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Soccer doesn’t explain the world. But it can help you fall in love with it.

Franklin Foer and I have a few things in common. We’re both in our early thirties, both grew up in the suburbs of east coast US cities, raised by liberal parents who pushed us towards soccer, the progressive, globalized, nonviolent sport of choice for seventies and eighties US parents. Oh, and we both sucked at the game. Don’t cry too hard for Foer – he’s gone on to become editor of the New Republic. Or for me – I’ve always been better suited for sumo anyway.

But his soccer inadequecy is clearly a serious issue for Foer, who responded to his childhood humiliation by becoming a passionate soccer fan. This is harder than it sounds to my non-US readers. Other than coverage of the World Cup every four years – and then generally only the games the US played – there basically was no televised soccer in the US until the rise of MLS, our professional soccer league, about a decade ago. But Foer bought a satellite dish, followed his beloved Barcelona FC in newspapers and on the Internet, and felt a level of passion for the game that seems almost un-American.

(And another aside – Hating soccer is a surprisingly popular and uncontroversial stance in the US. Otherwise rational sports reporters will start a piece on soccer with the disclaimer “Let’s spend just a moment on soccer, since that’s all it deserves.” A love of soccer brands you as a Euro-sympathizer, a position that’s become somewhat dangerous in our increasingly isolationist society.

By the way, I understand that the game is properly called “football” or “fútbol”. I’m using the word “soccer” because it’s the word Foer uses. You’ll be unsurprised to discover that the use of the “s-word” makes his book very controversial with non-US reviewers…)

Foer wrote a book – How Soccer Explains the World – with me as his target market. (This is not neccesarily as dumb as it sounds. I buy a lot of books.) This is not because his book is subtitled “an [unlikely] theory of globalization” and because I think a lot about globalization.

It’s because I’d really like to like soccer more than I do.

I’m an open minded, globally oriented guy. I’m a sports fan – I can tell you far more about the Green Bay Packers, the Boston Red Sox, or sumo wrestler Asashoryu than I’d care to admit. I watch soccer when I travel – in stadiums in Africa, in hotel rooms in Europe – and I’ll put on my shiny yellow Black Stars shirt and root for Ghana when they compete in the upcoming World Cup. But I’d be lying if I called myself a soccer fan.

Foer, wisely, doesn’t try to explain the beauty of the game or convert his reader to fandom. Instead, he tries to document the critical importance of soccer in understanding the culture, politics, history and economics of many corners of the world. The journey is intended to begin with the dark sides of game – violence, hooliganism, ultra-nationalism – and move gradually to the joys of globalization – intercultural, cross-global encounters made possible through the wonder of soccer. And while the arc doesn’t quite work for me, the stories Foer tells as he spends a year travelling the world in search of the soul of soccer globalization are worth the trip.

One of the challenges of becoming a soccer fan is picking a side with minimally offensive politics and traditions. As a Protestant with family ties to Scotland, I seem like a likely candidate to support Glasgow Rangers. But, as Foer discovers, attending a match at the Rangers Ibrox stadium dressed in all black (to avoid either Celtic green or Rangers blue or orange), this appears to involve singing a lot of songs that advocate making Glasgow’s streets run red with Catholic blood. Despite respecting the history of the sectarian tensions of The Old Firm, Foer finds this a bit much – isn’t globalization supposed to make us less racist, more openminded, more modern? How is it that, a century after Irish immigrants flocked to Glasgow’s shipyards, reasonable people hurl racist abuse at one another, much of it referring back to tensions created by the Protestant reformation?

While Rangers and Celtic fans manage to send each other to hospital with remarkable frequency, they’re certainly not alone in the world of football hooliganism. And they’ve got nothing on Red Star Belgrade, whose violent supporters became a defacto paramilitary for Serbian nationalists, attacking Muslims and Croats. Foer begins his book with a visit to the “Ultra Bad Boys”, a fan club for Red Star which has offices within the team’s stadium… and a history of dressing in their opponent’s jerseys, picking up fans of rival teams, beating them and leaving them for dead in rural areas. Guess I won’t be supporting that club either.

