How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization
By Franklin Foer
Any book about Association Football with soccer in the title is ultimately written from an outsider's perspective. Aficionados would never refer to the game as soccer, except in circumstances of coercion or necessity. And they would normally do so with measures of hesitancy and guilt. Les "phoodbol" Murray is a case in point.
No such reservations exist for Franklin Foer, who tours the world examining soccer" as he finds it: Serbia's Red Star Belgrade and its ugly role in Serbian nationalism; Glasgow's sectarian rivalry between Celtic and Rangers; the various corruptions among Italian and Brazilian clubs; the difficulties Nigerian players, on-sold like expensive exotic trinkets, find in the Ukraine; soccer's power to oppose the clerics in Iran.
Each chapter focuses on the ways the game relates to a particular region's culture, politics and economy and I learned something from every one. Some chapters were revelations. The discussion of the great Jewish teams around Europe (but especially in Austria) before World War II is a new aspect on the evil of the Holocaust.
There is, however, something wrong with this book. This is, in part, explained by Foer's failure to show how soccer explains the world. You probably won't finish this book understanding the world any better - though you might be clearer about the way soccer works in various regions. Foer doesn't put forward the promised "theory of globalization" either, aside from the general point that money and players move around more easily and more often than in the past.
But these are just flaws in the structure of the argument. Really disturbing is the echoing S-word, discordant at every point: Glasgow's rivalry is not a soccer rivalry; it's a football rivalry! To give up the word "football" is to give way too much ground. "Football" connotes "the game of the people", wherever it is used.
Foer also uses annoying terminology: players are "ejected" from games and teams are "offensive-minded". Unforgivably, he gets the name of one of the world's best players, Zinedine Zidane, wrong.
Having an American author and publisher, the book is linguistically idiosyncratic. But interpretation is never simply a matter of replacing one dissonant term with one you understand. Foer's idiosyncrasies belie a political project that is intimately linked to America's place in contemporary world politics.Woven through the book are the suggestions that there is good and bad globalisation and that moderate nationalism is about the best form of group identification available to us. Leftism is mocked at every point. Foer will not "dredge up the tired old Marxist criticisms of corporate capitalism", though he seems happy to dish out the dreary truisms of bourgeois liberalism. Murderous thugs are met with faint damnation. Rapacious capital is tut-tutted. AC Milan owner and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi might be corrupt, but at least he is open about it!
Militant political activity is frowned upon - unless it happens to be by progressive activists in a repressive Islamic state. Foer celebrates the behaviour of the women who defied police to get into the stadium in Tehran to celebrate Iran's defeat of Australia in the lead-up to the 1998 World Cup, but is scathing about those who bring a leftist-nationalist agenda to their support of Barcelona. Absurdly, the latter are criticised for consuming cappuccinos at the game.
Tellingly, Foer offers "beer and burgers" as alternative and more appropriate fare for soccer supporters. And this is the point: he is not writing this book for the rest of the world; he is writing it for Americans.
Before reaching its final chapter, How Soccer explains the American Culture Wars, I was ready to dismiss this book as one more offering from a naive American gobsmacked by the difference and complexity of the rest of the world. But this chapter rescues the book. He is speaking to a culture that sees soccer as a socialistic, enfeebling, yuppie game that threatens America's existence: "the United States is perhaps the only place where a loud portion of the population actively disdains the game, even campaigns against it". Foer's explication of the soccer world is for their benefit, not ours.
Many Americans - especially shock jocks - have a visceral reaction to soccer that is stunning in its intensity. Foer sees no conventional political explanation because both sides of American mainstream politics have their lovers and haters of the game. He argues that the American fear of soccer is a fear of globalisation, an argument rich in potential that just doesn't get the airplay it deserves, either in this book or elsewhere.
While this book is written for Americans, many of the arguments of the final chapter are applicable to Australia, especially the conclusion that soccer flounders wherever it fails to take hold in a nation's working class. And that's a lesson for Soccer Australia in its ongoing search for security and success in this country, for its final transition from soccer to football.
Reviewed by Ian Syson.
This reviewed was first published in the Age.