Today’s Solutions: September 28, 2021

What soccer can tell us about international politics, economics and culture. A review of ‘How Soccer Explains the World.’


Marco Visscher | October 2004 issue

Swedish Parliament Member Lars Gustafsson came up with a remarkable nomination idea for the Nobel Peace Prize: soccer. The sport, he declared, contributed to understanding and harmony among cultures. His idea was ridiculed around the world. And rightly so; it was the wrong prize. He should have nominated soccer for the Nobel Prize for economics.

Top teams have become world-famous brands. And star players, some of whom are seen more often in TV ads than on the field, have become logos in themselves. Real Madrid was willing to fork over some 40 million euros ($50 million U.S.) for David Beckham, not least of which because of his ability for selling T-shirts and team paraphernalia in the Asian market. Beckham’s previous team, Manchester United, reported profits of 52 million euros ($65 million U.S.) last year—and that during a poor market year.

Soccer is a contributor to economic globalization; a fact that cannot escape even the most occasional spectator. Italy’s game has really picked up thanks to several attacking, graceful Dutch and South American players. The French national team managed to field nine players from former French colonies. London-based Arsenal has replaced the traditional British style of long passes to the striker with a new kind of play that is a delight to the eye, thanks to a squad including 15 different nationalities and a French coach—and mind you, this is much to the horror of many British fans who believe their forefathers invented the game and that no foreigner should tell them how to play it.

So it’s not so strange that a book suddenly appears with the title: How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization. The fact that the author is an American isn’t necessarily a surprise either. Even though Europeans still think of soccer across the North Atlantic as a sport for spoiled children from the suburbs, American soccer fans have discovered cable TV and the internet as a way not to miss a single goal on European or South American playing fields.

Franklin Foer, author of this book and an editor at the intellectual journal The New Republic, is one such American. From a young age he tried to compensate for his own clumsiness with the soccer ball by watching a lot of it on TV, reading about it even more and, now, writing about it. In researching his book, Foer traveled to places of pilgrimage for soccer fanatics and spoke with heroes of the game. His aim: to clarify how the abstract notion of “globalization” shows up in the soccer world. Because if globalization represents a new world order where it is easier to do business all around the world, so far the soccer industry has been the most successful in doing so.

Foer describes how the violent hooligans of Red Star Belgrade were skillfully recruited for the armed Serbian conflict. He shows how women in Iran rebelled against the Islamic regime by entering the stadiums in mass numbers during important soccer matches, which constituted a criminal offence. He reveals how Silvio Berlusconi used “his” AC Milan team—and other companies—to become Italy’s Prime Minister. He talks about how Pelé, once the example of an exploited worker who was not allowed by the Brazilian government to move to another continent, is now the example of a diplomatic ruler who, as minister of sports during the 1990s, promoted neo-liberal policies to attract foreign investment for Brazil.

The result is a lovely collection of reports and ideas that falls short of an over-ambitious title. It does not make clear how soccer explains the world and presents no theory of globalization. Occasionally you run across a building block for an broader analysis, but it seldom leads to a clear explanation. This is because Foer is not a sharp analyst, but an enthusiastic reporter with a quick pen, a sharp eye for detail and an infectious passion for soccer.

Illustrative is the chapter in which Foer tells the story of Nigerian soccer player Edward Anyamkyegh playing professional soccer in the Ukraine. A multi-millionaire had taken over the local club of the communist regime and looked for a cheap deal on the international labor market. He wound up with Anyamkyegh, who was no superstar but happy to play for a higher salary that would financially support his family back home. Then came the problems. The Ukrainian, calculating approach to soccer didn’t fit with Anyamkyegh’s spontaneous, attacking style of play. He missed his family, had trouble with the language, was distressed by the winter temperatures and encountered racism among townspeople and teammates. He ultimately became the scapegoat for the team’s poor play.

This story reveals not just the personal drama of a soccer player, but of the situation of all immigrants in the industrialized world. Yet Foer never addresses this in a context that extends beyond the field. In what way does soccer provide us with clues about of the experience of immigrants? Why are soccer heroes allowed to freely cross the border while their countrymen with less athletic skills are not? How does economic or racial integration proceed in parts of the world, such as the Ukraine, that are trying to clamber up the ladder of the world economy? These are questions you want answered in a book that claiming to explain soccer as a globalized phenomenon.

The book does, however, include some nice interpretations. Why did international soccer tournaments and competitions become big only after World War II, even though the British had introduced the game everywhere they went for many decades? Because, Foer claims, there was previously no demand for an athletic equivalent of multinational organizations such as the United Nations and the European Common Market. Soccer’s farflung popularity was the outgrowth of burgeoning natural desire to form international groups and was more suitable than then popular athletics which—thanks to the “Olympic idea”—is more strongly geared to participation than winning.

Ultimately, How Soccer Explains the World provides a nice, occasionally profound view of the political, economic and cultural dimensions of the most important side issue in the world—even though it doesn’t explain the world.

Franklin Foer: How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization
HarperCollins, ISBN 0066212340

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