How Soccer Explains the World

Friday, June 11, 2010

Years ago,  as a member of the Sexy Potato Peel Book club, I wanted to select a book that would be an unexpected surprise. Instead of turning to the NY Times  best seller list, I visited the local bookstore and eyed the book spines for something different, original, and enlightening where my fellow book mates would say "This was great--more than I expected!"  This World Cup season, whether you're experiencing soccer fever or are a pure novice drawn by this worldly sport, I highly recommend this book!

A book I thumbed upon was titled How Soccer Explains the World. The author, Franklin Foer, was a political journalist in Washington and took a six month sabbatical to embark on an odyssey to the soccer capitals of the world.

He set out to observe soccer as a way to understand the consequences of globalization -- the increasing interdependence of the world's nations -- by studying a sport in which "national borders and national identities had been swept into the dustbin of soccer history." The result is a travelogue full of important insights into both cultural change and persistence.

So does globalization, via soccer, ensure humane order? Liberate a nation from tyranny? Or wreak havoc like an organized cult? The result is a range of the good, the bad and the ugly. From Margaret Thatcher's cry of hooliganism that emerges from soccer fanatics and claimed it the "disgrace of a civilized society"; to the fans of Red Star Belgrade in Serbia who became, as Foer puts it, "Milosevic's shock troops, the most active agents of ethnic cleansing, highly efficient practitioners of genocide."; to the sophisticated FC Barcelona Club that redeems the game "by showing that fans can love a club and a country with passion" without stirring xenophobia and that patriotism and cosmopolitanism are compatible.

Even if you're not politically or socio-economically inclined, the real stories of players, a city, an entire nation are captivating sometimes nail-biting and well worth reading. Foer saved the best for last--the story of the country of Iran that hired a Brazilian coach, and the necktie he constantly wore was considered a European imposition. The women of Iran who risked their lives by penetrating the inner sanctum of the culture, forever a man's world, and secretly dressed as men to attend the soccer games. What happened to these brave women even after Iran captured the World Cup berth in 1997? You'll have to read the book.

From Brazil to Bosnia and from Italy to Iran, How Soccer Explains the World is an eye-opening chronicle of how a beautiful sport and its fanatical followers can illuminate the fault lines of a society, whether poverty, anti-Semitism, or radical Islam.


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