The Player

Written in 2009 by David Lue, Sabreena Merchant, Jeffrey Nash, and Ethan Settel.

Edited and Updated in 2013 by Sanket Prabhu.



– See more at:

“He’s the envy of the neighborhood: the professional athlete who escaped the factory or the office and gets paid to have fun.  He won the lottery.  And even if he does have to sweat buckets, with no right to fatigue or failure, he gets into the papers and on TV, his name is on the radio, women swoon over him and children yearn to be like him.  But he started out playing for pleasure in the dirt streets of the slums, and now he plays out of duty in stadiums where he has no choice to win or to win” –  Eduardo Galeano[1]


Origins: The Folk Game



George Best

David Beckham

Christiano Ronaldo

Origins: The Folk Game

Modern football has come a long way since its origins as a folk game.  One of the sport’s earliest accounts is the Shrove Tuesday Football match between the parishes of All Saints and St. Peter’s in Derby.  This folk football game consisted of hundreds of men engaged in a game that lasted for several hours where each team tried to kick an inflated pig bladder through the porch of the opponent’s church.[2] Young boys continued to play this unstructured game throughout the early 19th century.  It developed the name “street ball” because it was often impromptu and mostly played in the city streets.[3]


The next major shift in football led to a more disciplined game in the 1830s and 1840s as the sport began to see arranged matches and the formation of teams.  This increased organization eventually led to the incorporation of football into English public schools where the boys who played, usually came from more privileged backgrounds[4].  Given the sport’s initial lack of structure, football was first considered to be too crude of an activity for refined young men.  However as football became more organized, the game soon gained much favor with the school’s officials.  After the implementation of rules and regulations, the headmasters viewed football as a medium that not only taught discipline and team work but also provided healthy regular exercise for boys and young men.[5]

Harrow School Football Team - 1867

Harrow School Football Team – 1867

This newly changed game of football was soon democratized starting in the 1870s.  This democratization, indicating that football could be played by anyone, was seen as the game, originally streamlined and reformed by the privileged gentlemen of the public schools, began to attract people from all different social backgrounds.[6] The most notable change in player demographics was the increased participation of the working class.  With the improving English economy and the allocation of free time on the weekends by employers, working men began to drift to the game of football in their leisure time.

By the 1880s, the presence of footballing clubs, associations, knock-out competitions, and leagues proliferated in England.  Matches began to attract larger crowds and people, due to the improving economy, were now willing to pay to watch the game.  With this growth in revenue per match, the skilled players soon realized that they could also earn a wage through their play.[7] The increase in footballing clubs combined with greater revenue due to the larger crowds would soon introduce an element that fundamentally opposed the values of football’s founding fathers.  This element was the rise of professionalism.


Until this late nineteenth century, football had been inspired by the public school gentlemen.  The game, originally designed to encourage healthy play and cultivate the ideal of team above self, was centered on amateurism where men played the game for personal enjoyment.[8] However, as the football matches began to attract larger crowds, skilled football players expected to be paid for entertaining such large numbers.[9] The practice of paying good players had begun well before the legalization of professionalism though it typically involved a variety of covert measures.[10] Nevertheless, the “FA [Football Association] detested the whole idea of men playing for money, and worse, being bought and sold on the transfer market, but it could hope to little more than limit the trade”.  Despite the FA’s attempts to set a maximum trade fee, all its efforts proved unsuccessful because such policies, while controlling larger teams, would eliminate the smaller clubs.[11] Nevertheless,  in spite of these initial challenges, professionalism continued to grow.

One of the most important aspects of professional football to consider is the player-team relationship.  In contrast to control that modern day professional footballers have over their own career, the players during the early years of professionalism did not enjoy the same freedom.  In fact, these pioneers of professionalism were often tightly controlled by their managing clubs.  As stated by Murray:

“The player had little say in the matter.  Worst of all, he was saddled with a “retain and transfer” system that gave the club virtually complete control over him.  Once signed (for a maximum of £10), the player became the property of the club and could not be transferred except with the club’s permission.  As long as the club offered a player the same wages as the previous year’s, he had no grievance in the eyes of the League or the FA.”[12]

Thus, these earliest professional footballers were essentially puppets whose clubs retained complete authority over their career.  Nevertheless, professionalism became more and more popular during the early and mid 1900s as more countries established their own professional leagues.  As a result, this increased interest in the game of football began to slowly shift the player-team dynamic in favor of the footballer.  Because clubs now made most of their profits from ticket sales, attracting the largest audiences possible became a top priority.  To attract large crowds, these clubs needed to entertain the crowd, which was best achieved by winning matches.  Thus, to have the best chances at victory, clubs now focused heavily on recruiting the best players.  Since clubs now all sought after the top players, these skilled footballers now became valuable assets.  It was in this transition of clubs now willing to go to any length to obtain a top player that these professional footballers gained power and freedom over their career.

