How Soccer Exemplifies the World

Review

How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization

by Franklin Foer

Harper Perennial, 2004 (2010), 288 pp.

Even before the kickoff to the World Cup tournament, many were commenting on what the tournament will mean for Africa and, searching for new ways to build up the excitement, expounding on what soccer means for Africa and how it represents the state of the continent as a whole. Some of this commentary is insightful, though most over-interpret the game’s ability to predict world peace, or exemplify endemic corruption.

This wave of recent commentary has made me even more appreciative of the newly re-issued How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization, by New Republic editor Franklin Foer. Foer’s skill lies in his masterful handling of his prose and swift narrative, as he sprints from country to country during a six-month sabbatical from the New Republic to study soccer culture around the world; his genius lies in his restraint.  He holds himself back from trying to tie his chapters into a flat-footed, book-length argument that proves some generality about how soccer is a unifying force that affects politics, race, and religion. By forsaking such a ponderous point he is able to dribble circles around all of these issues, providing fascinating—and sometimes contradictory—vignettes about racism, corruption, and religion in the process.

In the opening chapter, Foer heads to the Balkans to hunt down the story of a former Serbian warlord who used his network of soccer thugs to organize the murders of at least 2,000 Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Croats, and then maintained his grip on power over his ad-hoc militia after the war by buying a club team. This story is fascinating for its ability to clarify how quickly certain networks can be activated to perpetrate mass violence, and how impermeable such wartime dynamics are to lasting peace agreements. These points are made through pure illustration, including a chilling segment in which Foer is intimidated into giving a Belgrade gang leader the same three-fingered salute that victims of ethnic cleansing were forced to give their executors before being killed.

Indeed, the resilience of indigenous culture against the homogenizing forces of globalization is one of the recurring themes of How Soccer Explains the World. Animosity against the opposing team often becomes conflated with animosity against some local enemy, whether that group is Catholics in Northern Ireland or immigrants in Moldova. Play on the field must follow the rules, but in the stands fans don’t hold back any punches, which include singing rousing rounds of songs about dancing in Catholic blood and making monkey sounds at Africans. When the desire to win inspires managers of these teams to pluck talent from the groups they demonize, fans can cheer on their goals while continuing to vilify the groups that they represent. It is unclear whether these integrated teams will spread tolerance and understanding over the long run. And indeed, it is not only hatred that is impervious to the homogenizing force of global soccer leagues. The endemic corruption that afflicts Brazilian soccer has proven equally resistant to the reform efforts of foreign investors, and political meddling in Italy has continued to bend the internationally accepted rules of the game.

Yet these seemingly hopeless cases, in which globalization seems only to exacerbate rather than smooth over local hatreds, are belied those in which soccer does enable progress. In the chapter on Iran, for example, Foer exults in a story about how the passion of female fans in Iran were able to bend the mullahs’ fatwas banning them from attending or even watching broadcasts of games, or in FC Barcelona’s ability to unite fans across class lines in Spain and to serve as a pacified expression of Catalan nationalism.

One positive dynamic that Foer does not address, but that I personally find fascinating, is soccer’s ability to create a national identity. In Côte d’Ivoire, for example, a country whose northern half has been governed by rebel forces since 2002, a striker named Didier Drogba has encouraged national reunification through heartfelt public appeals for peace and by insisting that a qualifying game of the Africa World Cup be played in the northern rebel stronghold in 2007. Government officials crossed the line of control for the match, and rebel and government forces cooperated to secure the stadium. Côte d’Ivoire won 5-0. As in Iran, soccer in Côte d’Ivoire has done more than simply follow the path of least resistance. For whatever reason, it has begun to lift people above their political differences to a higher sense of national identity.

Despite the title’s grandiose claims to provide a “theory” that “explains the world,” Foer’s book has neither a real introduction nor conclusion. Its beauty is that it does not make a specific argument—by recognizing the messy heterogeneity of soccer’s effect on people, it very clearly shows the game’s power to drive right to the heart of a cultural or economic phenomenon. The fact that soccer is a pastime for billions, and an outright obsession for millions, makes it a powerful mechanism for those who wish to amass power and money. The fact that it is loved so universally means that it can help soothe and reconcile the same conflicts that it seemed to ignite. As the World Cup continues, and we all rally around our teams with the necessary cheers and jeers, I strongly recommend returning to this book for a wider and much more detailed view of the cultural and economic field in which the sport is played. And who knows—it may also provide fodder for a few of your own theories of soccer’s power to explain the modern world. Goodness knows you’ll need to have a few good ones up your sleeve when you’re five drinks in during a quarter-final game.

 

 

June 17, 2010

frontispiece: Polish soccer fans at the 2006 World Cup; graphic and frontispiece from Wikicommons

1. Robert Mackey. “Shakira Remixes African Hit for World Cup,” The Lede on NYTimes.com (May 24, 2010): http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/24/shakira-remixes-african-hit….

 

 

2. United Nations Press Centre. “Football World Cup in South Africa Underlines ‘African Renaissance’—UN Envoy,” UN.org (May 26, 2010): http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=34821&Cr=mdg&Cr1=.

3. Jere Longman. “Don’t Bet on Home Continent in African World Cup,” The New York Times (June 5, 2010): http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/06/sports/soccer/06soccer.html?pagewante….

 

 

4. Alex Duval Smith. “Forget Rio. Spare a Thought for the Nation Holding its Breath for ‘God.’” The Independent (June 9, 2010): http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/forget-rio-spare-a-thoug….

 

Racism, Sports, World Cup