TBR: How Soccer Explains the World

Today’s book is How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization, by Franklin Foer.  I picked it up at the store as it seemed like an appropriate book to read while travelling in Europe during the World Cup.  It turned out to be a perfect book for travelling — a quick read, divided into self-contained chapters, interesting without being particularly challenging.

Unlike Stephen Jay Gould’s erudite essays about baseball, Foer’s essays aren’t really about the game of soccer.  You don’t really need to know anything about the game to enjoy them.  Foer writes about soccer fans, players, and owners, often focusing on the dark side of the sport — ethnic hatreds, corruption, violence.  He’s particularly fascinated by the persistence of local and national identitites in the face of globalization, and whether that’s inherently a bad thing.

I enjoyed the book, but am not sure how seriously to take Foer’s analysis.  One chapter is about soccer in the United States, in particular why some people are so vehemently oppposed to it.  Foer argues that they are, in their own way, anti-globalization activitists, objecting to the idea that Americans should like soccer just because the rest of the world does.  That seemed reasonable to me, but then he suggests that they’re defensive because baseball, the quintessentially American game, has failed in the global marketplace.  That argument doesn’t ring true — baseball is certainly struggling, but the games that it’s losing to (in the US) are US football (which is even more of an international flop) and basketball (which is increasingly an international game itself).  The gaps in the one chapter where I actually know something make me wonder whether there are similar holes in the rest of the book.


Via BitchPhD, some World Cup blogging.

3 Responses to “TBR: How Soccer Explains the World”

  1. bdure Says:

    Interesting point. There’s ample evidence that American resistance to soccer is stubborn (though the resistors are shrinking in numbers), and that baseball has had the advantage of being intertwined with national identity. Baseball even invented a myth about its origins to distance itself from similar English games.
    If you want to read hundreds of pages on the subject in academic-ese, read Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism. For academic reading, it’s quite good.
    You’re right that Foer may be overreaching with baseball’s supposed international interests. But I think he can be forgiven for an imperfect bit of analysis. The rest of it is mostly first-hand analysis, and it’s backed up by this book’s predecessor, Simon Kuper’s Soccer Against the Enemy. Kuper covered much of the same territory in global hotspots.
    And the USA as well. Kuper’s take: “When immigrants from Europe landed in the U.S., their children were teased on the street for their funny accents, clothes, and parents. The last thing these children were going to do was play a funny European game on the streets and be teased again, so they took up baseball. This is why Americans don’t play soccer.”

  2. chip Says:

    sounds interesting. I also am not convinced by his argument about baseball’s failure to catch on globally. I mean, how many American football teams are there outside the US? Many many fewer than baseball teams in Cuba and Dominican Republic and Taiwan and Japan and…
    I also don’t think most Americans give a rat’s tail about how foreigners view American sports, and in fact probably take a perverse pride in the fact that they are “uniquely” American.
    As for soccer, I wonder if this will change? When I was a kid in 60s-70s there were no soccer leagues at all that I knew of. Now there are soccer leagues everywhere. As kids who grew up playing soccer become young adults, I wonder if that will translate into more interest in soccer. This would be an interesting test of the importance of actual interest vs. the importance of money to be made from commercialization of a sport…

  3. Christine Says:

    Soccer, like basketball, is an inexpensive sport -get a ball, a pair of sneakers and a field and anyone can play. There are so many children’s soccer leagues in America because teams are big (every kid on the team has a chance to play), it doesn’t require expensive equipment (unlike football or ice hockey) and it gives suburban parents a social life. I am not sure if anti-soccer sentiment in America has anything to do with globalization or nationalism. Personally, I find the sport more fun to play than watch, but I also feel that way about basketball. I have been watching the World Cup and the filming of it is driving me crazy. I might as well be at the game. They pretty much pan the field and have closeups when someone gets hurt. I think if the presentation were better more Americans would get into it. The filming technique of other sports reflect the pace of the sport itself which engages the viewer.

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