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Goal Diggers: Franklin Foer sees the widespread passion for soccer as a reflection of larger cultural changes

(How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization; By Franklin Foer; HarperCollins, 272 pp.; $24.95)

The title of Franklin Foer's ''How Soccer Explains the World" is unabashed hype and the thesis is so anemic that it can hardly stand up to scrutiny, but the prose is lively and the vignettes are memorable.

Soccer explains the world? Hardly. All sports are shaped by, and to some degree help to shape, the cultures of which they are a part. This is a widely acknowledged truism. What Foer demonstrates, with a good deal of verve, is that the fans' behavior varies even more than the players', from the brutal hooliganism of Belgrade's Ultra Bad Boys to the considerably more civilized antagonisms of FC Barcelona's Catalan nationalists. It is, however, easy to see why Foer did not go for ''The Behavior of Football Fans."

The subtitle is equally catchy, but Foer's thesis flickers on and off like a light bulb on its last amps. The main point seems to be that the diffusion of soccer from England to the rest of the world demonstrates that globalization in its modern form tends to impose a secular template that allows for considerable local variation. This point is made, more precisely and with much greater detail, by Joseph Maguire, Pierre Lanfranchi, and a number of other sports sociologists, none of whom is mentioned in the brief ''Note on Sources." Is the book, despite its major flaws, worth the reader's time and money? Definitely. Foer is an accomplished journalist. His sketches of historical background are deftly done. His skills as a narrator are enviable. His characterizations, many of them based on interviews, are comparable to those in Norman Mailer's journalism. Foer's portraits, like Mailer's, are dramatically effective caricatures.

Foer begins with Red Star Belgrade, the Serbian team whose brutal fans were led by the late Zeljko Raznatovic (better known as ''Arkan"). When Yugoslavia collapsed into civil war, Arkan shaped his followers into ''Milosevic's shock troops, the most active agents of ethnic cleansing, highly efficient practitioners of genocide." The informants for this chapter include an older fan, who wonders aloud whether or not he should murder Foer, and Arkan's widow, a pop idol.

In Glasgow, pathological ethnic hatreds are expressed by Roman Catholic hooligans loyal to the Celtics and by Protestant hooligans devoted to the Rangers. Foer spent most of his time with the latter, men (and women) given to wearing orange shirts, waving the Union Jack, singing ''Rule Britannia," and screaming ''Up to our knees in Fenian blood!"

A chapter titled ''How Soccer Explains the Jewish Question" does nothing of the sort, but it does provide glimpses of Vienna's famed Hakoah club, formed in 1909, and a somewhat more extended look at the philo-semitic fans of London's Tottenham Hotspurs and Amsterdam's Ajax. Inevitably, hooligans who proudly call themselves ''The Yid Army" are confronted by other fans whose idea of wit is to chant, ''Dirty Jews, dirty Jews, gas chambers, gas chambers." This chapter is followed by a detailed portrait of ''the thinking man's hooligan," an anti-Semitic Chelsea fan whose Nazi father married a Jewish nurse whom he met when he was a wounded POW in Edinburgh. Globalization didn't begin yesterday.

The theme of globalization can be heard more clearly when Foer goes to Latin America and to the Ukraine. While Parmalat and other foreign multinationals invested in Brazilian soccer teams, Brazilian stars, including Pel, shone brightly on European, North American, and Japanese teams. Of the 22 members of the national team, only seven play for Brazilian clubs. That mediocre players are also items in the global market for soccer skills can be seen in the chapter devoted to Edward Anyamkyegh, a Nigerian playing for Karpaty Lviv. The team also includes members from the former Yugoslavia because the coach is from Serbia. He was recruited, in part, because he speaks English, the players' only common language.

The theme fades away when Foer sets up a dramatic opposition between old and new in Italian soccer. The old is represented by Juventus of Turin, owned by the patrician Agnelli family, which also owns (or owned) Fiat, the Rizzoli publishing empire, and a number of important newspapers, including the mighty Corriere della Sera. The new is represented by AC Milan, owned by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who owns everything not owned by the Agnelli family. In this chapter, the fans, known as ''tifosi" because they behave like the victims of typhus, are scarcely mentioned.

The fans return as the good guys, who are devoted to the FC Barcelona, and the good girls, who defied the mullahs and invaded Tehran's Azadi stadium to celebrate Iran's qualification for the 1998 World Cup Finals. Mentioning the mullahs' inability to dampen Iranian enthusiasm for soccer, Foer asks (but doesn't answer) a good question: Can secular nationalism, to which soccer contributes, replace Islamic fundamentalism?

The last chapter is the weakest. Yuppie parents enroll their children in soccer leagues while right-wing politicians and talk show hosts sneer at soccer as a sissy game played by closet socialists. Soccer moms may be keener on globalization than NASCAR dads, but it's hard to believe that attitudes toward soccer explain (rather than exemplify) their differences.

Allen Guttmann is professor of English and American Studies at Amherst College.

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