Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Global football

In the last few years I've come to understand why the world considers football (the one where using your hands is frowned on) the beautiful game. I'm not yet an aficionado, but I'm getting there. At the top of my sports bucket list is watching the US Men's National Team win the World Cup -- an achievement the women came heartbreakingly close to this summer. Confession: the only time I've ever wept for joy over a silly game was when Landon Donovan scored the winning goal in stoppage time to beat Algeria in the 2010 World Cup. Mind you I still love American football, but there's a purity and simplicity about the other football that the American version lacks.

Another reason soccer is so compelling is that it's inextricably bound up with history and culture. Sure, that's true to some extent of all sports, but even a rivalry as fierce and colorful as the Yankees vs. the Red Sox can't compare to Barcelona/Real Madrid aka "El Clásico", Arsenal/Tottenham, Brazil/Argentina, England/Germany, or a dozen others one could mention.

All of this -- sport, history, economics, and more -- is mixed together in the book How Soccer Explains the World. It's a potent cocktail. In the book author Franklin Foer uses soccer as a lens to look into the promise and perils of globalization circa 2004. Since soccer is so closely identified with local cultures and traditions one would think that globalization has resulted in the homogenization of the beautiful game. As Foer writes in the prologue, this was one of the theories he set out to test when he took eight months off from his job at The New Republic to travel the world attending soccer matches and talking to soccer people.

[Soccer] is often more deeply felt than religion, and just as much a part of the community's fabric, a repository of traditions. During Franco's rule, the clubs Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad were the only venues where Basque people could express their cultural pride without winding up in jail. In English industrial towns like Coventry and Derby, soccer clubs helped glue together small cities amid oppressive dinginess.

By the logic of both its critics and proponents, the global culture should have wiped away these local institutions. Indeed, traveling the world, it's hard not to be awed by the power of mega-brands like the clubs Manchester United and Real Madrid, backed by Nike and Adidas, who have cultivated support across continents, prying fans away from their old allegiances. But that homogenization turned out to be more of an exception than I anticipated. Wandering among lunatic fans, gangster owners, and crazed Bulgarian strikers, I kept noticing the ways that globalization had failed to diminish the game's local cultures, local blood feuds, and even local corruption.

Foer concludes that if soccer is an accurate object lesson then religious and ethnic identities continue to be remarkably resilient. The traditionalist warning that economic globalization will turn us into McPlanet seems not to have come true. Despite attempts to get people to think of themselves as Latin American or European, older identities like Brazilian and English are still more important. For good and ill this is strikingly evident in the wacky wonderful world of football/fútbol/soccer. Nationalism is alive and well on the pitch and in the stands. If you want to take a tour of the good, bad and ugly of that world this is the book to read.

Quote from Franklin Foer, How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization (pp. 4-5)

No comments: