How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization by Franklin Foer (New York: Harper Collins, 2004. 288 pp)

Franklin Foer is an American journalist and editor of The New Republic. He is the older brother of Jonathan Safran Foer. Franklin graduated from Columbia University and lives in Washington D.C.

A Term Paper

During my freshman year in college, I regrettably stumbled into a few classes I had no intention of taking. You see, freshmen are last in line to sign up for classes and you pretty much just need to take whatever is left.

For me, that class was “Globalization.” In all honesty, I enjoyed the class despite my earlier protest; it allowed me to view the world from a different perspective and the lectures were fascinating. My term paper explored the globalization of music. I unveiled the many ways in which musical boundaries have fallen and the new-found accessibility of music from all cultures. In this term paper, I found a striking tension for these musical artists as they try to maintain a sound indigenous to a culture while also expanding and attempting to reach audiences worldwide.

Under a similar task but replacing music with soccer, Franklin Foer attempts to understand the complex phenomenon of globalization in How Soccer Explains the World.

Soccer around the Globe

Less an academic thesis on globalization and more a collection of stories, Franklin Foer traverses the world to reveal interesting soccer narratives and exploring the ways club and international soccer teams connect with and become a symbol for various cultures.

Within these pages, Foer illustrates how the violent supporters groups of Red Star Belgrade became the foot soldiers of the Yugoslav Wars.

He visits a clash of the “Old Firm” and exhibits the ways in which Celtic and Rangers are a symbol of conflict between Irish Catholics and Protestants.

“In full throat, they sing in praise of our slaughter. We’re up to our knees in Fenian blood. There are 44,000 of them, mostly Protestant supporters of the Glasgow Rangers Football Club. As this is their home stadium, Ibrox, they can make their songs as virulent as they please” (35).

Foer interviews British hooligans and depicts the shift of English football from brawls to a high-end social hour.

“More than any club in the world, Chelsea has been transformed by globalization and gentrification. It went from the club most closely identified with hooliganism in the eighties to the club most identifies with cosmopolitanism in the nineties” (94).

He traverses continental Europe pointing out the tendency for fans toward racism of African players and Foer reveals the morally questionable leadership of many club heads.

The Positive Example of FC Barcelona

Despite all of these grim examples of the messy side of soccer, Foer believes soccer can channel nationalism into a positive context. Foer offers FC Barcelona as the paradigm for a positive conduit. As a part of Catelonia, Barcelona has always upheld tense relations with Spain. Many believe Catelonia should exist as a separate entity from Spain. On the soccer pitch, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid stand for more than rivals. They are the political representation of Spain and Catelonia. Fans of Barca consider the team an illustration of their political ideals. A win against Real is a win against Spain.

But instead of spiraling into declivity and violence, Barcelona operates on an enlightened plain. The team runs as a democracy; fans vote for leadership and have a stakeholder mentality to the club. Interestingly, the club has never struggled with hooliganism. Foer writes,

“There are scant examples of Barca hooligans battling Real. That’s because they don’t hate an opposing group of people; they feel rage toward an idea, the idea of Castilian centralism. And you can’t beat up an idea” (215).

It’s in stories like FC Barcelona where Foer believes the tension of globalization emerges. FC Barcelona is a worldwide brand. They play a beautiful variety of soccer and currently possess the best player in the world with Lionel Messi.

Beneath the business component though is an idea—that Barcelona is a cultural representation of Castilian nationalism.

The Balance between Nationalism and Cosmopolitanism

How Soccer Explains the World, as I said earlier, is not an academic piece. As a collection of stories, it is sometimes difficult to parse Foer’s thesis on globalization. But maybe that’s his point. As an American inflicted with the soccer bug, Foer can follow any team in Europe without much thought to the cultural context within which the team emerged. These teams have a history steeped in nationalism and cultural centralism. Yet globalization allows us to become fans of these teams. Much like that term paper I wrote for my globalization on the tension between music in its cultural context and the desire to create fans worldwide, the global soccer landscape must balance its connection to the culture from which it was formed, and its openness to cosmopolitanism.

If you are interested in soccer and want to hear more about the history of some of the biggest clubs in the world, check out Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World.

Verdict: 3.5 out of 5

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