Kick Back

Sportswriters of a particular liberal-sensitive cast have spent three decades patiently pressing upon their readers the demographic inevitability of soccer’s conquest of the American sporting scene. First, they say, there are the participants: millions of suburban soccer kids, who will as adults lock onto the sport they grew up playing. Next, there are all those Mexicans–and other immigrants too–for whom soccer is a happy link back to their homelands. But the minor roots that the sport has established so far in America have been put down neither by the immigrant fans nor the Saturday morning shin guard posse but instead by cultural tourists like those who watch each Sunday with me, returned refugees from junior years abroad. Third- and fourth- generation immigrants, we wistfully align ourselves with working-class allegiances from the old country, looking at those pasty-faced bankers in the bar, the postmen in the stands in Portugal, and imagine whom we might have been had our grandparents stayed home. We cheer and try to lose ourselves in borrowed pride, in these blind, chesty European nationalisms.

It is difficult to watch soccer from America today and not notice this shifting interplay of class and national identity, where rivalries that spark proletarian blood-feuds in Europe are symbols of something quaint and charmed in Washington. In How Soccer Explains the World, the political journalist Franklin Foer has mapped, delightfully, the ways in which soccer’s emerging international brands and symbols clash with stubborn local tribalisms. Each of his 10 chapters is a discreet, deeply-reported case study on what soccer has come to mean in different spots around the world–on soccer and Serbian nationalism, on soccer and the corrupt cronyism of Brazilian oligarchs, on the ways in which a nascent, secular nationalism has emerged through soccer in Iran.

The book’s subtitle–An Unlikely Theory of Globalization–promises a discussion of the new, post-Cold War world, but in truth there are only one or two chapters that could not have been written 20 years ago. Foer seems less interested in documenting something new than in using soccer as an organizing concept, a diagnostic lens for assessing the state of the world’s lumpenproletariat in the era of The Economist and the global triumph of Pepsi and MTV. Soccer, with its national teams and the furied local passions that fire the supporters of its professional sides, has always been a tool of the sort of vain tribalism liberals have long wished gone from the earth, and had hoped that globalization would banish. The weight of the reporting–Foer spent what must have been eight magnificent months traveling the world and hanging out with the diehards–suggests continuity, rather than disruption, for the survival of old parochial prejudices and antagonisms against all odds.

Foer offers an artfully-told, and often horrifying, rogues’ gallery of hooligans and corrupt executives, the ways in which a general global economic and political optimism has failed to dissolve or even diminish the odious traditions and rites of the developing world, or the stubborn elements of the developed nations: the hideous, sometimes murderous clashes between Catholics and Protestants, a pre-Enlightenment tension that finds voice in the rivalry of Celtic (Glasgow’s Catholic club) and Rangers (the city’s Protestant, royalist side). There is the sad account of the fix-ridden let-down of Brazilian soccer, where corrupt government officials and cynical billionaire have let the game fall into a state of such rot that only a few thousand people show up in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo for matches between even the biggest clubs, leaving the world’s most creative and gifted athletes to perform in what is nearly a vacuum. There is Italy (Italy!), where inter-city rivalries are fraught with the most epic of political tensions (in Milan, there are two sides–the socialist team which holds poetry readings and never quite lives up to its potential, and the Berlusconi-owned right-wing side, which always wins), but the referees all favor the biggest clubs and the nation is left with a furious cynicism.

But most memorable are a pair of characters, Zeljko Raznatovic and Alan Garrison. Raznatovic, known as Arkan, was a Serbian thug of the first order, a gangster who in the 1980s turned the most violent, fractious hooligan groups supporting the Belgrade club Red Star into organized and disciplined paramilitary death squads. Foer’s book is horrifying, and terrific, when he describes the way in which the Serbian government cultivated these hooligans, and then used them and their casual, sporadic violence in lieu of a regular army. By the tense end of the Balkan wars, these death squads had been credited by the State Department with murdering 2,000 Croats and Muslims, and Arkan, since assassinated, became a national hero and martyr.

Garrison, a middle-aged leader of the hooligan gangs supporting the (once gritty, now tony) West London side Chelsea, is less frightening, though no less compelling –the living, anachronistic legacy of that hooliganism in yuppie climes. Half-Jewish himself, Garrison leads vicious anti-Semitic chants directed at the rival, historically Jewish club Tottenham Hotspur. He made his chops leading hooligans in street knife fights and, in good meritocratic fashion, had this talent recognized by the establishment: He now works for a German company that hires out mercenaries–mostly, he has trained street fighters in the Balkans. He is shopping a screenplay about his exploits. Garrison, hunched and glowering at a profound cultural crossroads, is less shocking than befuddling: Is he the last vestige of a culture about to be swept away, or a marker of the rough side of an essential European working class spirit that is bound to endure?

This book doesn’t quite formulate a cohesive answer. In a lovely essay on soccer and the Iranian resistance, Foer argues that soccer can be a wedge for Western, aspirational values to crack open even the most oppressive of societies; and, in a chapter on his beloved Barcelona, suggests that in the most cosmopolitan of cultures, there is an admirable sort of “bourgeois nationalism” afoot, impassioned but tolerant. But little of this comes as news, and the conversion of any significant part of the world into little Barcelonas–with similarly rich histories of diversity, wealth, and tolerance–remains an impossible project. The book’s optimistic sections fail to resolve a difficult tension within the text: Foer, a deft and nimble thinker, seems to want to be more hopeful than much of his reporting will let him. He wants a theory that leaves room for his intuitive faith in growth and modernization, but his anecdotes and details are mostly illustrate of an ugly anachronism.

The problem, I think, is that soccer doesn’t quite explain the world–it illuminates, more precisely, a rough and declining side of it. For all the fierce sectarian tendencies of the die-hards, fandom is only one part of their lives. The most violent Celtic and Rangers hooligans, who spend their weekends encumbered by glower and shiv, show up at work Monday morning and calmly sort mail next to one another; they talk happily about Britney Spears and the stock market when they go together to lunch, drinking Coke and eating falafel. Europe, clearly, believes in its working class heritage, finds some spirit there that makes tribalism a little more difficult to eradicate; soccer has become one of the last ways in which that history is announced. But for most, like for the yuppies in the Dupont Circle bar, this tribalism is a fetish, a release valve, a reminder of an ugly past that, in the right light, can sometimes look quaint. The goons write screenplays about their street-fighting days. The revolutionary club hosts poetry readings. The world moves on.