World Cup drama, Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World

Franklin Foer's book puts soccer in a global context.

The 2010 World Cup is deep into the Round of 16, and I’m getting more engrossed by the day.

Yesterday I watched the United States’ team show gritty resolve, but ultimately be unable to come from behind twice against a determined Ghana squad.  And this morning I saw yet another refereeing catastrophe as Frank Lampard’s game-changing goal, which clearly bounced off the top crossbar and into the goal, was ruled not to be so.   The decision left England trailing Germany, 2-1, and put the Lions in a pressing position, that led to two later German counterattack goals and a 4-1 final margin.

I wrote before the tournament began about the South African soccer memories sparked by the world’s largest sporting event being held in Alan Paton’s Beloved Country.   I actually first played the game in earnest in 1979, when we spent a year in Oxford, England, and Mike and I attended Magdalen College School. During our 20-minute tea breaks or and hour-long lunch times, I would join my classmates in kicking either a tennis ball, or, on rare occasions, an actual soccer ball.

Toward the end of our time, we attended an exhibition match between Oxford United, who then were in the third division, and Tottenham Hotspur, which featured Argentinian stars Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricky Villa.  For us, the game was notable both for United’s surprise victory and for the pitch invasion by local hooligans that occasioned the police summoning Alsatians to subdue the invaders.

Although the hostility toward the foreigner and the hooligans’ drunken violence shocked me then, reading Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World helped me place my childhood experience in a broader context.

A long-time soccer fanatic and New Republic editor, Foer traveled the world to explore how soccer has become a vehicle to express, and at times exacerbate, cultural, religious and historic differences between people.  He has a particularly gruesome chapter about a Serbian soccer thug who first spearheaded the murder of thousands of Croats and Bosnians, and then bought his own soccer team that intimidated others into losing.   The section about how some Scottish people fan the flames of religious discord through the Rangers-Celtic rivalry in order to sell more merchandise.  And he writes about legendary hooligans in England.

The book is not all dark, though.

Foer writes with admiration about Iranian women defying religious edicts to attend the world’s most popular game and Nigerian players trying to make a go of things during winters in the Ukraine.

More broadly, the book looks at soccer’s connective tissue, even as Foer does not actually offer a theory of globalization per se.

It’s an entertaining read, and one that you might want to check out before the tournament is completed.  For me, I’m heading downstairs to watch the Argentina-Mexico game and go for an 8-mile run.

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2 responses to “World Cup drama, Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World

  1. Soccer is an art more central to our culture than anything the Arts Council deigns to recognize.

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