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

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.

Do you think it's doomed?

It's not doomed, but I think its place in the culture will diminish.

Along with American identity?

I don't think so. That's the argument that Sam Huntington makes in his new book—that immigration and globalization pose a threat to American identity. But I don't see that happening. I think Americans are pretty secure about their national identity. The reason for that is because we celebrate immigration and pluralism as part of our national creed. To me accepting soccer as a national sport would only be in keeping with traditional American-ness, not a destruction of it.

So Sam Huntington is probably a baseball fan.

I guess so.

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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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