Writers have used soccer as the key to understanding everything from Thatcherite England to Dutch design sense to the sweep of globalization. But if soccer explains the world, does it matter that Americans don't understand soccer?
THERE IS ONLY one week left in the world's third most popular sporting event (after the World Cup and Summer Olympics), and most Americans do not even know it is happening. But as soccer's European Championship heads toward its July 4 finale, those paying attention include an interestingly split segment of the population: on the one hand, the educated, transatlantic elite who learned about soccer during a postcollegiate year or two in Europe; and on the other, a much larger, more widely dispersed, less affluent and less educated population of immigrants and their children, many of them not of European extraction or even fluent English speakers. These are the people who love soccer in this country, and they are not to be mistaken for those who play it: hundreds of thousands of school-age children who don't really follow the game outside the United States -- which, as soccer fans know, is where the game actually is.
So to understand the world, it can be argued, one has to understand the world's most popular game, which doesn't mean its rules or strategy but rather its culture, its fans (that is, entire national populations), and what the game explains about their lives. And as it turns out, the global game, a sport no older than any of our American sports, really, has become the study of sociologists, anthropologists, cultural historians, and sports journalists posing as same. Soccer-as-sociology is by now a well-established discipline, lacking only its endowed professorships and annual conferences, but undoubtedly these will come.
Does soccer explain everything -- war, domestic happiness, national character, international affairs? Since Nick Hornby kicked off the genre (and his own notable career) in 1992 with "Fever Pitch," a memoir of a life lived only for the London club Arsenal, soccer sociology has expanded its reach from the personal to the universal. A book out next month from HarperCollins by an American, Franklin Foer, an editor at The New Republic and a former schoolboy player on whom the game grew only slowly, then totally, contains the proposition in its title: "How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization."
Foer's title is a bit of a misnomer, suggesting a study in foreign affairs (in fact, it has been excerpted in Foreign Policy) when it is more like a travelogue of some nine soccer-loving countries -- plus the United States -- after the fashion of Bill Bryson, but with fewer jokes. An actual stated theory on globalization is hard to find; the book is more a series of small provocations worth pondering, like the author's declaration that "the football revolution holds the key to the future of the Middle East," where soccer, as he has seen it reported from Iran, presents an alternative to Islamism in the return to a more manageable (he hopes) secular nationalism.
Actually, Foer's most important point, buried near the end, concerns American soccer-hating types who fear that soccer is something like those UN black helicopters, an underhanded means of getting the United States to sign on to the one-world agenda. These American "exceptionalists," Foer writes, think the United States "should be above submitting to international laws and bodies." To them "soccer isn't exactly pernicious, but it's a symbol of the US junking its tradition." Who would have thought that soccer could so cleanly explain even those who refuse to play it?
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In "Fever Pitch," Hornby sheepishly admitted that his tendency "to overestimate the metaphorical value of football" had resulted in the alienation of his friends. In his introduction he writes, "I now accept that football has no relevance to the Falklands conflict, the Rushdie affair, the Gulf War, childbirth, the ozone layer, the poll tax, etc., etc." But the general trend in soccer writing has been toward just this kind of vaulting ambition, a view that soccer explains, if not the global system itself, at least the cultural obsessions and historical injuries of entire nations.
Two books in Foer's bibliography are especially notable for the grand claims they make for soccer and one small country, the Netherlands, which is where I grew up and at the right time, too: the Golden Age of the `70s, when Holland, the clearly better team both times, lost two World Cup finals to the two host nations, West Germany in 1974 and Argentina in 1978.
In 1988, when the great team of Rijkaard-van Basten-Gullit actually won something -- the European Championship -- the sweetest victory was not the final over Russia but the semifinal over Germany: revenge for 1974, and most of all for 1940-45, when Holland underwent a relatively benign occupation that became a more brutal one. "Give me back my bicycle," the orange-clad Dutch fans sang in the stadium at Hamburg that day, an unanswerable riposte to the Nazi habit of requisitioning Dutch bikes -- and rather cleverer than their whistling during the playing of the German anthem in a first-round encounter in Portugal two weeks ago.
"Ajax, the Dutch, the War" (2003), by South-African born writer Simon Kuper, who grew up near The Hague, examines some of these wounds of war as expressed through football (as it must be called from here on). The book assumes, rather oddly, that during the war "football was a place where the Holocaust met daily life," and that by studying the situation in Holland, where a city once filled with Jews (Amsterdam), and one dominant football club (Ajax), made for a unique tension that "might even produce wider truths about the war in the rest of occupied western Europe."
