How Soccer Explains the World
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by Franklin Foer
272 pages, $24.95
Humankind is rarely more united than once every four years when it comes together for a worship service known as the World Cup. Across the planet, fans watch riveted as Davids slay Goliaths, and Goliaths come raging back. In the last tournament, there were 1.5 billion pairs of eyes fixed on the final match, as Germany battled Brazil for a trophy more prized than any other in the world.
For all its influence as a unifier, however, soccer can also be a powerful divider, and the clannishness it arouses often flows into the streets and beyond—into politics, finance, and deep into the psyches of its fans. Writer Franklin Foer got his first taste of this madness on a 1994 trip through Europe, when he stumbled upon a free entry day at the Spanish soccer club's Barcelona museum. There, in a parking lot packed with people of all ages and from all stations in life, he observed what he describes as their "transcendent enthusiasm." It was, Foer explains, like being a nonbeliever witnessing a religious pilgrimage. And as he watched the faithful pay homage, he too began to believe.
But rather than let his newfound fervor devolve into the kind of pipe-wielding hooliganism he witnessed in other fans, Foer—a self-described egghead—took his love of the game down a more high-minded road. After nearly a decade of thoughtful observation of the game and its place in society, he has written a book on the subject, How Soccer Explains the World, in which he draws a connection between soccer and the politics of identity.
After World War II, the world began an accelerated phase of integration. The founding of the United Nations seemed to herald a new era of internationalism, and to some, it looked as though national identities might disappear. In the soccer world, this integration was especially rapid and intense. Teams began crossing European borders to play one another, then playing all over the world. Soon they began trading players as if borders meant nothing, and clubs began to look like UN committees. But the national identities didn't fade away. Nor did local ones. If anything, they have grown stronger and more complex.
Foer argues that the craving for group identity is hardwired in us, and that as a result, soccer players and fans have latched onto all kinds of identities to associate with each team, be it a neighborhood, an ethnicity, or a religion. The passions surrounding those teams and what they represent sometimes run dangerously high.
Since soccer is arguably the most globalized phenomenon in the world, Foer maintains that it offers important clues about what to expect from globalization in other arenas, such as economics and politics. Throughout the book he explores what soccer can tell us about everything from racism, to government corruption, to Islamic reformism, and even America's culture wars.
Foer is an associate editor at The New Republic and a contributing editor at New York Magazine.
We spoke recently by phone.
Could you say a little about how you got into soccer?
Like the child of many other yuppie parents in the 1980s, I was expected to play soccer. It was what every kid played. Unfortunately, I was probably one of the worst players in the entire history of American youth soccer. I was one of those guys who would run in the opposite direction from the ball. Of course, I say "one of those guys," but I'm not sure anyone else did that. So there's undoubtedly a psycho-biographical explanation for my interest. I guess I wanted to learn more about it in order to master it in some way, even if I can't do it on the field. I actually do still play. I'm in an indoor league. But I'm pretty awful. When you're responsible for almost all the goals that get scored against your team, it certainly takes a toll on your ego.
How would you summarize the insight into globalization that soccer gives us? How is it different from the kind of view we'd get from Joseph Stiglitz, Benjamin Barber, or Samuel Huntington?
My book's assumption is that, because there's no more globalized phenomenon in the world than the game of soccer, there are few better ways of studying how globalization will shake out than by looking at the game. As eggheads, we tend to neglect the study of pop culture in favor of studying politics and economics more conventionally. But I think the study of globalization has suffered as a result.
So soccer is a place where those worlds intersect?
Yes. The game has all sorts of political subtexts, and you're dealing with multinational corporations. You don't have to dig that deep to find the weightier issues associated with the game. If you were to write about American baseball on the other hand, or the NBA, you'd have to strain to dig out the politics. I'm sure politics are associated with those sports in some form or fashion, but the connection isn't so readily apparent. With soccer, on the other hand, you have this long history of politicians from Franco to Mussolini to Margaret Thatcher commenting on the game. And when they do, they're usually making some sort of explicitly political point. That makes soccer a ripe target for this sort of treatment.
There's also a clear difference between American sports franchises and soccer clubs around the world. American sports franchises represent very broad geographic areas. The greatest compliment you can pay an American sports team is that they're "America's team." But soccer clubs represent communities or neighborhoods. And when you're representing a neighborhood, you're representing a very specific segment of the population. Soccer clubs become proxies for ethnicity, class, religion, or social caste. That makes them inherently more political. So soccer matches usually signify a clash of religions, classes, and castes. To me, that's what makes the game so thrilling to watch. There's always some elevated stake to the game.
Do you think that's part of why soccer has gotten such a firm grip on the world's imagination?
I do. For all the globalization that it obviously embodies, in most cases soccer is still firmly rooted in the local. Your identification with a particular soccer club has a lot to do with how you define yourself as a human being. That's part of why the game is responsible for so much violence. It has this dark side associated with its fan culture, because the clubs represent so much more than just what city you live in.
Do you think if soccer hadn't developed, some other sport would have emerged in its place?
I do think so. But there's something unique about soccer that helps it spread around the world. You don't need a lot of equipment—you can play it with a ball made of rags. So it's easy to play anywhere. And the fact that there aren't a lot of complicated rules means that language never becomes a barrier.
In your book, you write that "humans crave identifying with a group. It is an unavoidable, immemorial, hardwired instinct." And that, "To deny this craving is to deny human nature and human dignity." Can you explain that a little more?