and never looked back, I used in place of club foundation dates the years from a list of champions and ignored all leagues besides the MLS/NASL/USL because, well, so did most Americans- that’s why most of them folded. Click on the 2nd tab to see what I mean…
- While you may have heard of Major League Soccer (MLS), the North American Soccer League (NASL) lower divisions USL-I and USL-II, there have been TONS of attempts to establish soccer as a sport in the US and Canada- as far back as the 19th century when the Baltimore Orioles beat the Washington Senators in a series of games created to keep each baseball team’s fans engaged during the offseason
- Hover over the squares to see which team won the league that year- there are some funny names (the Tampa Bay Rowdies must have been fun to watch)
- England’s leadership is undersold a little in the graphic because the map lumps the UK together- see the 3rd tab for the distribution of club foundation dates in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. And if you know where I can get a Tableau-compatible world map of football associations to replace the political one, please let me know!
- Download the workbook if you have Tableau Desktop so you can just hit the “play” button and watch it like a movie from the beginning
- Thanks to the Rec.Sport.Soccer Statistics Foundation for collecting and publishing data on clubs and leagues in almost every country in the world!