How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization

How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization

by Franklin Foer


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061978050
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/11/2010
Pages: 271
Sales rank: 91,112
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.72(d)

About the Author

Franklin Foer is the editor of The New Republic. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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How Soccer Explains the World
An Unlikely Theory of Globalization

Chapter One

How Soccer Explains
the Gangster's Paradise

Red Star Belgrade is the most beloved, most successful soccer team in Serbia. Like nearly every club in Europe and Latin America, it has a following of unruly fans capable of terrific violence. But at Red Star the violent fans occupy a place of honor, and more than that. They meet with club officials to streamline the organizational flow chart of their gangs. Their leaders receive stipends. And as part of this package, they have access to office space in the team's headquarters in the uppermiddle- class neighborhood of Topcider.

The gangs have influence, in large measure, because they've won it with intimidation. A few months before I arrived in Belgrade to learn about the club's complicity in the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, Red Star fan clubs had burst into the team's training session. With bats, bars, and other bludgeons, they beat three of their own players. After their havoc, they aren't typically shy about advertising their accomplishments. In this instance, the hooligans told reporters bluntly that they could "no longer tolerate lack of commitment on the pitch." It took only one phone call to organize an interview with a handful of them in their first-floor meeting room at the Red Star headquarters.

The Belgrade neighborhood around Red Star is cartoonishly ominous. An enormous gaggle of crows resides on the stadium's roof. When goals are scored and the crowd erupts, the birds flee -- across town, it's possible to gauge the results of a game based on presence or absence of an ornithological cloud above the skyline. On the other side of the street from the stadium, the family of Arkan, the most notorious warlord and gangster in Serb history, lives in a castle he constructed, a nouveau riche monstrosity with tiers of towers and turrets. When I loiter near the house for too long, a large man in a leather jacket emerges and inquires about my business. Because of the atrocities committed by Arkan's men, I describe myself as a lost tourist, nervously ask him for directions, and walk away briskly. On the evening of my visit, the sky is gunmetal.

My translator had arranged for me to meet with Draza, a leader of a Red Star fan club that calls itself the Ultra Bad Boys. He had persuaded him with the overblown promise that an interview would bring glory unto the club and world renown unto the achievements of the Red Star fans. Six of Draza's loquacious colleagues join him. At first glance, the Bad Boys look entirely unworthy of the first part of their name and too worthy of the second. Aside from the big red tattoos of their gang name on their calves, they seem like relatively upstanding young men. Draza wears a fleece jacket and chinos. His head of overgrown yet obviously manicured hair has the aura of a freshman philosophy student. As it turns out, he is a college student, swamped with preparations for exams. His comrades aren't any more menacing. One of them has a bowl haircut, a pudgy face, and an oversized ski parka that he never removes -- he looks like the kind of guy who's been shoved into his fair share of lockers.

Perhaps to increase their credibility, the Bad Boys have brought along a gray-haired man called Krle, who wears a ratty black San Antonio Spurs jacket. Krle's sinewy frame gives the impression that he fills his leisure time with pull-ups on a door frame in his flat. Many years of living a hooligan life have aged him prematurely. (When I ask his age and occupation, he changes the subject.) Unlike the naïve enthusiasm exhibited by the teens, who greet me warmly, Krle blares indifference. He tells my translator that he has only joined our interview because Draza insisted. His one gesture of bonhomie is to continually pour me warm Serbian beer from a plastic bottle. After I taste the beer, it hardly seems like such a friendly gesture. But because of his angry gray eyes, I find myself drinking glass after glass.

Krle serves as senior advisor to the group, a mentor to the aspiring hooligans. Putting aside his intense glare and unfriendly demeanor, I was actually glad for his presence. My interest in Red Star centers on the 1990s, his heyday as thug, when the fan clubs played a pivotal role in the revival of Serbian nationalism -- the idea that the Serbs are eternal victims of history who must fight to preserve a shred of their dignity. With little prodding, Draza speaks openly about the connections. Unfortunately, his monologue doesn't last long. Exerting his authority with volatile glances and brusque interruptions, Krle seizes control of the conversation. He answers questions curtly.

