Ball of the Foot
Review by John Freeman
How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization
During the run up to this year's World Cup, the Vietnamese government warned its soccer-mad population about the health concerns of viewing too many games. "Staying up overnight and working the next day could exhaust watchers, making them lose their appetite," worried the Vietnam News Agency.
One needn't tune into ESPN to realize that many folks around the world would gladly skip a meal to take in a game of soccer, and New Republic journalist Franklin Foer happens to be one of them. In How Soccer Explains the World, Foer describes his travels far and wide to view his favorite sport.
How Soccer Explains the World begins with hooligan style teams—which feature fan clubs that like to fight—and winds up in the squeaky clean American little league. The beginning of the book, then, contains some of the most memorable chapters as Foer travels to Belgrade, Glasgow and Budapest, where fans unfurl gigantic banners mocking each other's ethnic and religious roots. "The Trains are leaving for Auschwitz," one banner reads at a match in Hungary.
Although some of this rhetoric is indeed just that, what interests Foer is where it comes from. The Red Star fans in Belgrade borrowed their hooliganism from the English clubs, and then draped it with the aesthetic of American gangster rap. Now that yuppies have infiltrated the ranks of Chelsea supporters in England, the old guard makes appointments away from the stadium to scrap with opposing teams' fans.
Foer also addresses the link between soccer and globalization's failures. In one chapter, Foer tells of Edward Anyamkyegh, a Nigerian player brought to play in the Ukraine for a price of $500,000. It sounds like a dream come true for Edward, until you consider the way his teammates resented his paycheck. When Foer asks Edward's coach how he motivates Edward and another African player, the man's response is chilling. "I've told them ... if you're not ambitious enough, and can't match my ambition, I'll send you back to Africa."
In its own haphazard way, Foer's reporting underscores what an uphill battle globalization advocates must fight. A global economy may bring African players to a new continent and for fairer wages, but it can't ensure their success or cultural adaptation. Similarly, globalization may bring foreign investors to a hopelessly corrupt Brazilian team, but it cannot cure that club of thieving strongmen presidents.
To Foer's credit, How Soccer Explains the World never even tries to cobble these snapshots into a cohesive theory. After all, the big problem with globalization as a theory is that it flattens out cultural differences; it makes assumptions that feel good in one time zone but don't apply in another. With this superbly reported first book, Franklin Foer has gone one step further. He's gotten off his rump, humped his way around the world and brought back a kaleidoscopic view of a vibrant game and the people who believe in it. One might say it's a terrific example of the good things globalization can bring to your doorstep.
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