wherein DF travels to Deutschland for the 2006 world cup to follow the US men's national soccer team

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Book review: Franklin Foer's How Soccer Explains the World (2004)

When this book came out a few years back, I avoided it for two reasons. The public reason—the reason I told friends who recommended it or told myself when I resisted checking out a copy from the library—was that it was the functional equivalent of Simon Kuper’s Football Against the Enemy, which came out a good decade before Foer’s book. But the private reason—the one I never told anyone and refused even to acknowledge to myself—was that I was jealous.

I knew Foer back in the early 1990s, when we were both at (embarrassingly enough) debate camp at Dartmouth College over the summer. He went by “Frankie” then (and I still think “Frankie Foer” sounds better than the author’s current nom de guerre, though I can understand why a serious political journalist wouldn’t want to be known as “Frankie”), and was one of a million kids who made me jealous because he went to a fancy prep school and took electives like “The Cultural Revolution in China” rather than being forced (as I was) to endure countless courses on Catholic marriage, all of which boiled down to a priest or embittered emasculated middle-aged man imploring us not to have sex (which, given the acne-ridden, scrawny dork that I was in high school, was really not an issue anyway).

Lord almighty that was a long sentence. Kind of irrelevant, too. Point is, when I saw in 2004 that someone I knew had been paid to travel around the world watching and writing about soccer while I moldered in an office working at a corporate law job that I hated, I was overcome with a new and improved kind of jealousy. So I turned my nose up at the book, dismissing it as derived from Kuper’s earlier work, and forgot about it. Forgot, that is, until I was recently reminded of its existence by a colleague who shot down my theory that it was functionally equivalent to Football Against the Enemy. So I read it. And the truth is, I was missing out. How Soccer Explains the World is a wonderful book.

To begin with a beef—one of my few and an admittedly minor one—I’m not a huge fan of the title. I don’t think soccer does much explanatory work. I think soccer is a reflection of various world problems, a site in which cultural anxieties and conflicts are manifested—kind of like a mood ring for societies and nations. Thus soccer doesn’t really do the explaining; it seems like the opposite is true. The title of the book should really be How the World Explains Soccer, though that hardly sounds as provocative. I suspect this might have been a move pushed by a publisher to amp up the book’s sexiness, in the same way that the book How the Irish Saved Civilization likely sold better than it would have had it been titled The Continuity of Classical Culture in Ireland During the Middle Ages.

While this book is a good primer for the novice, any football fan will find it illuminating. Some of the facts are more familiar (the section on Barca is largely adapted from Jimmy Burns’ seminal history of the team), but the history and detail in, for example, the chapters on football in Milosevic’s Belgrade and Islamist Tehran are great pieces of sociological as well as sports analysis. And even where the informed soccer fan knows the basic facts, some of the stories are hilarious and kind of scary (my jealousy for Foer declined when I read about his being cornered by angry Serbians or Rangers fans).

It’s easy of course to like a book this much when you see a lot of yourself in it. Frankie had me at hello. The first lines of his book—“I suck at soccer”—could as easily have been spoken by me, and his rationale for following the sport—trying to expiate a long-felt sense of inadequacy from being useless during AYSO games—rang true as well. Also resonant was the chapter on soccer and cultural division in America (a topic Kuper’s book doesn’t touch). I think Foer gets it exactly right. A huge part of the reason that soccer has a hard time catching on in America is that huge swaths of the nation think of it as foreign, and in turn think of things that are foreign as objectionable and threatening. These are American isolationists, and their cultural opposites—people like me—who prefer to downplay the importance of international borders and see commonality with people of other countries—welcome American participation in world events as a way of bridging these gaps.

That said, Foer’s book meets my admittedly unsophisticated standard: I consider a book good if I look forward to reading it and have a tough time putting it down. I’m glad I got past my jealousy and read it; I would have been missing out otherwise.


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