"Who do you hate most?"

A pause for a few seconds' worth of consideration. "A Croatian, a cop: it doesn't make a difference. I'd kill them all."

"What's your preferred method for beating a guy?"

"Metal bars, a special kick that breaks a leg, when a guy's not noticing." He sharply stomps down a leg, an obviously well-practiced move.

Because the beer has kicked in, I try to get closer to the reason for my visit. "I noticed that you call Arkan 'commandant.' Could you tell me a little more about how he organized the fans?"

His look is one of deep offense and then unmitigated fury. Even before the translation comes, his meaning is clear. "I shouldn't be answering your questions. You're an American. And your country bombed us. You killed good Serb men."

As good a reason as any to redirect the conversation to another topic. In an aside to my translator, which he didn't tell me about until after our interview, Krle announces, "If I met this American asshole on the street, I'd beat the shit out of him." Krle then drops out of the conversation. At first, he stands impatiently on the far side of the room ...

How Soccer Explains the World
An Unlikely Theory of Globalization
. Copyright © by Franklin Foer. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Table of Contents

Prologue 1

1 How Soccer Explains: the Gangster's Paradise 7

2 How Soccer Explains: the Pornography of Sects 35

3 How Soccer Explains: the Jewish Question 65

4 How Soccer Explains: the Sentimental Hooligan 89

5 How Soccer Explains: the Survival of the Top Hats 115

6 How Soccer Explains: the Black Carpathians 141

7 How Soccer Explains: the New Oligarchs 167

8 How Soccer Explains: the Discreet Charm of Bourgeois Nationalism 193

9 How Soccer Explains: Islam's Hope 217

10 How Soccer Explains: the American Culture Wars 235

Afterword: How to Win the World Cup 249

Note on Sources 259

Acknowledgments 263

Index 267

Reading Group Guide


Using the world's most popular sport as a means to understand the world's most pressing issues, Franklin Foer's book is "significantly entertaining if you like soccer, and entertainingly significant if you do not" (Adam Gopnik, author of Paris to the Moon).

But Franklin Foer does like soccer. In fact, he has loved the sport since his parents introduced him to it hoping it would rid him of his boyhood shyness and shield him from the injuries of American football -- "a game where violence wasn't just incidental but inherent."

Taking a leave of absence from his job as a writer for The New Republic, Foer set off on a journey from Brazil to Bosnia, from Italy to Iran, and examined soccer as a way of illuminating the fault lines of a society. His discoveries were shocking and wide-ranging: in Serbia, a group of fans promoted political violence and engaged in genocide; in Scotland, rowdy fans fueled religious hatred; in Iran, female fans stormed the stadium and demanded equality; and in Spain, its citizens proved "that fans can love a club and a country with passion and without turning into a thug or terrorist."

With stories that reveal everything from the history of the little-known Jewish team of Hakoah, to the spirit of the Nigerian who plays for the Ukraine, to the triumphs and follies of the beloved icon Pelé, How Soccer Explains the World also looks closer to home. In the last chapter, "How Soccer Explains the American Culture Wars," the author claims that "there exists an important cleavage between the parts of the country that have adopted soccer as its pastime and the places that haven't."

Fueled by both journalistic instincts and true love of the sport, Franklin Foer delivers a compelling narrative with fascinating interviews and "scores a game-winning goal with this analysis of the interchange between soccer and the new global economy" (Publishers Weekly).

Questions for Discussion

  1. "This book has three parts. The first tries to explain the failure of globalization to erode ancient hatreds in the game's great rivalries ... The second part uses soccer to address economics: the consequences of migration, the persistence of corruption and the rise of powerful new oligarchs ... Finally, the book uses soccer to defend the virtues of old-fashioned nationalism -- a way to blunt the return of tribalism" (pages 5-6). Do you feel that the book succeeded on all three levels? Why or why not?

  2. How did the Red Star fans go from being "Milosevic's shock troops, the most active agents of ethnic cleansing, highly efficient practitioners of genocide" (page 13) to staging the "Red Star Revolution," helping to overthrow Milosevic in 2000?