The next major transformation in football with respect to the players came during the the 1960’s.  It was during this time that the players established the prominence role of modern day professional footballers.  The Manchester United Football Club and some of its most celebrated players epitomize the transition of simple professional footballer to international celebrity.  Manchester United has established itself as one of the most successful football clubs in the world, and has been largely responsible for the global football explosion.  The club’s famed Number 7 Jersey tradition and all the players who have worn capture just how drastically the role of the player has changed in modern day football clubs.

Manchester United Logo

Famed Number 7

George Best

George Best: 1963-1974

George Best, the first player to earn the Number 7 Jersey, was an Irish born soccer player whose tenure at Manchester United as a right-wing lasted from 1963 to 1974.  Joining the club during the era of “staid and tradition-bound world of English soccer”, Best came to embody the rebelliousness of the 1960’s .[13] Best was an “entertainer … long before sportsmen became celebrities” as he “dazzled the world with his prodigious dribbling skills.” Known equally well for his on-field theatrics as his foot skills, Best routinely entertained the crowd with his antics.  It was reported that in one contest versus Chelsea, a rival English football club, Best took off his red Manchester United Jersey and with the ball resting on his foot, waved his jersey to taunt the Chelsea defender like a bullfighter.  Through the combination of his exceptional football play and overall charisma, Best became football’s first pop icon.  Dubbed England’s “5th Beatle,” Best assumed a “playboy image that transcended the world of soccer” and was said to have received on average 10,000 fan letters a week.[14]

Best’s reign at Manchester United coincided with the incorporation of television into the world of football.  The 1966 London World Cup became the first to be broadcast worldwide with an estimated 400 million viewers.[15][16] With televised football came an international fan base as well as increased popularity.  Due to the new opportunity for publicity, “marketing and advertising agents created new dimensions and attractions to the [football’s] basic simplicities … [as] sports equipment, cosmetics, cars, restaurants … [were] promoted by prominent footballers through costly TV marketing.” Through this newly added marketing coupled with invitations to TV shows and showbiz parties, “footballers developed fame far beyond their own sport.” [17] Best epitomized this recognition as he assumed international celebrity status through Manchester United and the Number 7 Jersey.  Two players were to follow Best’s lead, taking football stardom and Manchester United’s coveted jersey to new heights.

David Beckham

David Beckham: 1993-2003

Like Best, David Beckham was another extremely influential player to don the Number 7.  Born in Leytonstone in 1975, Beckham signed with Manchester United in 1991 as a trainee.  He made his debut for the club in 1995 but it was not until 1997 that he received the coveted Number 7 jersey upon the departure of Eric Cantona.  He was described to have the attributes of the “Golden Boy” and soon commanded public attention like no other [18], [19].  Beckham’s presence immediately benefited the Manchester United team, the current symbol of the richest clubs’ domination of football. In 1999, Beckham accomplished an incredible feat by leading the Manchester United team to win the Treble: claiming all three major titles (English Premier League, FA Cup, and UEFA Champions League) in a single season4.  Beckham’s popularity exploded after winning the Treble.  Similar to Best’s situation several years earlier, wearing the Number 7 jersey, Beckham had become a “global super star, with iconic status and a profile that [was] more ‘rock star’ than ‘East London born footballer’[20].

He had risen to fame in an “environment in which men’s interest in fashion, style, narcissism … [had] all been nurtured by a decade of style press” and in an era in which “footballers and pop stars gravitate to one another’s glamour”[21].

The process and scale to which Beckham had become a household name requires closer analysis.  He may not have been the best footballer at the time, but David Beckham rose to such global popularity because he represented the best “brand”[22].  A footballer’s brand is an all encompassing term that indicates that a certain player is both an on-field performer as well as valuable off field commercial asset3.  The brand that David Beckham represents is comparable to other major brands like Coca Cola or McDonalds with which the public can associate with.  Whereas in the latter two examples the two brands are identified by their name or their symbol, a footballer’s brand is dependent upon the unique qualities of that certain player such as physical appearance and off field actions.  As captured by Chadwick, the acronym TOPSTAR (team, off-field, physical characteristics, success, transferability, age, and reputation) effectively lists all the categories through which a footballer builds his brand.  Applying this model to Beckham it becomes clear why his brand is so well recognized.  Beckham’s tattoos, mohawk hairstyle, endorsement deals, marriage to Posh Spice coupled with his top football star status with Manchester United solidifies him as a top football player brand.

