Book Review: How Soccer Explains the World

soccer_world.jpegFranklin Foer’s book How Soccer Explains the World has the subtitle, “an {unlikely} theory of globalization.”

And his title and subtitle are, perhaps, my only quibbles with his excellent book. This isn’t one of those “Worms: How Fat, Soft-bodied Invertebrates Explain Human History” books.

It doesn’t exactly explain the world, though it is very much about globalization. The first part “tries to explain the failure of globalization to erode ancient hatreds in the game’s great rivalries.”

He calls this the “hooligan-heavy section of the book,” and once or twice he comes perilously close to retreading the same ground covered in Bill Buford’s harrowing and amazing Among the Thugs.

But Foer, an editor at the New Republic, goes the extra mile here, and it shows. His first chapter is how about a Serbian a soccer thug who helped organize troops who became murderers in the Balkan War. By the war’s end, the thug’s men had killed at least 2,000 Croats and Bosnians. There’s another, equally fascinating chapter about a soccer rivalry in Scotland inflamed by religious hatred.

The second section is more economic, with an excellent dissection of the disease-ridden state of football in Brazil, a look at Italian oligarchs, and arguably the most globalized chapter, about a Nigerian playing professional soccer in the Ukraine, where “Even the ruddy Ukranians line up in wool hats, long pants, and heavy parkas. Many Nigerians playing in the Ukraine complain bitterly about their inability to maneuver in these temperatures. They say that their frozen feet feel like sledgehammers, while their style of play demands a chisel’s delicacy.”

Apart from readers such as myself reaping the benefits of him roaming the world and watching soccer (in Brazil, Spain, Italy, the Ukraine, Scotland and the US, among others), the book is a whole new reading on politics, sometimes showing a country in an entirely new light as a result. One of the best chapters is about Islam, and the way that soccer has been a liberating influence for people there (especially women). The chapter on Brazil is no less illuminating. There’s even a two-chapter detour into The Jewish Question that describes Hakoah, a soccer team that’s a bona fide Jewish Sports Legend.

For as well informed as the book is about world events, Foer is no less astute when it comes to the US. He makes a fascinating argument that for children who came of age at the same time he did (I’d estimate he’s between 35 and 40), soccer was

a tabula rasa, a sport onto which a generation of parents could project their values. Quickly, soccer came to represent the fundamental tenets of yuppie parenting, the spirit of Sesame Street and Dr. Benjamin Spock. Unlike the other sports, it would foster self-esteem, minimize the pain of competition while still teaching life lessons.

That leads to a strange inversion in the United States: “In every other part of the world, soccer’s sociology varies little: it is the province of the working class.” In the US, as sporting goods surveys show, “children of middle class and affluent families play the game disproportionately.” I found that a shocking conclusion—not because it was wrong, but because my son plays youth soccer, and I still somehow didn’t see how obviously right it is.

In other words, soccer is an elitist sport, and thus derided by sports talk shows and conservatives who see it as yet another unpatriotic symptom in the American liberal disease of Europhilia.

Again, I’m not sure soccer explains the world, but it does make me see it in a whole new way.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: How Soccer Explains the World

  1. I am just entering my quadri-yearly (would that be how one would describe “every four years”) fascination with soccer, as the World Cup is about to start. This book sounds like it would be a great accompaniment, to read during commercials during the games.

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