Foer supports FC Barcelona, a polidesportiu (a multi-sport organization) associated with Catalan nationalism and resistance to Franco (who supported Real Madrid). He constrasts the peaceful Catalan nationalism associated with Barça with more virulent Serbian nationalism in a chapter titled “How Soccer Explains the Discreet Charm of Bourgeois Nationalism”. Barça seems to embody the hopes Foer has for soccer – and, indeed, for the world – that pride in one’s unique cultural history will balance with cosmopolitan openness to other people and cultures. Rangers’ chief crime, in his view, was their unwillingness to put a Catholic player on the pitch until 1989… by way of contrast, he sees Barça’s willingness to accept anyone as a potential non-violent Catalonian nationalist as their strength, celebrating the career of Hristo Stoichkov, a Bulgarian who became a beloved striker to the team… and who wore a t-shirt promoting Catalonian independence under his game jersey.

These sorts of cross-cultural encounters are the source of hope to Foer. He celebrates the internationalization of the European game with a look into the life of Nigerian player Edward Anyamkyegh, who found himself first for Moldovan side Sheriff FC and then for Karpaty Lviv in Western Ukraine. And he’s encouraged by stories of women in Teheran dressing in baggy men’s clothing so they can root for the national side in the stadium, despite a ban on women’s attendance.

Ultimately, this is why I’m so fond of the book, despite its utter and complete failure to provide a framework for understanding globalization. Foer is a globophile. Soccer helps him discover – and fall in love with – the world. What’s so exciting about his book is that Foer’s genuinely excited to discover each of the nations where soccer takes him, to discover and celebrate history, the good and the bad, and attempt to gain an understanding even of most evil and outcast… like AC Milan.

Foer concludes his introduction with this observation: “…I found it hard to be too hostile towards globalization, For all its many faults, it has brought soccer to the far corners of the world and into my life.” As an unabashed globophile, I’m forced to conclude that I can’t be too hostile to soccer, as it clearly has helped Foer fall in love with the wider world, a romance I wish more people could experience.

4 thoughts on “Soccer doesn’t explain the world. But it can help you fall in love with it.”

  1. Hmmm but then what do you do when your beloved team’s management makes a deal that goes against everything you stand for outside of football? I speak of Arsenal’s £350,000 (a gift) deal to promote tourism in Israel via video clips, players shirts, pitch adverts, the website and anywhere else Chairman David Dein can think of. I am saddened – I mean you cant just switch off supporting a team after 20 odd years but at the same time I cant see myself buying another Gunner shirt – thats if I dont put all my shirts, scarfs and hats to bed – there is Barca…but there it is more about the great Ronaldinho and E’to and the team’s history (anti Franco) that impresses me than any real love! And some people still insist football is not political? Oh the dilemmas of a football supporter!

  2. Sorry Ethan – I am leaving comments all over the place – this belongs here: Correction: I put Chairman instead of Vice Chair for David Dein

  3. If you enjoyed this Ethan, and are curious about Latin America, I strongly, strongly recommend ‘Futebol’, by Alex Bellos, which has a similar theme, but focused exclusively on Brazil. Does a great job of covering Brazilian politics, geography, personality, and economics, etc., all through the futebol lens. I really enjoyed it.

  4. I loved Foer’s book. I used his chapter on Cverna Zvezda as well as this article by Peter Maass (http://www.petermaass.com/core.cfm?p=1&mag=42&magtype=1) as the introduction to a paper on the dissolution of Yugoslavia, and it worked quite well.

    As a Chelsea supporter, it’s really quite easy to reconcile your support for a club with the violent behavior of a minority of its “fans”. I see it similar to my support for the USA. My patriotism isn’t diminished by the idiotic jingoistic actions of a minority (sometimes it seems like a majority) of fellow Americans. Similarly, the Chelsea Headhunter gang doesn’t stop me from supporting Chelsea, especially as the club itself condemns violence, racism, etc.

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