HOW SOCCER EXPLAINS THE WORLD
An Unlikely Theory of Globalization
By Franklin Foer. HarperCollins.261 pp. $24.95
Franklin Foer, armed with a terrific idea, took six months off from his job as a staff writer at the New Republic to tour the soccer capitals of the world. He set out to observe soccer as a way to understand the consequences of globalization -- the increasing interdependence of the world's nations -- by studying a sport in which "national borders and national identities had been swept into the dustbin of soccer history." The result is a travelogue full of important insights into both cultural change and persistence.
Foer returned from this global tour convinced that globalization has not and will not soon wipe away local institutions and cultures. On the contrary, he suspects that the opposite has happened: In response to the threat of global integration, local entities have launched counterattacks that are successful but "not always in such a good way." Local blood feuds and corruption have proved to be remarkably persistent. So persistent, in fact, that Foer believes that globalization is not likely to deliver on the promise of a more humane world order that some of its proponents anticipate. That would require a liberal nationalism, a development necessary "to blunt the return of tribalism." Soccer, at its best, shows how this might work. For Foer, the sport demonstrates that "you could love your country -- even consider it a superior group -- without desiring to dominate other groups or closing yourself off to foreign impulses."
Regarding the "not so good ways" that locals respond to globalism, Foer found much to worry about. The world of soccer can be quite ugly. In Serbia, fans of Red Star Belgrade became, as he puts it, "Milosevic's shock troops, the most active agents of ethnic cleansing, highly efficient practitioners of genocide." The "unfinished fight over the Protestant Reformation" is kept alive in the stands in Glasgow. And, at least as he reports it, Margaret Thatcher was not far off the mark when she said that the hooliganism that emerged in soccer during the 1980s was "a disgrace to civilized society."
Foer argues that the gruesome antisocial fan behavior that occurs when soccer is at its worst is counterbalanced in other places where the sport plays a role in creating a more humane order. The most interesting and unlikely of these is Iran. During the Islamic Revolution of 1979, women were prohibited from attending soccer games at Tehran's 120,000-seat stadium. But, as Foer tells it, this banning never fully took effect, with some women sneaking into the facility dressed in men's clothes. Pressed by female soccer fans, the ruling Iranian clergy issued a new fatwa in 1987 that allowed women to watch games on television, though the ban on attendance remained in place.
This compromise could not survive the jubilation that followed the Iranian national team's successful capture of a World Cup berth in 1997. The team itself was at least to some extent a participant in the liberal global order: Its coach was a Brazilian who wore a necktie, an accessory that the ruling clergy considered a European imposition. But the victory celebration and its aftermath were even more important. Foer reports that many of the younger celebrants were women, some of whom danced with uncovered heads. Further, at the official celebration at the stadium, when women were denied entrance they mounted a demonstration. They shouted, "Aren't we part of this nation? We want to celebrate too. We aren't ants." Ultimately they broke through the police barriers and joined the mass victory party. Foer compares this "football revolution" to the Boston Tea Party. He notes that the event will "go down as the moment when the people first realized that they could challenge their tyrannical rulers." As the United States looks for ways to encourage liberalism within Islam, an event such as this deserves attention. Its impact suggests that Paul Wolfowitz, if no one else, should read this account.
U.S. exceptionalism is nowhere more evident than in soccer. Millions of kids have played it, and "soccer mom" has become part of our political vocabulary. Yet as a commercial enterprise, soccer largely has failed here. There is no mass market for the sport. Foer does not really offer an explanation of this failure. Rather, he contents himself with a different argument: a class analysis of the attractiveness of the sport to yuppie parents. He argues that middle-class and professional parents reject American football as too violent, baseball as too stressful (because its pitcher/batter encounter is potentially ego-deflating) and basketball as ghetto-tainted. They choose soccer because it can "minimize the pain of competition while still teaching life lessons." Maybe, but Foer does not provide enough evidence on this to be convincing.
The vein of optimism that flows through the book is made explicit in his chapter on the FC Barcelona club -- his favorite team. This club, he writes, possesses a modernist aesthetic, rooted in its worker-cooperative origins and reinforced by its symbolic role in Catalan opposition to Franco. The sophistication of the team -- it possesses its own art museum, season ticket holders vote for the team's administration, and its followers are knowledgeable about both sport and politics -- redeems the game "by showing that fans can love a club and a country with passion and without turning into a thug or terrorist."
Foer believes that nationalism need not be xenophobic and that patriotism and cosmopolitanism are compatible. His reading of soccer does not ignore the ugliness that can be associated with sport and therefore society. But it does hold out hope that sport can be a vehicle for liberalism (as it has been in Iran) and encourage a benign form of group identification (as it has done in Spain). Notwithstanding contemporary claims of civilizations in conflict, Foer's soccer odyssey lends weight to the argument that a humane world order is possible. But globalization alone cannot be relied upon to accomplish that goal. A world order of tolerance and respect also requires the institutions of a vibrant domestic liberalism. *
Jay R. Mandle is the W. Bradford Wiley Professor of Economics at Colgate University and the author of "Globalization and the Poor."