  3. "The Celtic-Rangers rivalry represents something more than the enmity of proximity. It is an unfinished fight over the Protestant Reformation" (page 36). Discuss the role that soccer plays in the British Isles and in their religions.

  4. "Jackie Robinson's presence transformed the culture of baseball, slowly chipping away at clubhouse racism. Mo Johnston, strangely, had the opposite effect [in soccer]" (page 48). Why?

  5. Create an argument for and against the globalization of soccer. What are the benefits? Who are the victims? What can be learned from the history of soccer in order to ensure its successful future? Or do you see the sport self-destructing altogether?

  6. "An entire movement of Jews believed that soccer, and sport more generally, would liberate them from the violence and tyranny of anti-Semitism" (page 69). What did the Hakoah club contribute to the sport of soccer? Address the parallels between Jews and Native Americans as sports' mascots.

  7. What person or group do you see as the American equivalent to the English hooligan? Why do you think the hooligan is seen as such a fascinating character?

  8. Consider Pelé -- "the perfectly postmodern image" (page 125) -- and how his successes and failures mirrored those of the Brazilian soccer club.

  9. What do the ways in which the Italian teams, Juventus and Milan, influence the referees reveal about the organizations and owners, and ultimately the two very different styles of oligarchies?

  10. How has the team Barca, according to the author, proved the theory that "patriotism and cosmopolitanism should be perfectly compatible. You could love your country -- even consider it a superior group -- without desiring to dominate other groups or closing yourself off to foreign impulses" (page 199)?

  11. Discuss the football revolution and how it "holds the key to the future of the Middle East" (page 222).

  12. How has September 11th influenced the business and culture of soccer?

  13. After reading this book, would you encourage your children to play soccer or discourage them from participating in the sport? Explain.