In the prewar years, Ajax and Jews were well and prosperously intertwined; the club, whose grounds were located near the Jewish quarter, had many Jewish fans and players. But once the occupation began, the club's record -- like the country's (contrary to popular myth) -- becomes more clouded, with a number of Jewish players, for example, being forced to leave the team. Kuper implies the Dutch have felt guilty about it ever since.
In the `60s, Jews, and the Jewish past, became cool in the cosmopolitan city -- the club's Jewish masseur, Salo Muller, taught Yiddish slang and Jewish jokes in the locker room; and Jewish money (along with that of Nazi collaborators) helped rebuild the club. Nowadays -- baffling to outsiders seeing it for the first time -- the hard-core Ajax fans, virtually all Gentile, daub themselves with the star of David and proudly call themselves Jews, leading to the most vicious of taunts ("Ajax to Auschwitz") from opposing (but also Dutch) supporters.
Less grim is the British journalist David Winner's 2000 book "Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football," which, while covering some of the same history as Kuper, tends to adopt a more theoretical and aesthetic approach to the Dutch game. Winner suggests that the Dutch evolved a style of play to suit their flat, Mondrian-like country of rectangular fields and low skies, burdened by the ever-encroaching sea. To elaborate the point he meets architects, designers, urban planners, political scientists, psychoanalysts, art historians, and even a symphony conductor, all of whom are formidably articulate on the subject of Dutch football. According to Rudi Fuchs, recently departed director of the Stedelijk museum in Amsterdam, for the Dutch football is "all about measuring space very precisely," in a country, which, after all, has hardly any.
What this means, Winner suggests, is that the Dutch like to pass more than they like to score, making use of their footballing space across the entire field. Fear of winning -- "the shame of being good," in the words of one of Winner's interlocutors -- is part of their Calvinist heritage, and explains why Dutch players tend to miss penalty kicks at critical moments, as they have done in three straight European championships. (Yesterday's quarterfinal against Sweden may have provided their fourth test.) For a Dutchman, anyway, playing proper football is morally superior to winning at football. When every Dutch player is an aesthete or philosopher, or both -- the sublime goalscorer Dennis Bergkamp has said that "behind every action must be a thought" -- one has, perhaps, the constituent parts of a beautiful, maddening, opinionated, and sanctimonious team: the downside of the Dutch character, some would say.
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The charge against Americans, in Old Europe and elsewhere, is that they lack a sense of history. So it will be no surprise if Foer's book does not go over well outside the United States. Foer dates the dawn of globalized soccer -- "the new order" -- to some point in the `90s, thanks to the Internet and Rupert Murdoch (publisher of his book, as he acknowledges), which is roughly the start of his own footballing consciousness: "You could see globalization on the pitch. . .. Basque teams, under the stewardship of Welsh coaches, stocked up on Welsh and Turkish players; Moldavian squads imported Nigerians."
But this has been true for decades. In the interwar years, Ajax of Amsterdam was run by the Englishman Jack Reynolds; a star of its `60s teams (and captain) was the Serb Velibor Vasovic. The great `50s footballer, Ferenc Puskas of Hungary, known as the Mighty Magyar, crossed the Iron Curtain to Real Madrid; his teammate Alfredo Di Stefano was an Argentine who became a two-time European Footballer of the Year. If anything, soccer has anticipated globalization and has pushed Europe, and the world, closer together.
Meanwhile there is America, the sleeping giant of world football still to be roused. But nothing escapes the reach of American popular culture, and ultimately its dominance. The anthem of Liverpool Football Club, words and all, is Rodgers and Hammerstein: "You'll never walk alone," from "Carousel." When I was growing up, no Europeans wore baseball caps; now all supporters have them, in club colors, and the Nike logo can be seen on the jerseys of most of the best club and national teams in the world, including the world champions, Brazil. Most close observers of the game now think it is only a short time before the United States wins the World Cup.
Foer's book sets one thinking about the great American isolation. If we want to understand the world, we should probably try to understand soccer in the same way it's suggested we try to understand Arabic, Islam, and other exotic plants. Understanding the appeal of David Beckham in Japan and now Madrid is perhaps like understanding the appeal of Osama bin Laden in Karachi or the Philippines. If that last sentence means nothing to you, you have some work to do.
Eric Weinberger teaches expository writing at Harvard University.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.