Friday, June 17, 2005

Book Review: Franklin Foer's "How Soccer Explains the World"

I have often thought that here in Ontario, June to August shouldn't really be called the 'summer' months, but 'soccer' months and what better way to celebrate this crazy frenzied season than by reading Franklin Foer's book, "How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization".

Franklin Foer,staff writer at the New Republic, took six months off from his job to tour the soccer capitals of the world. He had a great idea and that was to write a collection of essays using soccer as a tool for analyzing the culture and politics of various societies.

From attending soccer games all around the world, keeping up to date on all the soccer news and interviewing fans and soccer players from every club and division that he possibly could, he found that soccer mirrored the world in amazing ways and pondered if soccer could explain the theory of globalization.

Critics of globalization have been concerned that the spread of a global consumerism would wipe out local cultures and homogenize the entire world, but Foer returned convinced that globalization has not and will not soon wipe away local institutions and cultures. On the contrary, he suspects the opposite has happened: In response to the threat of global integration, local entities have launched counterattacks that are successful but "not always in such a good way."

The Washington Post explained it like this in their review of the book:

Soccer, at its best, shows how this might work. For Foer, the sport demonstrates that "you could love your country — even consider it a superior group — without desiring to dominate other groups or closing yourself off to foreign impulses."

Regarding the "not so good ways" that locals respond to globalism, Foer found much to worry about. The world of soccer can be quite ugly. In Serbia, for example, fans of Red Star Belgrade became, as he puts it, "Milosevic's shock troops, the most active agents of ethnic cleansing, highly efficient practitioners of genocide."

Foer argues that the gruesome antisocial fan behavior that occurs when soccer is at its worst is counterbalanced in other places where the sport plays a role in creating a more humane order. The most interesting and unlikely of these is Iran. During the Islamic Revolution of 1979, women were prohibited from attending soccer games at Tehran's 120,000-seat stadium.

But, as Foer tells it, this ban never fully took effect, with some women sneaking into the facility dressed in men's clothes. Pressed by female soccer fans, the ruling Iranian clergy issued a new fatwa in 1987 that allowed women to watch games on television, though the ban on attendance remained in place.

This compromise could not survive the jubilation that followed the Iranian national team's successful capture of a World Cup berth in 1997. The team itself was at least to some extent a participant in the liberal global order: Its coach was a Brazilian who wore a necktie, an accessory that the ruling clergy considered a European imposition. But the victory celebration and its aftermath were even more important. Foer reports that many of the younger celebrants were women, some of whom danced with uncovered heads. Further, at the official celebration at the stadium, when women were denied entrance they mounted a demonstration. Ultimately they broke through the police barriers and joined the mass victory party.

Foer compares this "football revolution" to the Boston Tea Party. He notes that the event will "go down as the moment when the people first realized that they could challenge their tyrannical rulers." As the United States looks for ways to encourage liberalism within Islam, an event such as this deserves attention.

U.S. exceptionalism is nowhere more evident than in soccer. As a commercial enterprise, soccer largely has failed here. Foer does not really offer an explanation of this failure. Rather, he contents himself with a different argument: a class analysis of the attractiveness of the sport to yuppie parents. He argues that middle-class and professional parents reject American football as too violent, baseball as too stressful and basketball as ghetto-tainted. They choose soccer because it can "minimize the pain of competition while still teaching life lessons." Maybe, but Foer does not provide enough evidence on this to be convincing.

As interesting as this book is (and very much of reads like a travelogue), I don't think the title is merited because Franklin Foer never really gets around to explaining exactly how soccer explains the world.