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

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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.

—Frank Bures

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Franklin Foer


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?

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.

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.