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.

Just Don’t Call Us “Rich”

Reuters Life! recently ran a story (perversely enough, I saw it on Yahoo! … can we stop with the exclamation points now?!!) titled, “More U.S. millionaires are middle-class.”

Interesting title eh? More interesting was a sentence in the first paragraph: “New research has found that more and more Americans worth at least $1 million want luxury goods such as yachts but otherwise lead family-focused, work-oriented lives.”

The Reuters story is regurgitating the results of research by “private wealth specialists” Lewis Schiff and Russ Alan Prince, for their upcoming book, “The Middle Class Millionaire: The Rise of the New Rich and How they are Changing America.”

After trotting out some statistics about the rich getting richer (and that’s what millionaires are, not middle-class), they add this: “But instead of entering the echelons of the elite, these new millionaires adhere to middle-class values, earning their money rather than inheriting it, working 70 hours a week, and choosing neighborhoods based on the quality of schools.”

Let’s pick apart what’s going on in this story, shall we?

1) The concept of “middle-class” is miraculously fungible, somehow applying to people worth over $1 million, and those households—not individuals—earning $48,000 a year (the US median).

However, nearly everyone in the U.S. is deluded into thinking they’re part of the middle-class, either middle-class, upper-middle-class, and lower-middle-class (if you don’t believe me, find someone to tell you they grew up working-class or grew up rich). Barbara Ehrenreich argues, persuasively I think, that there’s an all-pervasive set up assumptions in the U.S. that are middle-class assumptions, many of which are cemented during college (which is essentially the middle-class guild). Her book “Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class” is particularly good on this.

2) The Reuters story completely ignores what’s going on in the story, even when one of the authors identifies himself as a “private wealth specialist”—he’s studying the wealthy!

3) Instead, the story uncritically adopts the authors’ catch-phrase: “They found that 89 percent of middle-class millionaires believed anyone could attain wealth through hard work.” Note that tiresome repetition of the American myth, that wealth (oops, there’s that word again!) is attainable through hard work.

4) But the story isn’t even consistent about this. After some more “middle-class millionaires are better than you and me” factoids

“They are much more outgoing and involved in the community than the very affluent who tend to be more insular and react with fewer people,” Schiff said.

He said the four main characteristics of a millionaire were that they were hard working, networked, persistent even in the face of failure, and put themselves in the flow of money.

The paragraph argues:

“The authors argue this new group has a strong influence on spending, shaping the habits of their middle class counterparts and impacting certain product sectors ranging from yachting to jewelery to handbags.” (Anything wrong with that? Yep.)

Hold the handbag. Are they middle-class, or are they rich? If they’re rich, they buy yachts. If they’re middle-class, they don’t.

The story then quotes the president and CEO of marine lender KeyBank Luxury Yacht Lending, who says demand for 80-foot and up yachts is way up. “The new buyers really value leisure time as they have so little time,” he told Reuters. Um … WTF does lack of leisure time have to do with it?

The end of the story (thank God):

“When you’re very wealthy you look for exclusive expressions of affluence and when these are more available to a larger number of people they lose their exclusivity so they want something new and innovative,” said Schiff.

“This means the top one percent has to find a new way to express their affluence and we are seeing this most commonly through technology.”

Decoded, that means the rich have to keep finding ways to prove they’re NOT just like you and me. So yachting has nothing to do with leisure time. It’s an expression of affluence. In other words, as a concept (and probably as a book), “middle-class millionaire” is bullshit.


Join the middle class, and this too could be yours.