Thursday, 6 May 2010

Book Review: How Soccer Explains The World, by Franklin Foer (2005)


It was Liverpool's Bill Shankly who said "Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it's much more serious than that." This quote instinctively resonates as truth, and evidence of its accuracy is found in passion-filled stadia around the world on a daily basis.

In How Soccer Explains The World, Franklin Foer makes a good attempt to go beyond the instinctive and towards describing the reality that links football with the world's ever-shifting geopolitical fabric. Although the subtitle of the book "an unlikely theory of globalization" is a bit of a stretch, Foer does succeed in crystallizing the sometimes critical role that football fulfills in major global events, from bloody revolutions to cultural wars, passing through economic transformations and long-simmering ethnic conflicts.

In Serbia, fans of Red Star Belgrade were mobilized first to stoke the fires of Serb nationalism, then to form a brutal militia that fought in the wars against Croatia and Bosnia, and finally to turn against the dictator Milosevic and hasten his downfall. In England, the transformation of Chelsea's fans from the most infamous lower class hooligans to upper class literati reflects the new breed and wealth of global football owners. In Iran, football is a main avenue for women's resistance against the shackles of the regime. In Italy, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi uses his ownership of AC Milan as the jewel of his business empire and a symbol of success. And in the United States, football is one of the defining features of the red / blue divide.

Other chapters explore cultural and economic conflicts through the prism of football in Brazil, Ukraine, Barcelona, and Glasgow. The weakest and least relevant chapter strays into the history of Jews in European football.

Foer is a senior editor at The New Republic and a contributing editor at New York magazine. He does not stray too far from the limitations of straightforward journalistic writing. Although his research and stories are for the most part interesting and entertaining, he does tend to go on while describing specific and relatively irrelevant details of personal experiences, such as his ferry ride with supporters of Glasgow Rangers and his meeting with a single Chelsea ex-hooligan.

Overall, Foer finds football sometimes being a strong agent and symbol for change, at other times (as in Brazil) football is an impenetrable fortress that can resist all attempts at change, and in yet other cases football is a refuge where victims and cultures can seek shelter awaiting the passing of the latest wave of persecution. In all cases, football succeeds, thrives, and marches on as players, coaches, dictators, presidents, cultures and corporations come and go. Indeed, the beautiful game is much more important than the relatively simple matters of life and death.

Published in paperback by Harper Perennial.
248 pages, plus Sources and Index.






The Ace Black Blog Book Review No. 42.
The Ace Black Blog Book Review Index is here.

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