About the Author

Franklin Foer is a senior editor at The New Republic and a contributing editor at New York magazine. His writing has also appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Atlantic Monthly, Slate, Foreign Policy, and Spin. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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How Soccer Explains the World 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 67 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
this is not a story of globalization. This isn't "Tom Friedman on soccer". I was very disappointed that this book chose to focus on all the negative aspects of the game around the world and missed the opportunity to talk about so many other soccer stories. Way too much on hooliganism. The book started to hit a stride on the story of Brazil and Nigeria, but just never brought it together. I kept looking for a common theme or something to tie these stories together, to tell a story of globalization, but it just never came. If you're looking for a summary of all the negative sides of soccer (dirty owners, criminal fans, etc) you might enjoy this read. If you're looking for a book that explores sport & globalization, you will be sorely disappointed.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was a awesome book about soccer and the ties to other issues in the world. Also how America is scared of soccer, this is why America doesn't accept that soccer is the greatest game in the world. It also covers racial issues and the battle of religion even in the game. I encourage anyone to read this book. I am not a big fan of reading and dislike it for the most part but I really enjoyed this book. Even if you aren't a soccer fan, this is still a good book for you because it addresses many other issues in the world and Foer has many very interesting stories about his own experiences. All readers should really enjoy this book.
dvf1976 on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Not so boring that I couldn't finish it, but most of the attempted connections between globalization and soccer seemed like stretches.It seemed more like this guy wanted to write about hooliganism, Barcelona, and soccer in the U.S.
jcvogan1 on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Fun and informative.
Opinionated on LibraryThing 5 months ago
There is definitely a book to be written about football and globalisation, but sadly this isn't it. Foer has written a book with a great title, but not much else, and it will fail to please either those interested in football or in globalisation. What we do get is a series of vignettes, that feel like, and probably originally were, magazine pieces. These are mostly entertainingly written, but reveal nothing at all about globalisation and little about football. Foer's central proposition seems to be that throughout the world people still cling to their links to their local football club and play out their hopes, dreams, aspirations and local antagonisms through these allegiances - clearly there is much more at stake here than a couple of hours entertainment on a Saturday. Foer seems to be surprised and excited by this - surely this is exactly the sort of localism the wave of globalisation is supposed to have drowned? But with respect, perhaps this can only be surprising to a writer from a nation where sporting teams are referred to as "franchises" and are regularly marched around the country in search of a more lucrative demographic and preferential playing conditions. To most football fans, a strong bond to your chosen (usually local) team is self evident. Not so for Foer - he describes Barcelona as "his team" and has clearly bought into the romance of Catalan nationalism that he sees as a key element of the Barcelona "brand". But if this book has any lesson at all it is that outsiders like him can enjoy watching the team, but never really be part of the passion and commitment of local supporters - he'd be better off following DC United. The chapters vary in quality; Foer's chapter on the involvment of Serbian football hooligans in the Yugoslav civil wars and Arkan's involvement in running a suspiciously succesful club is perhaps his best. But otherwise, his chapter on the difficulties and hostility faced by Nigerian footballers playing in the Ukranian leagues has been done previously (and better) by Alex Bellos in his descriptions - in "Futebol" - of Brazilian footballers lost in Iceland. His chapter on sectarian rivalry between Celtic and Rangers is superficial, his treatment of English soccer hooliganism frankly inane, and his chapter on Islam and football both absurd and wildly inaccurate. All in all, a book that disappoints on almost all levels..
jrcovey on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Those looking for an actual coherent & viable theory of globalization will be stymied by this cheekily titled book, unless they succumb to its actual pleasures¿those of the good tale well told. This crisply reported, smoothly edited series of essays about 10 different nations' experiences of soccer has all of the best qualities of feature-length journalism. It's a quick, engaging read that focuses on stories and personalities of soccer culture, not on accounts of matches (soccer diehards beware), and only one extended profile of a player (possibly the best chapter in the book, about a Nigerian player plying his trade in the Ukraine).In the final two chapters, Foer does succumb to the urge to actually construct an argument, and this is somewhat to the detriment of the book. In the penultimate chapter, he shows himself a couple of degrees out of his depth on the question of Islam & politics (those Muslim countries just aren't ready for democracy, he confidently assures us), and in the final one, he has a somewhat unrealistic take on the relationship between the U.S. and global capital (the U.S. is at the mercy of the transnational corporations just like every other country¿no, really). Yet I could recommend this on the basis of the Italy chapter alone, and Foer's encomium to his beloved FC Barcelona does have an interesting take on nationalism. The opening chapter on Red Star Belgrade is revealing, as well, of culture in the age of globalization. Foer may be soccer writing's answer to Pico Iyer, and that is meant as a compliment.
TomMcGreevy on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Well, the title promises way more than is delivered. This is a good 30,000 foot view I guess but to satisfy one needs to get down into the weeds and that doesn't really happen here. I believe that the strongest chapter is the one on the USA - not surprising as Mr Foer is an American. The other chapters are interesting snapshots but are journalistic in tone rather than ethnographic - a pity that...
jddunn on LibraryThing 5 months ago
A bit disappointing, but not bad overall. I wanted it to hold together better as what the title says it is, but really it¿s just a series of vignettes about how soccer is being affected by globalization, and vice versa. Which is fine for what it is, and I did learn a lot of neat things about soccer and how it mixes (often weirdly) with politics around the world.So, read it, but just don¿t expect it to be what the title says it is.
