If you didn’t watch the Women’s World Cup final last month, you missed out on more than a great match. Andrew Ladd reviews three books that explain how soccer can save society.
American men always have trouble when it comes to international soccer, but other than a dry spell over the past decade, American women have usually had better luck—and this year’s performance in the Women’s World Cup was no exception, even if they didn’t ultimately win. Their matches had everything: skill, athleticism, finesse, and most importantly the drama that makes soccer the incredible sport it is.
Still, I was disappointed to have to watch alone as the women played, in mostly empty bars, my eyes glued to a single TV with the sound turned low. Even without the perennial American reason for ignoring the men’s World Cup—“we’ll start caring when they start doing well”—very few people seemed interested in the fate of the women’s team.
But there are plenty of good reasons to care about the women’s team in particular and soccer in general, even between World Cups and the sporadic league coverage in the U.S. Most notably there’s the sport’s ability to help cure the world’s social problems, to some extent, by shedding light on them—and several books from the last decade have attempted to explain how soccer does so. Today I’m going to give a rundown of the most popular.
If you’re the sort of person who loves vicious book reviews, fasten your seatbelts, because I’m going to start by eviscerating the sweetheart of soccer writing: Franklin Foer.
His book on the subject, 2004’s How Soccer Explains The World (Harper Perennial, $14.99), claims to demonstrate, using soccer, the many facets of globalization in today’s world. Instead it mainly demonstrates that the author is a priggish, upper-class twit, whose research and writing is guided less by a love or understanding of soccer and more by his own (often offensive) biases.
This may sound like character assassination, but the book speaks for itself. Throughout, Foer presents working-class soccer “hooligans” as brutish idiots, who have sophisticated thoughts very rarely, and then only by accident.
Case in point is Alan Garrison, a once-violent Chelsea fan who, during an interview, repeats the anti-globalization argument in Naomi Klein’s No Logo, but only, says Foer, “unwittingly.” Never mind that Garrison is also a former elite soldier, author of an unpublished novel (written with “surprising clarity and panache”), and a retired Silicon Valley videogame designer: apparently none of that compensates for his past taste for violence and current (alleged) stupidity. Good men, apparently, have to be lifelong pacifists.
The same pattern plays out in almost every chapter: anyone who shows signs of the working class, or a love of violence, or, most remarkably, a belief in Islam (which Foer says exhibits a “humiliating lack of modernity”), is worthy of our scorn. Meanwhile, when mistakes are made by rich white folk—or, tellingly, the fans of Foer’s beloved Barça—we’re supposed to be sympathetic.
The multinational banks, for instance, who made a half-hearted attempt to professionalize Brazilian league soccer by investing millions of dollars, had “a utopian glint in their eyes,” and an “ambitious plan” to help the needy. Unfortunately it was also a very vague plan and their investments quickly went missing—some people even accused the banks of intentionally using Brazil’s corrupt clubs to launder money—but in the end, says Foer, that was the silly poor people’s fault, not the banks’. Those poor guys!
What’s most frustrating about Foer’s failed attempts to “explain everything” using soccer, is that by “everything” he means only “globalization”—and globalization is probably the least interesting thing soccer can explain.
In the 2009 book Soccernomics, for example (Nation Books, $14.95), authors Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski convincingly use the sport to shed light on the inefficiencies of markets, fantasy and obsession, game theory, suicide rates, the history of the industrial revolution, and much more besides.
Their method, unlike Foer’s literary journalism, is brute-force econometric analysis, the kind used in the wildly popular Freakonomics series (whose title Kuper and Szymanski so shamelessly rip off). This lends itself to a lot of surprising statistics: did you know people generally say they’re happier with life in the years when their country hosts a major soccer tournament? Or that, contrary to popular belief, more people watched the 2006 World Cup final in the United States than watch an average NBA or MLB playoff game? Or that the more you pay the players on a soccer team, the more likely they are to win matches?
Sometimes, however, the authors try too hard to be the next Freakonomics, and a few of their statistical analyses come off as a bit of a stretch at best, or pointless at worst. Do we really need a 20-page chapter to explain why poor countries don’t have a lot of success in international sports? (Hint: it’s because they’re poor.) By the end of the book’s 300 pages I suspect even the most enthusiastic statistician will tire of so many numbers.
But in a very real, very satisfying way, Soccernomics manages to provide both a solid debunking of many soccer myths and also an engaging way of using soccer to think about the wider world. All that’s missing, thanks to the authors’ dry, mathematical approach, is a sense of soccer’s frenzied passion.
If it’s passion you’re after, though, there’s a book for you too: John Doyle’s 2010 The World Is a Ball (Rodale, $15.99). Doyle, an Irishman by birth who now works as a TV critic in Toronto, doesn’t care much for statistics or political theory. All he cares about is World Cup soccer and its fans, and this engaging memoir tracks his adventures following both around the globe.
Most soccer fans will tell you that the atmosphere of a World Cup, whether you’re there in person or not, is close to transcendent. Nothing can rival watching a match among fellow fans, and cheering, gasping, and sobbing at every save and breakaway. Unlike many sports, too—and contrary to the soccer hooligan stereotype—World Cup matches usually bring out the best in people: you can sit in a bar surrounded by supporters of rival teams and witness not a shred of animosity or violence, no matter what happens on screen.
Doyle has an uncanny ability to capture that atmosphere, and does so to great effect as he travels from major tournament to major tournament over the last 10 years. He has a great knack for finding dramatic arcs, too. Each of these tournaments is far more than a collection of unrelated matches, in Doyle’s hands; they’re Greek tragedies unfolding before us. (Or, in the case of Euro 2004, Greek triumphs.)
And though his final section, a few vignettes about World Cup 2010 qualifying matches, chosen seemingly at random, loses a lot of steam and adds little in return, that doesn’t detract from Doyle’s greatest asset as a soccer writer: his grasp of the game’s essence. He seems to understand, far more intuitively than Foer or Kuper or Szymanski, that soccer can explain not just concrete social phenomena, but the more mysterious, karmic forces of the universe. That it can explain both humans’ greatest weaknesses, and our greatest strengths.
He understands, in short, that soccer can be a powerful, unifying, positive influence on the world. All we need to do is start paying more attention.