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How Soccer Explains the World September 20, 2006

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Books, Reviews.
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There are two reasons to be skeptical of Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World. First, if the subtitle is to believed, the author’s underlying purpose for the book is quite ambitious: to offer a theory of globalization, however unlikely. Second, the book suffers from the obvious problem that it is written by an American: who else would have the audacity to call the sport soccer?

Whether the book succeeds or not as an off-the-beaten track reader on globalization, one thing is for certain: Franklin Foer is no Thomas Friedman, but not for lack of trying. In the ten chapters that Foer offers, he uses football as a vehicle for elucidating upon the many interesting consequences and contradictions behind such issues as migration, racism and tribal violence, corporate capitalism, and national identity in an interdependent world. Yet as the book progresses, it becomes less and less apparent that any overarching point regarding globalization is being made, despite the insights the book does impart. At best, it may be argued that Foer prefers subtlety; but this would be missing the point. Globalization is perhaps one of the most difficult topics to deconstruct and articulate as taken to its logical conclusion, any issue can be said to be related in to it in some way. If anything the books suffers from this problem, and in using football to make his point, the spotlight is stolen from the theory the book seeks to develop and shines on the sport more and more.

In that respect, whatever doubts that readers may have about the book being written by an American can be laid to rest. For a book about about “soccer”, the writer’s sensibilities are right on. Regardless of how well or badly Foer makes his case on globalization, what permeates every page of the book is the love that Foer has for the sport. Thus, if it weren’t already obvious, the book is less a treatise on globalization and more a sports book about football writ large. Across ten chapters readers are treated to a tour de force chronicling if not the History of the sport, then short “histories” of football across the hallowed stadia of Europe and Latin America. As a result, readers are treated to an erudite survey of the football landscape: its clubs, fans, and ultimately its place in the cultural consciousness of many societies – in short the very reasons it is the world’s most popular sport.

That the book succeeds in this regard is entirely to Foer’s credit: the guy can write! It’s hard not to be taken in with the passion Foer has for football as he weaves his enchanting discussion, so much so that when he shares his love for FC Barcelona, one can’t help but feel right there at Camp Nou cheering in the stands. In all, a lesser writer would not have been able to pull off what he has with such aplomb: a sports book accessible even to those otherwise unfamiliar with the sport, but at the same time interesting to the most devoted of fans. Readers may not come away from the book with a better understanding of how globalization works or doesn’t – at least not as much as one might expect – but they will come away with a better understanding of the richness that surrounds football. We are, all of us, the better for it.

Erratum: European versions of the book are actually entitled “How Football Explains the World”, presumably with all references to “soccer” within the book similarly changed. Clearly, this is an editorial decision, which I learned only after posting the review. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the book was written by an American.

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