How Soccer Explains the World

Franklin Foer on the World Cup and our ever-shrinking globe.

Female soccer fans in Iran chuck aside the hijab to celebrate the national team’s victory halfway across the globe. Brazilian managers swindle American corporations abroad and exploit their own players at home. Undisciplined soccer stars from Nigeria are sold to Ukrainian teams and forced to adapt to chess-like coaching strategies in the dead of winter. Globalization never seems so vivid as when seen through the eyes of a soccer fan. In his new book, How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization, Franklin Foer looks at the passions and rivalries embedded in soccer, and comes up with some surprising theories about our ever-shrinking world.

Critics of globalization have long worried that the spread of a global consumerism would wipe out local cultures and homogenize the entire world. But after a decade of observing the soccer phenomenon, Foer found something quite different going on: “I kept noticing the ways that globalization had failed to diminish the game’s local cultures, local blood feuds, even local corruption.”

At the same time, soccer is about more than mere tribalism. The sport, as Foer notes, is “further along in the globalization game than any other economy on the planet.” As such, soccer offers insight into, among other things, why multinational corporations fail to alleviate poverty; how religious fundamentalism can be undermined; and how nationalism can emerge in a more enlightened form.

Foer, who is a staff writer at The New Republic, recently sat down with to talk about how soccer really does explain the world. What are some of the big differences between studying globalization through soccer versus looking purely at political and economic institutions?

Franklin Foer: Most of the time the concept of globalization ends up sounding unnecessarily abstruse — even the name itself sounds clunky and highfalutin. And people discuss it in a way that makes it seem so impersonal. But globalization really is a concrete, fundamental fact in everybody’s lives, and you really see that come to life in soccer stadiums.

I also think that popular culture gets neglected in each of these debates, or only superficially treated — you’ll hear about David Hasselhoff and Hollywood movies corrupting the rest of the world, which is no doubt true, but it’s a richer, more complicated phenomenon than that. What do you think it is about soccer that makes it such a natural forum for political and social conflicts to play out?

FF: Compare European soccer with American sporting teams. Our teams represent such broad geographic areas, and don’t really represent anything local. What truly differentiates a Yankees from a Mets fan? I’m not sure. But in Buenos Aires, everyone knows what separates a Boca Juniors fan from a River Plate fan — there’s a stark difference in class. Buenos Aires has something like eight different teams, so each team represents a distinct neighborhood, and when you represent something that local, you’re representing very particular identities — class, ethnicity. It also seems that some clubs, like Barcelona in Spain, function almost as what Marxists might call “harmless” venues for fans to express their frustrations towards their government.

FF: Sure. Barca is sort of this opiate of the masses — during the Franco dictatorship, it was a harmless outlet for Catalans to vent against the regime.

At the same time, Barca, which is my favorite team, also represents something more than a mere distraction. I think it represents a healthy vision for what a nation should look like and how it should behave. We were talking about the sociology of the game; well, Barca is a team that genuinely manages to transcend class. You go to games and you see fat bourgeois guys with cigars sitting next to street cleaners. There’s this vision of what a liberal society should look like that’s embedded in the concept of the team and the Catalan nationalism it represents. But Barca seems to spring up out of a very unique historical situation. Could that sort of “liberal nationalism” really be replicated elsewhere?

FF: Well, there are moments where it is replicated elsewhere. When France won the World Cup in 1998, the ensuing celebration was, in part, a celebration of the new multicultural France. The team included players of Algerian descent, immigrants from West Africa, immigrants from Eastern Europe, and so there was a way in which victory was able to transform the old chauvinistic idea of French nationalism into something wonderfully multicultural. Hasn’t soccer always, to some extent, been international, even before the ’90s?

FF: Sure. There have always been examples of famous players going abroad. Alfredo di Stefano, the great Real Madrid player came from Argentina, and Real Madrid also had Ferenc Puskas, who came all the way across the Iron Curtain from Hungary. So globalization in the game pretty much existed from the start. In fact, the game wouldn’t have existed without globalization. It was spread informally through the British Empire — British railway workers took the game to Argentina when they were trying to build railroads there, and British oil workers took the game to Iran when they were trying to tap the country for oil.

