Book Review: How Soccer Explains the World

FRANKFURT AM MAIN, GERMANY - APRIL 29: Hooligans of Frankfurt provoke the police after the ascent to the 1. Bundesliga. (Photo by Christof Koepsel/Bongarts/Getty Images) Hooligans are one of the topics addressed in How Soccer Explains the World.

What I enjoy about following soccer is not limited to the actual, physical sport. I find the social, political, and emotional facets of the sport fascinating as well. Franklin Foer covers those aspects in his book, How Soccer Explains the World, under an umbrella of a discussion on globalization. While some other reviews compare this book to Fever Pitch, I believe that it's a lot more like Soccer Men; a collection of stories from different soccer societies in different countries.

In fact, How Soccer Explains the World is, in my opinion, more effective of a book than Soccer Men and a few of the other books that I have already reviewed. One common complaint in past reviews has been that the book attempts to cover too much ground. Soccer is a complex, historied sport, so as a result many authors try to cram too much information into too short of a book. This book covers only a few topics but manages to do so in a highly effective way. Instead of discussing "hooliganism" as a blanket topic and bringing in five different examples from different countries and leagues, Foer writes only about one location. For example, he uses the history behind Red Star Belgrade to address the topics of nationalism, extremist politics, corruption, political assassinations, and hooliganism. He doesn't need to bring in other teams or leagues because we can take the situation and transpose it ourselves. He weaves soccer and history together to show that they are inseparable, and that this intertwining is ubiquitous all across the world.


The book takes a highly researched approach to the sport, but is written in engaging prose. It's obvious that the author took eight months off to travel the world to personally visit the locations, attend the matches, and to interview the people involved. For example, in the section on Red Star Belgrade, he manages to obtain an interview both with a leader of one of the Ultra clubs and also Ceca, the widow of Arkan, a Serbian career criminal who is the focus of much of this chapter. He does the same for his chapters on the Old Firm, the Jewish soccer renaissance, and the story of Brazilian soccer (and corruption). I also appreciate that while this book is a bestseller and clearly meant for the "general public", it's not dumbed down and simplified. It addresses some very serious issues in soccer in a highly intelligent, yet readable, manner. It's a good introduction to these topics and a great way to pique interest in the socioeconomic underpinnings of the sport.

And - of course - the last section of the book covers a pet topic of many authors and journalists: what's with the United States? Foer doesn't attempt to pose any theories, nor does he volunteer any suggestions as to why soccer isn't the top sport in the US. He does bring up some interesting points, though. One subject that other books are hesitant to address is the group of people who actively hate soccer. Not the people who are ambivalent towards it or don't find it interesting, but rather the people with actual sway who actively speak out against it. Why? Baseball isn't popular in England, but nobody lobbies against it there. Here, we have people like Jim Rome and Allen Barra, who believe that soccer is a threat against the "American way of life".

Foer suggests that it's a xenophobic fear of globalization. Soccer has already been globalized, with teams like Manchester United and Real Madrid becoming well-known, global entities much like the widespread brand recognition of McDonald's and Nike. These people who speak out against it are afraid that once we embrace these global entities, we'll start to lose our national identity. The irony of the situation is that soccer is a touchstone of a cultural war in the US, just as it is in many other countries.

I definitely enjoyed reading this book. The only complaint I have is that the title is completely misleading. Nothing in the book describes how soccer explains the world at all. Otherwise, it was a well-written, pleasant book to read.

Information taken from How Soccer Explains the World, by Franklin Foer; HarperCollins Publishers, 2004.

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