Posted by: mdegeorge | September 4, 2010

Summer Reading: “How Soccer Explains the World” by Franklin Foer

One of the great joys of childhood was always summer vacation. And like any proud intellectual (read: nerd), one of the highlights of that eight-week nirvana of a hiatus was the plethora of time available for tearing into my summer reading list. The days spent sprawled out on lounge chairs in the shade delving into the offerings of the local library are one of the great joys of adolescence lost.

Now, as an underemployed college grad with plenty of time on my hands, what better way to while away the days then by giving my library card a work out? My grandparents’ suburban home and spacious decks have been replaced by a sweaty one-bedroom apartment, but the aim is the same. So, all summer, I’ll be posting brief synopses of the latest book to tickle my fancy.

Reading Franklin Foer’s “How Soccer Explains the World” in full view of others at work, I got those looks: The long “uh-huh” connoting far more disdain and doubt to the veracity of the author’s claim that actual thoughtfulness about what its pages might contain. Sidelong glances as though the front cover’s text was in Cyrillic. Borderline condescending conversation linking Foer’s opus to “Soccer for Dummies”.

Given that Foer’s wonderfully researched and written text more closely resembles a series in Time than Sports Illustrated, I was understandably disheartened by what I perceived to be closed-minded reactions. But as someone—especially an American—often in wonder of the history, pageantry, and hysteria of world soccer that many times feels more distant and foreign than any ocean could conceivably create, Foer’s book’s only shortcoming is that it didn’t go on forever.

Foer’s book explores ten phenomena in the world explained by soccer. These issues run the gambit: the nationalistic ties of soccer hooligans (using Partizan Belgrade’s fan gangs that morphed into vicious militias murdering untold hundreds of Bosnia Muslims in the early 1990s); the sectarian ties of soccer rivalries, politically and religiously (as shown by Barcelona-Real Madrid and Celtic-Rangers, respectively); the importance of the sport in the history of the various religious groups (in the Jewish past and the future of Iranian Islam).The book is by no means baseless conjecture. Foer is on the front lines in his research, speaking to myriad soccer hooligans in England and Scotland, plus hooligans/soldiers/gangsters in Serbia. He delves repeatedly into the annals of history for context, particularly in his search for long-lost information about former all-Jewish Austrian soccer team, Hakoah. He aggressively seeks out info on all sides of a story, experiencing first had the graft and corruption of Brazilian soccer and the massive media assemblage of AC Milan.

Despite tremendous researching and reporting, Foer presents the story with a remarkable degree of self-consciousness. His preface involves his own soccer shortcomings and explains how he became addicted to the game. His love of the sport permeates the entire work, undergirding his curiosity to seek out sources—like dangerous Serbian gangsters—that others may not. That passion balances his journalistic tone, allowing him to present his connections in a way that is accessible to fans of both the beautiful game and the underlying cultural phenomena.

It’s not a book for those looking for stats and reminiscence of triumphs of soccer’s past. Anyone looking merely for that will be lost, especially if they lack at least a basic knowledge of the many important cultural undercurrents to which Foer traces the game back to.

But for those yearning to learn about the reciprocity between the world’s most popular sport and the global culture it both feeds on and influences, “How Soccer Explains the World” will be a book which you’ll only have to pick up once before being hooked. I highly recommend it as a vital inclusion in any cerebral soccer fan’s library.

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