Globalization has long the bailiwick of think-tank lifers, turgid economists, and tiresome, hemp-clad protesters. But in his breezy and smart How Soccer Explains the World, Franklin Foer makes the subject accessible, compelling, and droll with thorough reporting and nimble prose.
Armed with a broad definition of his topic—in addition to the spread of international economic growth, Foer’s “globalism” encompasses everything from the spread of sporting hooliganism to the rise of women’s rights in historically regressive countries—the author takes the reader to the U.K., Brazil, Italy, the former Yugoslavia, Spain, Austria, Ukraine, and Iran. The idea, as he puts it, is to use soccer—its fans, its players, and strategies—as a way of thinking about how people would identify themselves in this new era. Would they embrace new, more globalized labels? Would people stop thinking of themselves as English and Brazilian and begin to define themselves as Europeans and Latin Americans? Or would those new identities be meaningless, with shallow roots in history?
To be honest, some of what he finds along the way is less the result of globalism than a simpler form of internationalism. And, in typical magazine-argument style, he tends to overstate his case. But there’s more than enough here for Foer, a staff writer at the New Republic, to rest a solid argument upon, the argument being that soccer is emblematic of significant social shifts (and stasis) both here and abroad. He makes his point with a mix of wit, smarts, and shoe leather.
In Eastern Europe, Foer encounters a cadre of roughneck supporters of the Serbian soccer club known as Red Star Belgrade. This gang of thugs is so ruthless that it has been known to pound the tar out of Red Star players suspected of giving less than their all. Big deal, right? Aren’t hooligans acting out in soccer-mad nations across the globe? And haven’t they been doing so for decades? Sure, but Foer makes a persuasive argument that the nature of Red Star’s most violent followers—they call themselves “the Ultra Bad Boys”—can be at least partially attributed to internationalism’s dark side. In the ’90s, Foer notes, “An ethos of gangsterism—spread by movies, music, and fashion—conquered the world. The Red Star fans modeled themselves after foreigners they admired, especially the Western European hooligans.” It’s a form of fandom that also “borrowed heavily from African American gangster rap, a favorite genre of Serb youth, and filched mores from the emerging Russian mafia. Gangsterism and its nihilistic violence had become fully globalized.”
Later, Foer meets up with a man who is something of a soccer hooliganism pioneer. A fan of the West London club Chelsea, Alan Garrison comes off as a Sartre-esque ruffian. “If football violence doesn’t take place in the stadium, is it even football violence?” he wonders.
Foer describes how, in true “globalist” fashion, Garrison is among those who have effectively recast themselves as consultants to a generation of aspiring young hooligans. He writes, “While Alan doesn’t fight regularly, he and the other semiretired Chelsea hooligans advise and mentor a group of teens that calls itself the Youth Firm.” Garrison told Foer, “We help them plan. And then when [a brawl] goes off, we stay back with a map and mobile phone.”
Brazilian soccer, meanwhile, has been ravaged by another form of globalism—the international trade in players. About 5,000 players from that nation are signed to play for teams in other countries, including two-thirds of the roster of Brazil’s 2002 World Cup championship club.
But if the cross-border movements of players has deprived some fans of their greatest national treasures, it has had more than a few positive byproducts. England’s Chelsea club, for example, which imported Italian and Dutch coaches and at times has fielded an all-foreign team, “has been transformed by globalization and gentrification,” Foer writes. “It went from the club most closely identified with hooliganism in the eighties to the club most identified with cosmopolitanism in the nineties.” Foer’s brand of globalism has also exposed soccer fans to exotic styles of play; in recent years fans in Ukraine have learned about the artful Nigerian game (lots of passes, free-floating offensive formations) from transplanted Africans. And fans of the U.K.’s Tottenham club—Jews and non-Jews alike—have beaten back anti-Semitism by embracing the club’s Jewish heritage.
Upheaval has simultaneously occurred among the boosters of Iranian soccer. After the national team qualified for the World Cup in 1997, thousands of Iranian women disobeyed government orders and turned out for a celebration at a stadium in Tehran. It was a deeply important and symbolic event that has since come to be called the “football revolution.” Still, Foer can’t leave it at that. “Like the Boston Tea Party,” he writes, “it will go down as the moment when the people first realized that they could challenge their tyrannical rulers.” Need it be said that Foer tends to overreach?
And occasionally, he’s also plain wrong. In the book’s final chapter, he claims that Major League Baseball “hasn’t made the least attempt to market itself to a global audience.” The league, as it happens, has staged dozens of games in Mexico and Asia over the past few years and welcomed the army of Japanese press that chronicles the every move of the Seattle Mariners’ Ichiro Suzuki and the Yankees’ Hideki Matsui. And try as he does, the best Foer can do to support his claim that “soccer explains the American culture wars” is to trot out a couple of sports pundits who seem to share an irrational loathing of the game.
But the book’s handful of flaws are overshadowed by its charm and good humor. From Belgrade, Foer recounts his meeting with a soccer hooligan named Krle: “In an aside to my translator, which he didn’t tell me about until after our interview, Krle announces, ‘If I met this American asshole on the street, I’d beat the shit out of him.’” After a bit more discussion, Foer wisely decides to tuck his notebook between his legs and head back to his hotel. In England, he mixes with rowdy fans who miss the free-for-all fighting of pre-globalist days, a group for whom “this new mode of appointment hooliganism trampled the pleasure of pure art.” And from Italy, he reports that native-born men—“the most foppish representatives of their sex on the planet”—morph into conservative defensive specialists when they take to the pitch.
Foer, for his part, takes to his beloved game with verve. Though, as he says at the outset, he’s not much of a player—“I suck at soccer,” he writes—he is surely one of America’s best writers on the sport. (That, of course, is not saying much.) He strives too hard for significance from time to time, and some of what he sees isn’t globalism even in the loosest sense. But he’s knowledgeable enough to render his strongest judgments almost irrefutable—and glib enough that his least convincing points don’t undermine his entire argument.CP