Friday, July 14, 2006

Soccer Geekery Round-Up

Like I said the other day, I recommend Franklin Foer's Book How Soccer Explains the World. If I were to sum it up in less than ten words, I'd call it Tom Friedman Becomes a Soccer Fan. Soccer is a useful lens for examining the worldwide tensions between tribalism and globalism--rather more useful, I'd venture, than McDonald's franchises or many of Friedman's illustrations.

The book begins with several fairly hair-raising profiles of hooligan subcultures. It opened my eyes quite a bit to read about the rabid Serbian nationalism of the supporters of Red Star Belgrade, and to read that the Serb government actually mobilized Red Star gangs into militias that carried out ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. The city of Glasgow is home to two world-famous clubs, Glasgow Celtic (identified with Catholics) and Glasgow Rangers (identified with Protestants), and when the clubs face each other, young rowdies cross via ferry from Belfast to press their sectarian cause and keep their street-fighting skills in practice. In other words, one of the hottest fronts in the now mostly cold war over Irish nationalism, takes place in Scotland on the days of key soccer matches.

But the book moves from pessimism to optimism. I find it debatable how significant soccer is as an economic engine, and whether to applaud the flow of young players emigrating from the Third World seeking to strike it rich in Europe. But Foer persuades me that the sport can provide an important means of civic expression, and a valuable safety valve. One of the final chapters focuses on Iran, where the love of soccer is a legacy of the Shah and is one aspect of modernity that the ayatollahs try to control but dare not try to eradicate. Women are known to remove their burkhas and dress as men to attend matches, and Islamic laws against alcohol use are unofficially suspended when Iran's national team records a big win.

Two criticisms of the book. A minor one is the presence of some really stilted sentences; I suspect Foer is reaching for the style of the English sportswriters he admires, but I think he falls short. Second, for all his fine observation and analysis of soccer's intersections with the larger culture, the book is light on discussion of the game itself. The advantage here, I suppose, is that a reader doesn't have to know the sport well to get the book, so on balance maybe this was a smart move. Bryan Curtis had Frank Foer in mind (he says as much) when he wrote this piece in Slate about the attraction some young American intellectuals feel toward soccer. Curtis implies that for many of these writers, it's a deliberate fashion choice, and doesn't have much to do with the game on the field.

Whereas I marvel at what the players can do. Take this fairly routine scenario in the World Cup: a defender chases the ball into his own deep corner, then spins and turns the ball almost 180 degrees, booming it 30 or 40 yards upfield to his attacking teammates. One touch; 180 degree change of direction; an authoritative kick downfield. It would take me three touches to turn the ball, and the resulting pass would be a 10-yard roller. It almost seems unfair to me, like steroids in baseball or graphite rackets in tennis. But these guys are just that good.

Here's a Foer essay that's pretty typical of his approach, discussing what form of government (socialist, fascist, social democratic) is most advantageous for a country's chances to win a World Cup. It's a little cute, it claims more empirical certainty than it has a right to, but it says more about sports and about politics than most writers could manage with this word count.

The New Republic's World Cup blog Goal Post (archived here, at least as of this writing) was really well-done too; I've been reading back over it this week. It was a lively extension of the book: Foer invited some soccer-loving friends and colleagues from abroad to contribute, and even invited Susie Felber, a soccer skeptic but a smart NYC-based cosmopolitan voice.

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