June 28-July 5, 2006

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World Cup

Just because the U.S. is out, doesn't mean . . . The World Cup demands attention through July 9.

On the Ball

The global politics, sociology and dance styles of footie

By John Freeman

'What is soccer if not everything religion should be?" So asks Sean Wilsey, acting here as co-editor with Matt Weiland of the hefty new book, The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup (Harper Perennial; $14.95). Quibble with that question all you like, but football, as the world knows it, is certainly less dangerous than organized belief. About the only people who get seriously hurt are the fans, who occasionally pick fights or stampede one another at the end of close matches.

In light of such behavior, the title of this book feels a little less presumptuous. To feed the mind, Wilsey and Weiland have gathered some three dozen writers to write about the 32 countries participating in the 2006 World Cup. The essays are preceded by a page featuring CIA facts about each country, from its per capita GDP to its spending on military. There is even a drawing of each country's outline.

As such details might suggest, most of the essays in this book veer dramatically away from soccer. William Finnegan spends his essay on Portugal discussing the destruction of a once secret surfing spot. In her dispatch on Tobago and Trinidad, New Yorker magazine editor Cressida Leyshon describes Columbus' first sighting of the island, when he danced and played music to signal his friendliness. He got arrows in return and so "immediately stopped the music and dancing and ordered some crossbows to be fired."

As Peter Ho Davies points out in his essay on South Korea, soccer's roots "lie in the colonial past, which is so responsible for making it the world game." Therefore, it's not surprising that many of these essays point out the effects of globalization. Caryl Phillips notes that Ghana's best players go abroad to play, while Henning Mankell describes how difficult this exporting of talent made it for Angola to field a time at all.

True soccer fans might feel jilted, but this doesn't feel like a book for them. Like Patrick Neate's tour of global hip-hop, Where You're At, this book is best appreciated as a guide to how local environments shape soccer's shared global culture. Soccer has struggled in the United States, argues Dave Eggers, because we supposedly like fairness and transparency, while in Italy, Tim Parks says it's the only thing that will take men's eyes off women. How we play the game tells us who we are. In his piece on Saudi Arabia, Sukhdev Sandhu explains that a powerful sheikh attempted to ban postgoal celebrations, arguing, "What do joy, hugging and kissing have to do with sports?"

The good news is not everyone obeyed.

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