But in the ’90s someone stomped on the accelerator. Globalization as an idea acquired so much cachet that it started to change reality. Speaking of Iran, at the beginning of your book you write that “soccer is often more deeply felt than religion.” Later on, you have an anecdote in which Iranian women defy an ayatollah’s fatwa in order to attend a soccer game. Do you think soccer can act as a catalyst for change in the Middle East?

FF: In the book I talk about how the “football revolution” holds the key to the Middle East. It’s a line that I meant to be pretty tongue-in-cheek, and a lot people have treated more seriously than I intended.

But the relationship between globalization and the Middle East is such an interesting and conflicted one. I think that globalization is partly responsible for the spread of the hostile, radical forms of Islam. People are drawn to radical Islam because they feel their traditional ways of life threatened by the influx of KFC and Hollywood movies and the like. On the other hand, there is a way in which globalization has the potential to be a liberating force as well, because ultimately there is a freedom embedded in some of these imports. Take David Beckham. He changes his hair every two weeks, and to us that looks ridiculous, a cheap marketing gimmick. But if you’re in Iran and you’re reading the sports paper and you see David Beckham’s hairstyle change — there’s a certain freedom inherent in seeing that.

The other way in which I think the game is potentially significant for the Middle East lies with the very old concept of “secular nationhood”. Soccer is one of the few places where that concept still lives on and thrives. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, when the Iranian team plays a World Cup game, people take to the streets and shout very political, anti-regime slogans against the ruling clerics, because the secular nationalist impulse has been stirred by the soccer team. With that nationalism, though, comes a lot of the ugly racism, sectarianism, and xenophobia that infect soccer. Do you see this changing anytime soon?

FF: I don’t see tribalism ever really disappearing entirely. I just think that people are almost hardwired to identify as groups. And that sort of group identity always runs the risk of being chauvinistic.

Of course, there is a way in which soccer also allows people to transition through major changes in their own lives. As their world gets turned upside down by globalization, being able to cling to something local and familiar and traditional really does help. You discuss that with regard to the Celtic-Rangers rivalry in Glasgow. Economic globalization basically swept away discrimination against Catholics, but many of the city’s Protestants never got a chance to adapt emotionally to the change. So their support for Rangers has become a means for venting a sort of lingering Catholic hatred.

FF: One of the striking things about that ugly rivalry, between the Protestant club and the Catholic club, is that it takes place in Scotland, which, to an American, looks like the ultimate global city — it’s advanced, it’s capitalist, it’s Western. But sectarian hatred still exists all over the place and it continues to be expressed in a very crude way. It’s really unsettling to stand in a stadium with 7,000 Catholics and [to hear] 40,000 Protestants singing about being up to their knees in Fenian blood.

And what ultimately makes it such a disturbing parable is that it highlights the ways in which multinational capitalism can make such peace with the tribalism. These corporations find ways to exploit tribalism to make a buck, rather than trying to snuff it out. So you have Nike selling orange jerseys to the fans at Rangers games. In any other context an orange jersey would be harmless, but in the context of this rivalry it alludes back to King William of Orange and the re-conquest of the monarchy from the Catholics. They know it’s an extremely inflammatory symbol. Yet Nike puts a swoosh on it and sells it because they know a lot of people will buy it. This phenomenon of commodified tribalism definitely freaks me out. By the same token, doesn’t soccer allow people to fabricate for themselves group identities that don’t have any business existing in the first place?

FF: Yeah. I didn’t include this in the book, but I remember reading that during the 2002 World Cup [held in South Korea], there was a deadly riot in Bangladesh between fans of Argentina and fans of Brazil. Now why the hell would people kill each other over a rivalry that has nothing to do with their own country? And there are the examples of fans of Tottenham and Ajax calling themselves the Jews, adopting this slur as a badge of honor, even though they’re not Jewish, and none of the players are Jewish.

That’s one of the frightening things about commodified tribalism — it becomes so much easier to slip in and out of a group identity. You’re no longer just born into who you are, you get to choose it, and it can get sold to you by corporations. That to me is kind of scary. But then again, you can see the upside to it — when you can slip into an identity more easily, you can also slip out of an identity more easily and maybe that makes it ultimately more harmless. It’s an interesting twist on the idea of globalization simply sweeping away all tribalistic identities.

