Tuesday, July 25, 2006


Three for the Cup.

Franklin Foer, How Soccer Explains The World (Harper Perennial 2005).
Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch
(Riverhead 1998).
Bill Buford, Among The Thugs (Vintage 1993).

Inspired by the World Cup and finding myself in a Barnes & Noble, I picked up these three books. All three were shelved with the soccer books but all three focus less on the sport itself than on its milieu – each book uses soccer as a prism, a device to bring the game’s surroundings into focus.

The title of Franklin Foer’s book promises quite a bit, and if it sounds like he bit off more than he could chew, well, just be assured that the book is not quite so ambitious, for better or worse. In the preface, Foer explains:
This book has three parts. The first tries to explain the failure of globalization to erode ancient hatreds in the game’s great rivalries. It is the hooligan-heavy section of the book. The second part uses soccer to address economics: the consequences of migration, the persistence of corruption, and the rise of powerful new oligarchs like Silvio Berlusconi, the president of Italy and the AC Milan club. Finally, the book uses soccer to defend the virtues of old-fashioned nationalism – a way to blunt the return of tribalism.
Notwithstanding the title and these promises, those looking for an explanation of much of anything will be disappointed. Foer is not even particularly clear about what he means when he talks about globalization. But who cares? Maybe non-sporting social theorists, but the rest of us will ignore the overlay of social theory to read about soccer.

Foer’s book reads like a collection of magazine articles about related subjects; it never coheres as a book. There is some good stuff, including a chapter about Red Star Belgrade’s role in the ugly side of Serbian nationalism. (A particularly ugly side – was there an attractive side?) Some of the chapters – for example, the one about the rivalry between Rangers and Celtic, and the one about professional soccer’s failings in Brazil – touch on interesting subjects that might warrant a book, but evidently Foer learned enough to say enough, and then was ready to move onto the next thing. And then a few chapters have the punch of, say, the Iranian national team. All in all, a mixed bag. Were I Foer’s editor, I would have suggested that he think harder about the social theory, or spend more time on the ground in Glasgow and Rio de Janeiro.

I thoroughly enjoyed Fever Pitch while I was reading it, but now it’s hard to know what to say about it – not the first time Nick Hornby has induced that reaction in me. Hornby went to his first Arsenal match years and years ago as a young boy, and he has been obsessed with the team every since. He faltered now and then, but when he wrote the book he had seen every home match for years, with only the prospect of obligations to his wife or unborn children in the future to stand between him and his side.

There’s more soccer in Hornby’s book, and he seems to love and appreciate the sport in a way that Foer and Buford don’t share or can’t express. And then there’s the obsession, a devotion to the sport and his team that I can only vaguely fathom. Some of the rituals, perhaps, but Hornby long ago left the sort of territory I been through. Fever Pitch is a worthy guidebook.
California-bred, Bill Buford brought an outsider’s anthropological eye and detachment when he first encountered hard-core British soccer fans – hooligans or thugs, if you will – in the mid-1980s, and he made a project of trying to understand the phenomena. Among The Thugs is a remarkable exploration of organized mayhem, alcohol abuse, pathology, and a form of class consciousness. At the start of the book, Buford runs along with Manchester United fans rioting in Turin following a match against Juventus; at the book’s end, he runs with England fans rioting on Sardinia during the 1990 World Cup. When he returns from Sardinia, Buford has had enough, and it’s hard to understand how he stomached so much for so long. Or, indeed, how England did.
Both Fever Pitch and Among The Thugs left me wanting an update fifteen years on. Hornby’s team has changed as English soccer has changed, with Arsenal starring foreign players such as Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry, Jens Lehmann and now Tomas Rosicky. Meanwhile, the hooliganism that was so pervasive when Buford wrote largely is a thing of the past, from what I know. I would love to know how the changes in English soccer have changed Hornby’s affections for his team, and I would like to hear what was done to stop the hooligans.

When I finished Buford’s book, I pulled my copy of Ryszard Kapucinski’s The Soccer War off the shelf and re-read the title piece, an account of the five-day war in July 1969 between Honduras and El Salvador, sparked by rioting during a World Cup qualifying match. There’s very little soccer beyond the title, but Kapucinski is always wonderful.

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