Interviews July 2004

Soccerworld

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

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.

Do you think the fact that America hasn't really gotten soccer has to do with our cultural insularity?

Not really. It's hard to come up with an explanation for why the game didn't catch on here. In the end, I think what it comes down to is simply that the original American soccer leagues of the early twentieth century were mismanaged and didn't have their act together. The game ended up becoming ghettoized.

I thought it was interesting how you linked Americans' attitudes toward soccer with the new culture wars—explaining how those in favor of globalization have become fans, whereas those who are circling the cultural wagons tend to be anti-fans. And these soccer haters are spread across the political spectrum.

Right. There's a correlation between soccer haters and baseball lovers. Baseball is really the sport that's most threatened by soccer. Baseball is one of the transcendent American traditions. And the fact that it's been in decline for the past quarter century, in terms of player participation, television ratings, and so on, makes a lot of people uncomfortable. You could say that baseball is, in some respects, not a victim of globalization, but a sport that has failed to master the age of globalization. I'm more optimistic about soccer's long-term health than about baseball's. Not that I'm saying baseball will disappear. Far from it.

You wrote that teen participation in baseball dropped forty-seven percent between 1987 and 2000. That doesn't sound good.

I think one of the most discouraging things about the fate of baseball is its failure to move beyond white kids, which is actually the perfect symbol for what I'm saying. It hasn't been able to acquire a truly cosmopolitan outlook. Yes, it's still popular in the Caribbean. But once Latino kids come to the United States, second generation Latino kids don't seem to be drawn to the game. And African-American participation in the sport has declined. That isn't a healthy sign.

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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 Salon.com, Mother Jones, and The Atlantic Online. His work will appear in Best American Travel Writing 2004.

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