FF: Sure. Take Islam, for example. Is Islam a tribe or is it a force of globalization? Islam has certainly been studied as a local, tribalistic phenomenon. But Islam is also theoretically a universalist idea, its spread has been facilitated by modern technologies, and it’s an identity that people can slip into and out of fairly easily. I don’t think Islam has really been understood as a product of globalization. It might be one of these instances where globalism and tribalism ultimately go hand in hand. At the beginning of your book, you write down two important questions that you hoped to explore by looking at soccer. The first is, “Why have some nations remained poor, even though they had so much foreign investment coursing through them?”

FF: I always use the example of Brazil as a way of dealing with this question. The Brazilian game had all of these foreign investors come in, to try to turn the league into the NBA of soccer, because they found the Brazilian style of play incredibly exciting. So you had Dallas-based pension funds and German media conglomerates pumping cash in to bulk up these teams. The money was there — but the experiment failed.

A lot of this had to do with the persistence of corruption. You had Brazilian managers scamming their corporate sponsors for millions of dollars. And the reason that corruption is able to persist is that the Brazilian public has genuine anxieties about globalization, about giving in to these foreign guys. The foreigners come in with all their marketing ideas about changing the color of the jersey, and adding advertising. And this ends up irking the fans, who feel like their traditions have become meaningless. So the fans ended up protesting the foreigners until the corporations left the country, and then the fans turned back to the corrupt populists who run the game because, in a weird way, those corrupt populists are the more authentic guardians of the culture of the game. I guess that relates to your second question: “How dangerous are the multinational corporations that the Left rails against?”

FF: Well, the Wal-Marts and the McDonalds’ of the soccer world are Real Madrid and Manchester United, who make it their explicit aim to pry fans away from their local allegiances. What I found is that these mega-clubs have had some success but not nearly as much success as you’d imagine. Local culture, people’s histories and traditions, are so much more deeply rooted than even globalization’s greatest proponents are willing to acknowledge. It seems like Europe doesn’t have the sort of bandwagon fans that we have here.

FF: Right, and I think that’s part of what drew me to the game. As a kid I would watch the World Cup and I would see people singing and celebrating goals and there was something so authentic about the connection between fans and teams. They didn’t need a scoreboard telling them how to react to a play, they didn’t need a mascot jumping up and down. I just think that American fans, for better or worse, just aren’t as authentically connected to their teams. Your book also discusses soccer in the U.S. If I understand you right, you think soccer has become a sort of scapegoat for those who are trying to resist the encroachment of globalization into the U.S.

FF: As a fan of the game, you constantly confront people who shit all over it. You go to work and the guy in the next cubicle tells you how it’s a pinko, homosexual game. If you turn on sports radio, you hear guys like Jim Rome jump all over it. So why is there such hostility towards the game here? Interestingly enough, reading through the clips and the transcripts, it seems like there’s a direct correlation between soccer-haters and baseball fans.

Baseball, of course, is the ultimate American tradition. And baseball fans face one fundamental fact: their game is in decline. Little kids don’t play it anymore, because they’re switching from Little League to soccer. So the reason it’s a small touchtone in the culture war is that there’s some anxiety over baseball’s decline, to some extent. Soccer is obviously being imported into the country as a product of globalization. And this is, I think, a lot of what the culture war is about: traditional American values giving way to another set of ideas coming in from abroad, especially from Europe. So if soccer were to overtake baseball as America’s national sport, do you think it would change the cultural makeup of this country? Would we see the rise of some sort of regionalism?

FF: Not likely. Soccer would probably follow the path all our sporting teams take. The teams are always going to represent broad geographic areas.

On the other hand, there is an interesting twist here. When Major League Soccer was originally established, part of the marketing scheme involved bringing in players whose ethnicity appealed to local fans. The Chicago team brought in Polish and Eastern European players to appeal to its fans of Polish and Eastern European descent. D.C. United, my home team, had players brought in from Central America explicitly to appeal to Central Americans in the city. So you can see how regionalism might come into play.

But blunting that is going to be the traditional American way of thinking about ethnicity, which is always of two minds. People talk pretty loudly about their ethnic identity and identity politics, but at the end of the day they don’t mean it in that big of a way, in the way that Europeans mean it and live it. It’s almost too easy in this country to assimilate to really be tribalistic in a European sort of way.

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