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

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?

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.

Presented by

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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