Ever since it was first released, Franklin Foer’s book “How Soccer Explains The World” has been widely talked about. With the leagues over for the summer, I was lucky enough to finally get around to cracking open a copy of the book to kick off my summer soccer reading.
The book’s stated goal is to use the “metaphor of soccer” to address some of the “failures of globalization”. What does Foer see as the “failures of globalization”? Globalization was supposed to homogenize culture and this has not happened, at least not to the extent that was predicted. He also cites the failure of mass investment to eliminate poverty in the countries receiving the investment. Foer attempts to examine this issue in the chapter on Brazilian football. The chapter shows how attempts at globalization and foreign investment have failed to unseat the feudal way that clubs operate. The only connection to globalization, which he fails to make clearly, is how foreign countries (typically a G8 nation like England or Germany) export Brazil’s “natural resource” of talented footballers and derive greater value from that resource. Foer starts to touch on the topic briefly in Chapter 6, when he examines the plight of an African soccer player who has gone to the Ukrainian league in hopes of making it big.
Foer fails to recognize that what is now referred to as “globalization” can be viewed as an age-old human desire to conquer and profit through trade, to spread beliefs and exploit new lands. The strength of Foer’s argument coupling soccer and globalization is debatable but this does not diminish the book as an enjoyable or read nor as one that has something important to say. In fact, the book is better as an argument against the universality of racism and sectarianism. Whether it is the sectarian battles of Rangers and Celtic in Scotland or Spanish dictator Francisco Franco’s oppression of Catalan-based FC Barcelona, soccer has not been exempt from the ills of society. I found the Rangers fan interviewed by Foer to be almost inhumanely sad. I love watching soccer and am passionate about the game but I simply could not get my head around this man’s obsession. Here is someone willing to chuck aside everything, including his wife, for Rangers FC. Why? Other than a few hours a week of entertainment and bigotry, what was Rangers providing him? Foer lauds the man for his knowledge of Scottish Protestant history but I think the religious idealism is just a veil to allow these brutish thugs the excuse to hurl insults and commit acts of violence.
In fact, soccer serves as another example of how an idea or medium can be co-opted for the purposes of propaganda by a group with an agenda to advance. What becomes clear from reading this book is not that soccer helps explain the world but that it reflects the world’s ugliness and beauty in equal measures. We can also see that soccer is more often than not, shaped by the culture of the country, rather than being the sculptor itself. For example, look at the cultural rhetoric that turns up in press interviews by the English national team coach. Steve McLaren has often talked of the team’s need to show “courage” and “character”, qualities that were trumpeted during the Churchill era and even earlier. This chest-beating takes the place of the qualities that make for a truly winning side — tactics and technical skill.
I should take a moment and say that the book is not all doom and gloom. I found the story of the Iranian women who defied orders to not attend soccer games or celebrations for the national team to be uplifting. The story has been chronicled in the recently released film “Offside”. The chapter entitled “Islam’s Hope” puts forth the theory that for a nation like Iran to affect a change from theocratic rule to democracy, a secular nationalism must take place. He suggests that the national soccer team has a unifying affect on the country and that soccer has become a pro-Western, liberal mouthpiece for those feeling oppressed by Islamic law. Not knowing the intricacies of Iranian culture, I cannot say whether Foer’s theory is accurate or not but it was one of the chapters I gave more thought to and enjoyed the most. (Reviewer’s note: Foer has since stated that some of his remarks in the Iranian chapter were taken “more seriously” then he intended. I think it’s a bit naive for him to have thought otherwise.)
I also enjoyed the brief description of Valeri Lobanovsky’s attempt to apply scientific Marxism to soccer tactics. He believed that soccer could be mastered by uncovering the game’s mathematical underpinnings. He created a system of numerical values to signify every “action” in a game. It sounded a lot like a forerunner to the Actim Stats the English Premier League features on its official website.
Despite the book’s failure to successfully defend its thesis, it is a marvelous read and Foer has a clean, conversational prose style. Foer does bring to light connections between soccer and a variety of political and sociological elements but the book is better viewed as a fascinating travelogue through some of the darker elements of the soccer world. Foer documents the lives of some of the ludicrously dedicated fans, those that he refers to as having “transcendent enthusiasm”, with stunning clarity and shows what happens when fandom slips into fanaticism.
The book is available from Amazon.com, Chapters.ca and many other booksellers.