Thursday, October 27, 2011

How Soccer Explains the World Part 1

Its almost hard to articulate a review of Franklin Foer's book How Soccer Explains The World, simply because it is a series of anecdotes whose relationship to each other is there, but hard to capture. But I will settle for a synopsis. The title of the book is meant to be hyperbole, as the subtitle an {unlikely} theory of globalization indicates.

But Foer does not disappoint in showing the significant influences the game has on culture, particularly in the areas where soccer is the most popular sport - like in Europe and Brazil - and how it has stood firm under the waves of globalization.

Foer is a world-class journalist who has traveled to ten different countries to examine the role of soccer. His outstanding narrative abilities leap out as he weaves through interviews of soccer aficionados through all echelons of fandom, from average fans to team owners to actual players, provides historical background, and recounts his own experiences.  In doing so he reveals a world that so few Americans have any idea about.

He devotes one chapter to each of the places he traveled to.  Below are short recaps of the first three chapters, more of which will be forthcoming:
His first chapter "How Soccer Explains The Gangster's Paradise," goes over the Ultra Bad Boy, the hooligan gang of Red Star, a team in Serbia.  Under the Serb Arkin's leadership, what became known as the Tigers developed into a paramilitary unit that would fight the Croatians.  If Sports have traditionally been a metaphor for war, then Arkin blurred the two into the same thing.  He was merciless in his behind-the-scenes threats to opposing teams, even going so far as to shoot an opposing player's knee if he did the unthinkable and scored on them.

After reading about the corruption and violence that characterizes the milieu of the Serbian soccer complex, it becomes forcibly clear that it is not an equivalent to the NBA or NFL.

But such circumstances are not confined to Serbia.  In his second Chapter, "How Soccer Explains the Pornography of Sects" Foer travels to Scotland, where the conflict between the protestant Rangers and the catholic Celtics can be just as violent and passionate.  The vulgarity and fervor exhibited in the fan standoffs make the historical contention between the L.A Lakers and Boston Celtics look like a conversation among tea party ladies. No one donning a Celtic jacket can make it through a Ranger bar unmugged. And visa-versa. 

Turning away from the theme of violence, Foer proceeds to discuss the role soccer has played in restoring Jewish pride, in his chapter "How Soccer explains the Jewish question."  Max Nordau, one of the architects of turn-of-the century Zionism, said that the victims of antisemitism suffered from judendot, meaning "Jewish distress." He wrote: In the narrow Jewish streets, our poor limbs forgot how to move joyfully; in the gloom of sunless houses our eyes became accustomed to nervous blinking: out of fear of constant persecution the timbre of our voices was extinguished to an anxious whisper. 

To combat this Jewish distress, he  formed the doctrine of Muskeljudentum, which can be translated into "Muscular Judaism."  In order to recreate their body politic, Nordau argued, the Jews had to recreate their bodies.  Nordau proposed creating athletic facilities where the Jews could play sports.  And to a certain extent, they thrived; out of the fifty-two Olympic medals won by Austria in the forty year period between 1896 and 1936, eighteen of them were awarded to Jews.

In all of these cases, the three that have been outlined as well as the other seven, soccer acts as an object people latch on to to satisfy their innate tribalistic needs.  Especially in the European Union, where nationalism has given way to incipient globalism, people gravitate toward their soccer teams as a source of identity.  This human inclination to associate itself by groups has been confirmed time and again by history, observation, introspection, and studies.

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