Lady_Lazarus on LibraryThing 5 months ago
I'm not a sports fan and have no idea about soccer teams or players Franklin Foer is referring to, but this was a nice read and certainly opened new ways to see the European history - and soccer. There were some ideas that would have needed more explaining, but the main thing bothering me was the American view on Europe. Ok, I'm European, but I think I can take criticism of my own country quite well, but still: it has to be done delicately, not flat out judging all Europeans as racists who cannot deal with anything even slightly different than themselves (yes, this was almost a direct quote from the book). Also the American fear of communism and admiration of capitalism were clearly visible - but the fact that capitalism is at least as far from individualism as communism, clearly isn't visible to the writer.Luckily the last chapter introduces soccer as the only item in globalization that intruded the American "sports market" - opposed to the American culture invading the rest of the world. I was hoping Franklin Foer would be as harsh on his own culture as he was stereotyping Europeans, but I was disappointed.
eglinton on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Unlikely is right. Soccer doesn't explain the world, nor does this book explain anything very convincingly. Foer tosses casually in to the mix assertions like: "Critics of soccer contend that the game inherently culminates in death and destruction". Do they really? No evidence or examples are presented. Perhaps some theorists enjoying this brand of Left Bank style generalisations, merrily detached from practice or praxis may contend thus, but Foer doesn't achieve anything much by theorizing in that spirit. That vented, however, I should acknowledge that some of the tales related here from the soccer world (the scope of his examples is wide and diverse) are interesting, and make for good reportage. Still, there's not much about the game of football itself, or how it is played, which ought to be a subject of some interest, one would think. The tribal identification and passions it inspires are of interest, sure, but don't they sometimes obscure what ought to be the heart of the matter?
khuggard on LibraryThing 8 months ago
This book started out strong, but it fizzled after the first two or three chapters. In fact, I didn't even read the last two chapters because I was beginning to find the reading to be somewhat of a chore. I had the feeling that the author really wanted to write a book about soccer and he constructed a weak thesis to sell the idea to a publisher. This book is at its strongest when it explores the peculiarities of local soccer culture.It becomes much less interesting anytime the author attempts to impose his globalization theories.
mattrutherford on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Interesting and suprisingly robust comparisons between soccer and politics. Somewhat dry political discussions.
thierry on LibraryThing 8 months ago
I am football mad and as soon as I saw this book, I had to read it. Using vignettes/reportages, the author attempts to shed light on the world and globalization through the prism of football. What he finds ¿ the shrinking of the footballing world, violence, contending identities, social and class fault lines reflected through allegiance to football clubs and hope in the redeeming value of the game ¿ makes for some powerful and entertaining reading. I especially found the chapters on Barca (where the Spanish Civil War still resonates), Chelsea (where we meet a Jewish reformed hooligan) and the Old Firm clubs (where football fans from Northern Ireland recreate sectarian violence through their support of either Glaswegian clubs) utterly compelling ¿ but at the same time lacking because I wanted more. This is my problem with the book: it felt too much like a piece of journalism, with some vignettes stronger than others, and I could not find an overarching thesis/idea to tie all these disparate elements together and offer an answer as to how football explains the world.
lsimpson on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Absolutely loved it. Great journalism, good insights, wonderful research. Very fun read.
Trotsky731 on LibraryThing 8 months ago
The book is divided into chapters that are essays in amongst themselves. Each essay describes a how soccer explains Political and religious tensions around the world. It also explains how soccer explains both sides of the globalization debate.
midlevelbureaucrat on LibraryThing 8 months ago
A fascinating look at globalization through the frame of soccer around the world. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.
rcampoamor on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Really more about soccer than globalization. Nonetheless, provides a good feel for how soccer is regarded around the world and what an outlet it is for political, religious and general tensions.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Franklin Foer attempts to simplify the world with his "less economic than cultural" view of planet Earth in, "How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization." The book isn't about what led to globalization, but rather what has become of it, and more specifically what it's done for the sport of soccer. It focuses more on what the sport means to so many people. How they perceive, consume and embody it. The athletes are idolized. The teams are revered. The sport itself is worshiped. Foer traveled the globe in the quest to understand soccer as it strengthens national ties, crosses borders and seemingly extends the arm of diplomacy between feuding states. The novel focuses on the negative aspects of globalization’s effect of soccer, while Foer conveys his claim that much of the violence and conflict in soccer is caused by the globalization that occurred throughout history. He supports his claim by including global context, explaining how that connects to soccer’s history. I believe the author well executed his goal, as he provided specific details that corroborate his claim (i.e. he mentions how Jewish soccer teams thrived and dominated others during and after the 2nd world war). In conclusion, I recommend this book to anyone interested, but it is highly suggested that you have an understanding of soccer and different clubs and rivalries to better comprehend the points made.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This author is not a good writer. This book was entertainig but not the least bit educational. His references as to how soccer changed the world make no sense and did in no way back them up.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is a beautiful description of how soccer affects the world. I would totally recommend this to any true soccer fan.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It contained history, exploration of present issues, some amazing stories. But to me, it seemed too specific and yet somehow impersonal? I came away feeling I had learned a lot, but that it was colder than other such (less insightful) accounts.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago