Interviews July 2004


Franklin Foer, the author of How Soccer Explains the World, on what soccer has to tell us about globalization, identity politics, and the future of baseball

I can explain it using a sports metaphor. The Olympics are an event that's all about international cooperation. People are supposed to be representing their nations, but fundamentally it's done in the spirit of human solidarity. The Olympics explicitly emphasize that it's just a game and that nations are kind of a meaningless concept. As a result, the Olympics are never able to generate anywhere near the excitement and passion that the World Cup or the European soccer championships generate.

We wring our hands about nationalism because there are so many instances of nationalism leading to grim finales. But I think if you look at the whole scope of human history, you see that the nation-state has worked a lot better than most of the other ways we've messed around with for organizing ourselves; it works better than organizing ourselves as tribes, for example, or as families or ethnic groups. The nation-state is a very flexible, pluralistic concept. My worry about globalization is that if we start to move toward much broader identities, like "We're all Europeans," or "We're all Latin Americans," those identities will be too vague to mean very much, and we'll revert to more ancient ways of thinking about ourselves. We'll become more tribal.

The recent European elections seem to have been about as anticlimactic as the Olympics.

The European elections are the perfect example of how these larger identities are pretty much destined to fall on their face.

So the Olympics are a watered down nationalism?

The Olympics are the great fantasy of globalism. It's a lovely fantasy, and one that we all indulge in—that the human race somehow transcends all these various differences, and that ultimately we can all get along and cooperate.

But soccer tells us something else?

Take the Barcelona soccer club. By all accounts, the Catalans should have no use for their self-identity as Catalans. They're very prosperous members of the Spanish nation. Their history is preserved and protected and under no threat. Yet they still demonstrate this essential human impulse to identify with the group. It's evidenced by their enthusiasm for the soccer club FC Barcelona, which is a great symbol of the Catalan nation.

You talk in your book about how civilized the Barcelona fans are. But aren't there are a lot more examples of the opposite—the ugly side of identifying with soccer teams?

Absolutely. The game shows the dark side of group identity in spades. I don't think soccer teams are good proxies for the nation state. I think Barcelona is unique, in that it's a proxy form of nationalism. In most instances soccer fans are identifying with a tribe—with a neighborhood or a religious group.

What do you make of the fact that America has played such a central role in globalization, but until recently has remained such a banana republic in the soccer world?

That's a great question. I think we tend to tell the story of globalization from the perspective of the United States. And for a lot of the last decade, the entire world has equated globalization with the United States. But as it turns out, that's not the full story. First of all, the multinational corporations are really the great engines of globalization. And they're not promoting American interests. They're promoting their own interests. They want to change the United States the same way they want to change the rest of the world—to sell the various kinds of cultural products they have to sell. Secondly, there's the phenomenon of Islam, which disproves the old narrative that globalization represents the Americanization of the world. Islam has spread incredibly quickly as a globalizing phenomenon. What that shows is that globalization isn't about the spread of one specific set of cultural assumptions. It's more about how the media and the international economy have made the world smaller. They've made it easier for products and ideas to spread from one country to another—whatever those ideas or products might be.

So is David Beckham the poster child for globalization?

Yes—I think he works quite well for that. He's his own multinational conglomerate—an incredible franchise who's able to sell himself to Asians, Europeans, and, maybe next, to the United States.

I was living in Thailand last year, and he was super popular there.

At the famous Pariwas Temple in Bangkok, the Monks even have a shrine to Beckham. And the Manchester United fanzine has something like 30,000 subscribers in Thailand.

People went crazy when the team came to Asia.

There are all sorts of weird ways in which identity gets tangled up. Take Bangladesh. During the last World Cup, there was a riot there between supporters of the Brazilian soccer team and supporters of the Argentinian team. Now why would these Bangladeshis identify so strongly with Brazil and Argentina? I mean, I can understand that if they don't have their own successful soccer team, they might direct their team spirit elsewhere. But why would they then feel so passionate about those teams that they would beat each other up and kill each other over them?

In England there's a club officially called Tottenham. But it calls itself the Yiddos, and, even though the players aren't Jewish, they've developed this whole Jewish identity. One of the things that it shows is how group identifity can almost be manufactured. It's something that we can adopt incredibly easily. In a way it's reassuring because it suggests that perhaps ancient hatreds can disappear if people are properly marketed to. But on the other hand, it's pretty freaky that people can feel so passionate about identities that they have no reason—by birth, anyway—to feel so strongly about. A lot of times those passions are stoked by people who are just out to make a buck. This whole commodification of identity—tribalism as brand—has the potential to flourish. To me, that's a really frightening concept.

I noticed you didn't mention Argentine superstar Diego Maradona at all in the book. What do you think his downfall says about the global celebrity complex?

Maradona is his own unique case study. As a player, he was done in by his love of the fiesta. I give Maradona a lot of credit as a player. He was an individualist not just on the field, but also in the way he stood up to clubs and to the whole marketing apparatus, and was always a rebel. But he became a little too rebellious for my tastes—shacking up in Cuba and allowing himself to become one of the leading international apologists for Castro. But I respect the guy for the way he became the un-Pele. Pele was the quintessential marketing mascot, and allowed himself to be the spokesman for everything from Viagra to—ultimately—the Brazilian military junta. He pretty much allowed the system to exploit him to the max, in a way Maradona never consented to.

I saw Maradona play in his last game before he got arrested in 1991. He was amazing. He was fat and probably coked out and he hardly ran at all. But he still made three assists for goals.

For me, Maradona is everything that's great about the sport. He was short. He was fat. And he was the best in the world. Soccer is a game for everyone, unlike so many American sports. You don't have to be 6'11", or 400 pounds, or take massive amounts of steroids to play. It's so much more about skill and basic fitness—or not even basic fitness, as the case of Maradona proves. One of the great elements of the game's mythology is that you can have these almost semi-professional sides come in and take out the best teams in the world. There should be something refreshing for Americans about a game where a short, fat guy can be one of the best people in it.

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Frank Bures is a writer in Madison, Wisconsin. He has lived in Italy, Tanzania, New Zealand, and Thailand and has written for, Mother Jones, and The Atlantic Online. His work will appear in Best American Travel Writing 2004.

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