What’s in a title? Writers often disown–or at least deny culpability for–the titles their editors attach to their work even as readers frequently read too much into them. I don’t know if Franklin Foer is responsible for the title of his new book–How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization–but it is exactly the type of title than can drive picky readers crazy. It is right out of a Coffee Talk sketch–it neither explains the world nor contains a theory of globalization (talk amongst yourselves). But if you can get past the over-reaching title, you will enjoy what is in essence a collection of essays on the interaction of culture, politics, and soccer.
Foer begins the book with the blunt statement: “I suck at soccer.” Despite his lack of physical prowess, however, Foer grew up to love the game and follow it intensely. As a political reporter–mostly for The New Republic–Foer soon got caught up in the debates about globalization and its effects. It wasn’t too long before he began to wonder about the connection between these two worldwide phenomena, and like all good journalists, he decided to write a book about it. This required him to undertake, as Foer puts it: “the (oh-so-arduous) task of traveling the world, attending soccer matches, watching training sessions, and interviewing his heroes.” Tough work if you can get it!
So what did Foer’s eight-month soccer world tour produce? An explanation of how the world works told through the lens of its favorite sport? A theory of globalization based on the passion and violence of the game? Not quite.
In the prologue Foer tries to weave a structure for the anecdotes and reporting that follow, but as you read the individual chapters they come off as vignettes rather than building blocks in a theory or explanation. Foer claims that the chapters attempt to explain “the failure of globalization to erode ancient hatreds in the game’s greatest rivalries;” that it addresses “the consequences of migration, the persistence of corruption, and the rise of powerful new oligarchs;” and that the book defends the “virtues of old-fashioned nationalism–a way to blunt the return of tribalism.” And in a way this is true, Foer does touch on these points, but in a descriptive and illustrative way rather than an explanatory one.
In the opening chapter, for example, he delves into the close relationship between soccer gangs in Serbia and the ethnic violence that erupted in that part of the world. The hooligans that passionately and violently supported their soccer team–Red Star Belgrade–smoothly translated their activities into the political realm. In this chapter and many others, Foer reveals how soccer becomes woven into nationalism and tribal warfare with politicians and soccer fans seeking to use the symbols and the energy of the game to their advantage. What soccer doesn’t really explain, however, is the complex history and culture that led to the outbreak of ethnic cleansing and war. Soccer is a fascinating and illuminating lens through which to view and seek to understand the events but it is not an explanation. Take away soccer and the violence and hatred still exists.
The same is true of his chapter on the “New Oligarchs” of Italy. Foer presents a fascinating and thought-provoking overview of how obsessive Italy’s soccer fans are about referees. He provides an excellent introduction to the clashing ruling families of postwar Italy and how they are different culturally, politically, and economically. The Angelli family–owners of Fiat and a host of other companies–control the powerful Juventus soccer club and are the old-fashioned pre-globalization ruling class. They seek influence and political control through bribery and corruption but they do it from behind the scenes and in back rooms. The flamboyant and controversial newcomer Silvio Berlusconi–owner of the rival club AC Milan–in contrast built a media empire and is not shy about using his media power politically or vice versa. For those unfamiliar with the game or with the Italian politics the chapter is both captivating and educational. But I am still skeptical that soccer is anything but an interesting illustration of Italian life. Berlusconi is an ambitious and talented man; if soccer were unavailable he would have chosen another medium with which to seek power. Soccer provides a unique angle for the story but hardly seems a causal factor.
Perhaps I am being too hard on Foer because I enjoyed the book a great deal. Each chapter is eminently readable and provides useful insights into the culture and politics of the country it touches on. If you are a soccer buff or particularly knowledgeable about the game’s history and rivalries much of this might be familiar territory. For the novice or the fan of the game without an encyclopedic knowledge of its history, however, Foer provides a trip around the world of soccer. He touches on the long history of the game, the violent, and often hate-filled, rivalries that burn themselves into the culture, and the larger than life personalities that are at the center of these clubs. From the Serbian hooligan Arkan who provided Slobodan Milosevic with shock troops; to the all-Jewish Hakoah of Vienna soccer team that was briefly the toast of inter-war Europe; to the Nigerian soccer stars who find themselves trapped in the Arctic-cold world of Ukrainian soccer; to the up and down and up again life of (perhaps the world most famous soccer player) Pelé; Foer entertains his readers and sheds light on how the rest of the world lives.
Given all of the above, it is fair to say that I don’t really hold the book’s title against him. Part history, part cultural commentary, part political analysis, and part diehard sports fan evangelism, How Soccer Explains the World is an interesting and thought provoking read even if it doesn’t explain the world.