Wide World of Sports

Soccer mirrors globalization and its discontents.


How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization, by Franklin Foer, New York: HarperCollins, 261 pages, $24.95

These days one rarely remembers that soccer legends once traveled to America to die in that elephant's cemetery known as the North American Soccer League. Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, George Best, Johann Cruyff (who returned to Europe for a few good years), and countless others alighted Stateside to kick a ball around in a country where, even today, professional soccer has not gotten over its image as a distraction for Eurotrash sissies.

In one chapter of How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization, Franklin Foer evokes this alleged effetism by using soccer to help explain America's culture wars. Foer distinguishes two camps that emerged in the U.S. after 9/11. One is cosmopolitan, shares values with Europe, opposes war in Iraq, and, presumably, is amenable to soccer; the other believes in American exceptionalism, views Europeans as lax and degraded, and regards soccer as "a symbol of the U.S. junking its tradition to 'get with the rest of the world's program.'"

Foer adds that there are exceptions to his dichotomy, and that soccer is a "small touchstone" in the culture wars. But despite the overreach, his book largely succeeds in fulfilling its ambitions: to explain just how soccer and culture interact and, more specifically, to see how soccer works against a backdrop of globalization. It is an often brave effort to make sense of a baffling counterpoint. The first third of the book explores globalization's failure to erode the game's great rivalries and the hatreds they can produce. The second uses soccer to address economics: migration, corruption, the rise of soccer oligarchies. The third uses the game to defend the persistence of nationalism as "a way to blunt the return of tribalism." A running theme is the distance between soccer reality and soccer image.

This discrepancy afflicts the author as well as his subjects. Take his favorite team, F.C. Barcelona. It says a lot about Foer that he supports Barca–or so he tells us. "If you have liberal politics and yuppie tastes," he writes, "it isn't easy to find a corner of the soccer firmament that feels like home….Barca elegantly fills this vacuum. Over the course of its history, it has self consciously announced its sophistication." The team is not surrounded by a "cloud of virulent racism," and it isn't an impersonal "multinational conglomerate" like Manchester United or Juventus of Turin. Indeed, Barcelona is alone in not advertising on its jersey, "to show that it resides on a higher plane than the base world of commerce."

So here you have one of the wealthiest teams in Spain, whose products can be bought in virtually any major city in the world, which has plundered many a lesser squad to replenish its endless carnival of talent–and somehow it disdains commerce? Foer's attitude reveals an ambiguity in the author himself: He clearly likes it that the club can behave so uncommercially, yet in an earlier chapter he mocks some fans of Inter Milan for seeking to impose a left-wing, anti-globalization identity on a team no less wealthy than Barca, one that has dribbled through globalized soccer as adroitly.

Evidently, the world's most popular sport is also a monument to role playing, with fans adopting multiple identities through their clubs. Some of these can be very disturbing: Many hard-core European fan clubs are nationalist, even racist; Belgrade's infamous Red Star fans, for example, formed the core of Arkan's Tigers, a militia devoted to ethnic cleansing.

That said, most fans are not budding Arkans, and even soccer bigotry is often more part of the ritual of collective fan identity than a true call to violent action.

That doesn't make it less loathsome, of course, but for a phenomenon to be understood, some lucidity is demanded. As author Tim Parks wrote in his ode to Italian soccer, A Season With Verona (strangely absent from Foer's bibliography, though he did interview Parks), for the soccer fan, "Identity is more important than morality. Extremism offers an excitement that moderation cannot afford."

Some will find this an unsatisfactory explanation, but it goes to the heart of modern fandom: The stadium, like many a subculture, is frequently an outlet for the forbidden, for what group members can share collectively without outside intrusion. This phenomenon can be noble–Barca was a stronghold of anti-Franco Catalan nationalism–or it can be repellent.

Foer writes of the rivalry between Glasgow's predominantly Catholic-supported Celtic and mostly Protestant-supported Rangers (a Scotsman once refused to tell me which team he supported, claiming I was trying to ascertain his religion): "The city has kept alive its soccer tribalism, despite the logic of history, because it provides the city with a kind of pornographic pleasure."

When Foer refers to "the logic of history," he means the idea that "once a society becomes economically advanced, it [becomes] politically advanced–liberal, tolerant." Foer's tour of the soccer world shows the inconsistent sway of that rule. Rome has a team, Lazio, which is known for its racist fan clubs, but Rome is no bastion of racist strife. It's best to avoid too wantonly blurring society and soccer team, as Foer does. Soccer is plainly a motor of globalization, with its international appeal and its bouncing of players from one continent to the next. (Sierra Leone's Mohammed Kallon now plays in Monaco, starred in Milan, and began his career in modest Lebanon, at the subterranean Tyre team.) But the sport also cannot be shoehorned into an ideal mold of globalization, even as globalization cannot quite set its foot straight in world soccer.

George Orwell, rarely wrong on matters of greater import, missed the point when describing how much he loathed soccer, which was "not really played for the pleasure of kicking a ball about, but is a species of fighting." Yes, it is a species of fighting, but mostly a nonviolent version, where spectators can yet escape the language of enforced harmony. It allows a choice of identity, and though that choice can be distressing, it often isn't –and it can advance global affability as well.