Christiano Ronaldo

Christiano Ronaldo: 2003-2009

After David Beckham’s run came Cristiano Ronaldo, a brilliant Portuguese international winger.  Ronaldo joined Manchester United in 2003 and was given the Number 7 jersey by head coach Alex Ferguson.  After winning a national ‘best player’ award, Ronaldo was slowly becoming the heir to David Beckham and his global brand[23].  Like Beckham, Ronaldo began to develop his own brand because he possessed certain attributes that distinguishes him from the other footballers.

Upon greater inspection of both Ronaldo and Beckham, the two have much in common.  Both are athletic, skillful players, and led the dominant Manchester United team to new heights[24].  The most important element in both players’ brands is the use of football to establish a foundation upon which they built their prominence.  Thus, through the two celebrities of Beckham and Ronaldo, the Manchester United Number 7 Jersey can be linked to the rise of footballers to superstar status.

The role of the player within the larger framework of football has changed dramatically throughout the sport’s history.  In football’s earliest days, matches consisted of entire parishes attempting to kick an inflated pig bladder through a porch.  As the game became more disciplined and was eventually adopted by the English public schools, this marked the era of amateurism in which people played for the enjoyment of the game.  With rising popularity in the game and the resulting increased revenues, footballers soon entered the realm of professionalism where players expected payment to entertain the crowds.  Through the help of external factors such as media, the world of professional football has since exploded.  Prominent players now enjoy a superstar status as they have become international celebrities.  Given this rapid transition, especially after the element of professionalism took hold, it is interesting to see how the role of the player will evolve in the future.

Return Back to Media/Markets/Football in Contemporary Europe

[1] Galeano, Eduardo. Soccer in Sun and Shadow. (New York: Verso, 1998) 3.

[2] Walvin, James.  The Only Game: Football in Our Times. (London: Longman, 2001) 22-23.

[3] Walvin, The Only Game 24.

[4] Walvin, The Only Game 24-27.

[5] Walvin, The Only Game 223.

[6] Walvin, The Only Game 29.

[7] Walvin, The Only Game 33.

[8] Walvin, The Only Game 38.

[9] Walvin, The Only Game 38.

[10] Murray, Bill. The World’s Game: A History  Of Soccer. (New York: University of Illinois P, 1998) 12.

[11] Murray, The World’s Game: A History of Soccer 13.

[12] Murray, The World’s Game: A History of Soccer 13.

[13] Bell, Jack. “George Best, Soccer Star and Pop Icon, Is Dead at 59.” New York Times 26 Nov. 2005. 10 Oct. 2009 <>.

[14] Bell, George Best

[15] Galeano, Soccer in Sun and Shadow 122.

[16] Mason, Tony. “England 1966: Traditional and Modern?.” National Identity and Global Sports Events. Ed. Alan Tomlinson. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006. Ditial) 84.

[17] Walvin, The Only Game 234.

[18] Walvin, The Only Game 238.

[19] Whannel, Gary. “Punishment, redemption and celebration in the popular press: the case of David Beckham.” Sport Stars: The Cultural Politics of Sporting Celebrity. Ed. David L. Andrews. (New York: Routledge, 2001. Ditial) 138.

[20] Chadwick, Simon, and Nick Burton. “From Beckham to Ronaldo – Assessing the Nature of Football Player Brands.” Letter to Coventry University Business School. (Coventry: Centre for the International Business of Sport. 1-8) 1.

[21] Whannel, Punishment 148

[22] Chadwick, From Beckham 2.

[23] Chadwick, From Beckham 1

[24] Chadwick, From Beckham 2

One thought on “The Player

  1. Gregor McCaskie

    Interesting site. I cam across it looking for something else. I noticed a piece on George Best, one of my favourite players and among the best in the game’s history. I’mnot clear on what you meant by him ‘earning the number 7 jersey’. For many years numbers corresponded to positions and 7 was simply the right wing. Best also wore other numbers, most commonly 8 and 11. Eight was inside right and 11 left wing. Today numbers are largely meaningless with players opting for their preferred number. I hope this helps.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *