Simon Kuper Interview: Author of Soccer Men
I recently chatted with Soccernomics co-author Simon Kuper to discuss several topics regarding world soccer. Kuper, whose latest book Soccer Men is now available in stores, talked about what impact (if any) soccer has on politics, as well as how he began his career in journalism.
Alex Fairchild (AF): Could you describe your childhood? How did you end up in Britain after being born in Africa?
Simon Kuper (SK): I was born in Uganda, but I left as a baby. We went to Britain shortly before I turned one. My father is an academic anthropologist and he got a job there. Then we moved around to Jamaica, Sweden, a bit in Britain and when I was seven, we went to live in Holland for much of the rest of my school days.
AF: How has that influenced your writing?
SK: Well, I’m a cosmopolitan, you know. I’m not from anywhere and so I always look at countries from the outside and try to see what’s different about them — try to be nonjudgmental about it. I supposed it’s helped me, with football being such an international game, to understand different countries a bit better.
AF: What led you into journalism? Did your article for World Soccer at the age of 16 start the whole thing?
SK: Yeah. I mean probably like you I’d written in the school magazine and that kind of thing, and when I was 16, speaking Dutch, I was able to write about Dutch players, and on spec I sent this piece to World Soccer and they took it and then they took another couple so that’s how it got going.
AF: In 2010, you wrote an article for ForeignPolicy.com entitled “Soccer Means Nothing.” Doesn’t this contradict your past writings?
SK: The headline’s not mine is what I’m saying. The headline was Foreign Policy’s. I don’t think I would’ve put that on. But, the point I was trying to make is that soccer is a great way to understand the world, so looking at Dutch soccer, American soccer and Spanish soccer allows you to see things in those countries that you might not otherwise see. So, it’s a great lens onto the world. What I was trying to say in that article, and I don’t think the headline quite captures it, is that soccer very rarely changes things. It’s usually not the case that a society changes because of soccer, there’s not a cause or effect usually from soccer. There is sometimes, but it’s very rare.
AF: What was the atmosphere in Berlin like after the Wall fell?
SK: I only went there 10 months afterwards, but everything was in flux. It sort of felt like the whole history of Berlin was present all at once and there were buildings in the East that were war ruins. There were still bullet holes in door ways, and that sort of thing from the fighting in Berlin. And suddenly you saw bit by bit the united Berlin reappear again for the first time in 30 years. There was a bus that would run from the east to the west and it began to run again. They recreated the bus and it went from East to West. When I arrived it was very difficult to get across the city. By the time I left, a year later, you could easily travel from West to East by then. Berlin was recreated.
It had gone in many ways because much of the city was destroyed, so much of these historical eras fighting at the same time and it was the most political time I’ve ever lived through. Everywhere you went, people would talk about politics. Politics was daily life and history was daily life in a way I’ve never seen before.
AF: Describe the emotions of Hertha BSC supporter Helmut Klopfleisch, after the Wall came down.
SK: I think he thought that he had been expelled from East Germany and had been treated very badly there and had suffered terribly. He was a hero of the Cold War really, because he hated communism and he stood for his values, his principles. He was the kind of person Ronald Reagan should’ve embraced and he thought ‘Well now that I’ve been proved right and the system is rotten, all the villains will be punished’ and it didn’t happen. He watched and saw how the communists got off scot-free and kept their villas, etcetera, and he was never rewarded.
I think he was living in a refugee camp when the war ended, because he had just moved across to the West. So it was thrilling, but also very frustrating and I don’t think he has quite got over that. I saw him a year or two ago in Berlin and I think it’s still difficult for him that he was vindicated, but never rewarded for that.
AF: Did the GDR’s defeat of the West in 1974 mean anything politically or was it just a blip of the radar?
SK: As I said earlier I don’t think football changes anything almost ever, so that game didn’t change anything, but it was a great sort of drama of the East vs. West rivalry, it was like an allegory.
AF: When the USSR disbanded did the players free up or were they still highly regimented in their style of play?
SK: I think it took a long time for footballers to change. Guus Hiddink, the Dutch coach, was telling me that he went to Russia and the players were still terrified of making mistakes because there was this sort of top-down hierarchy. If you gave a bad pass, ‘the coach would scream at me,’ so they would give simple passes to avoid error. So that was a kind of timidity around the game and he wanted them to take courage and initiative around the pitch, etcetera and he said only 15 or 20 years later was that starting to break down. It’s not so much to do with having a communist government, but just sort of being raised in communist thinking.
AF: What was your reaction when you found out that Dynamo Kiev was exporting nuclear weapons?
SK: I just thought, “Wow!” I mean I was very young and I thought there was yet to be a book written about soccer and politics. It was much more surprising and exciting than I’d ever expected. I had very little experience going around, interviewing people and doing real journalism, so [for that to be my] first major journalistic experience was astonishing.
AF: Had Hussein not given power over the IOC to his son Uday, would he still be in power? Biya has ruled Cameroon for years and few know about him due to the positive PR the team gets. Could the same have happened in Iraq?
SK: No. Under Saddam they did quite well, qualifying for the World Cup in ‘86. I just don’t think soccer has that kind of power. I think dictators try to use it, but I think the impact is only marginal because the population is quite able to separate the success of the soccer team and their leader. So Spain won the World Cup, but the Socialist government was voted out of office quite soon afterwards. People aren’t that dumb, ‘We won the World Cup, so I’m happy with my dictator…’ Leaders like to think and reason that way, but populations tend to be much more nuanced.
If the US wins every gold medal at the London Olympics, that’s still not going to make the difference for Obama in the election, as it will be decided on other things.
AF: Why do people inside the United States identify with their country during major football tournaments? This seems to only happen in soccer, not baseball or basketball.
SK: In the US, there’s this long history of migrating Americans and part of your history and your pride is that you’re both, so that you’re both American and Italian. To some degree it’s a fantasy. People don’t know their home country anymore. If you’re an Italian-American, living New Jersey, you have very same ideas about what Italy is actually like often, so that fantasy, you think of all the good things — the love, the spaghetti, the good soccer, so you use that to build a positive identity for yourself.
AF: City pride goes right along with cheering on a local team like the Red Sox. Why has soccer expanded beyond cities like Liverpool and London to different countries, while a sport like baseball has not?
SK: In the early ‘90s with more TV channels, soccer spread to TV because it’s such a brilliant game to watch on television and so from the early 90s, loads of countries — the US, Japan, India, China and Australia — people started to see soccer. And once it is seen than more on just the internet and fans now are both local and global. So fans now might be interested in the New England Revolution, but also may be interested in Manchester United and Barcelona. Soccer fans can exist at both levels and enjoy both.
AF: From your newest publication, Soccer Men, it seems that you interviewed lots of footballers. Are players from yesteryear more well-rounded than today’s athletes?
SK: Some I interviewed, some I didn’t. I wrote some of the profiles, some interviews, some not. I think the difference is that now you typically enter top level soccer at age 12, you’re selected for your quality and you do a little bit of school work on the side, but you don’t really mix much with people outside of soccer from the age of 12. That’s how someone like Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo was raised. In Beckenbauer’s day, it was much less of an industry. Beckenbauer did some training as an insurance agent, while he started out his career as a semi-professional.
AF: Why is the market for black managers so scarce? Is this going to pick up anytime soon? Racism or lack of personnel?
SK: I wrote an article a couple weeks ago about this and it sums of my views. Just like the NFL. We saw exactly the same thing in American sports with Jackie Robinson in his days. It’s the usual stereotypes I would say.