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Nov 072013

untitled Book Review: How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization


I think one of the things that I like about books as opposed to tablets is that you can tell the journey that the book has been on. Rough edges, stained covers, and dog-eared pages are all signs of character that either the book has been well-traveled and loved by someone else. There is even the rare occasion that the content of the book matches the journey it took to get into your possession. People generally don’t trade tablets.

I found it ironic that my copy of Franklin Foer’s “How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization” came to me from my friends Kelly and Andy, who are currently serving in the Peace Corps in Burkina Faso. The irony of this is that this simple act of kindness in giving me a book on globalization is an exact example of globalization. The ability to share ideas and gain knowledge from a wide variety of groups and cultures is a benefit to both the soccer community and society as a whole. Likewise, this book provides an excellent opportunity for someone who is a new fan of the game to understand the culture and norms of some of soccer’s most fascinating groups.

First written in 2004, Foer’s book comes at the precipice of globalization of football. At the beginning of the book he remarks that, “During my childhood, public television would irregularly rebroadcast matches fro, Germany and Italy at televangelist hours on Sunday mornings. These measly offerings would have to carry you through the four years between World Cups.” But with the expansion of internet capabilities and Television channels like Fox Sports World, soccer slowly began to make its way across the pond and enter the American consciousness.

Having grown up during this time period, I can fondly remember getting off of the bus and running home to watch the last 20 minutes of a Champions League match. There was not much available in the 1990s for soccer coverage and the game really only gained its footing after it was practical to watch games from your computer. As someone who has always been interested in both soccer and international relations, I always enjoy watching a match and hearing of stories of players born in places like Senegal, Trinidad and Tobago, and South Korea. It is one of the reasons why I chose a career in soccer journalism, to understand the world through the prism of a rectangular field where people try to score goals.

It’ s  fascinating to think that in the ten years since this book was written how far society and soccer have both come. Bear in mind, in 2004 there was not Twitter or YouTube and Facebook was beginning to be built. Not every person had a cellphone and many people still had dialup internet connections.  But the world was flattening. Information that would take days to accrue could now be done within hours. I can tell you as a college student at the time it was much easier for me to write a paper or watch a soccer match from my computer than it was for a student who graduated just two or three years earlier.

From a fan and from a player management perspective, football benefits greatly from societies advances. Teams are now able to scout and recruit players from all parts of the globe and assess a player’s true ability off of hundreds of matches online and on television. This new access has also benefited fans as well and expanded the reach of not only Europe’s top leagues but also leagues in Brazil, Argentina, China, Japan, and even Major League Soccer. Teams are no longer just confined to their local district. They are brands that can sell jersey’s and merchandise to fans in London, Tokyo, Beijing and New Delhi.

One of the interesting things about this book is how Foer goes into detail about some of the different regions of the world and how soccer affects their culture. Part of the awakening that the American audience is now receiving due to this great game is how intertwined soccer and politics/society can be. He begins his book by talking about the Eternal Derby between Partizan Belgrade and Red Star Belgrade. Pulling no punches, he is able to work through the nuances of the various civil conflicts in the region and how deep seated tension and resentment can be filtered through to the football pitch. There are very few things as jarring as watching grown adults light a stadium on fire, but the thought of someone using acid to pour on another person’s face is close to it.

Racism is a very important subject of the book, but it seems like the author tries to give some explanation to this attitude. In particular, I found the chapter on the Chelsea Headhunters to be the most captivating. Foer is able to take the story of Alan Garrison, a Jewish anti-Semite and member of the Headhunters, and turn it into a critique of globalization. Chelsea Football Club in the 1980’s was considered to be one of the worst clubs for their hooligan behavior and racist taunting. Yet if you look at it now it is considered to be one of the model franchises in the English Premier League. Why is this? Because Chelsea has grown beyond Stamford Bridge and the Headhunters and has expanded to places like India, Nigeria, China, and of course the United States.

Globalization has undoubtedly lessened the influence of hooliganism in English football. But it has also seemed to kill some of the passion within the local fanbases. While teams may be able to sell jersey’s in places like the China, Japan, and the United States fans are being priced out of matches and games are lacking the usual fire and passion that they once did. As Foer goes on to state, “When I attended a game at the Stamford Bridge…Chelsea looked like the audience at a symphony with only a few beefy guys muttering obscenities. They studiously kept their vulgarities to themselves, so that police scanning the crowd with handheld cameras see nothing and have no basis for depriving them their tickets.”

Foer also raises an interesting point about Iran and how soccer can be the true force to create political and social change in the country. Whenever I hear about soccer being used to remove people from power, I think of the Iranian national team members who 2-3 years ago wore green wristbands in support of the Iranian people protesting in Tehran. But I also think about the match in Egypt 2-3 years ago where supporters of Al-Ahly and Al-Masry fought one another during a match that not only led to 75 people being killed, but set off the Egyptian civil war. Football matches can be great places for people to share their feelings with the world. But as Foer himself pointed out earlier in the book, they can also be places where racism, classicism, and religious intolerance can be given a voice. People often say things in a crowd that they often would not say by themselves, so I am not sure if a football pitch is the best place to start a revolution.

It is interesting to read this book ten years after it was first published and to see how football has developed along with society. While the game has certainly expanded, economically and from a performance perspective, the social issues outlined in this book still exist. There is still a very large problem with racism in football, and the plight of African footballers outlined by Lviv footballer Edward Anyamkyegh still exists. And of course Brazil is still struggling to produce the 2014 World Cup with a corrupt Football Association.

The one area that I felt the book lacked in was explaining the impact of exporting all of these matches from abroad to the various smaller countries. While it is great that players in developing nations are now being exposed to quality product from Europe, there is often very little impact on the domestic product. For example, in the United States and you ask a soccer fan what team they support they will often say Bayern Munich, Manchester United, F.C. Barcelona, or any number of the major teams. But how often do they say the Philadelphia Union or D.C. United? Not very often.

Globalization can be good because it gives the world the products that they want. Things like Coca-Cola, McDonalds, or F.C. Barcelona can now be packaged and served to audiences all throughout the world. They aren’t companies, but brands. McDonalds is not interested in creating the best hamburger in the world, but rather the best company that makes hamburgers. Likewise, when F.C. Barcelona opens an academy or creates a partnership with a local develop in let’s say India, they are not interested in developing young players in India. Here in the United States, Major League Soccer has seen what can happen when a foreign team invests in their product. It is called Chivas U.S.A.

Although there have been many books that have tied social commentary to the game of football, none have done so with the touch that Franklin Foer does with this book. When talking about a subject like globalization and soccer, it is very difficult to avoid taking one side or the other. Rather than taking a position on any particular subject, Foer explains each example in the book with careful detail and precise arguments. It is a fascinating that shows how far this game has come in recent history and what might be in store for it as our world becomes smaller.

Sean Maslin

Writer for Global Football Today, Soccerly, D.C. Soccer, Soccer Without Limits, and Blatter's Blotter. Lifetime D.C. United, Newcastle United, and Washington Warthog fan. Can be reached at @SeanMaslin on twitter or at

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