To understand Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World, one has to realize that it is a combination of two books – Thomas L. Friedman’s brilliant history of globalization, The World is Flat, and Nick Hornby’s classic soccer autobiography, Fever Pitch. (That’s right. Fever Pitch is actually about soccer, not the Red Sox.)
If there was ever something to explain everything about the world, it has to be soccer, Foer argues. Aside from the Neanderthal-football-loving United States, no sport is more beloved from Aruba to Zimbabwe than soccer. Foer, an admitted “soccer zealot” (to steal a phrase from soccer illiterate American sportswriters), writes a history of soccer globalization not as how it will change the coming century, a la Friedman, but as a catalyst to explain how the world has gotten to where it is today.
The world is a very big place, obviously, so Foer sticks to specific examples: how soccer had a hand in Francisco Franco-ruled Spain, or how in Glasgow, Scotland, a city divided by religions, one has to simply identify himself as a Rangers or Celtic supporter to signify his religious affiliation.
Nothing can symbolize the red/blue state concept we know and love more than soccer.
It is one thing to have a democratic representative root against your favorite team (ask Mets fans who watched former Mayor Rudy Giuliani openly root for the Yankees), but what happens when a dictator is the biggest fan of your squad’s biggest rival? In the case of Franco (a Real Madrid supporter), he appointed a state representative to head the rival club (FC Barcelona), threatened players with death or exile should they win and changed the name of the team (from the Castilian FC Barcelona to the Catalan Club de Football de Barcelona).
In Glasgow, simply wearing orange or blue (Rangers, the Protestant club) in a Celtic (green and white, or Catholic club) neighborhood can get you beaten or shot – with no explanation whether the cause was football or religion. The two are that closely related.
And how does soccer explain America, a country in which it is mocked and barely even receives attention in the biggest of papers? (When was the last time Stephen A. Smith wrote about Freddy Adu?)
Unlike in Europe, where nationalism in the 20th century has been on the rise, the American public seems to be split on national pride.
In Europe, and for that the rest of the world, soccer is king, whereas in America, soccer is merely a footnote on the sports page. Here, there are two sides to every story and people can be defined as a Democrat or a Republican, not merely as an American. And nothing helps explain the nation divided better than soccer.