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Kick Start

A new book uses soccer to explain everything

By Gary Singh

AN AVID soccer fan, New Republic staff writer Franklin Foer explores globalization and transnational capitalism and how they're both intertwined with the world's most popular sport in How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization (Harper Collins). If you know nothing of soccer, the book will shed light on a world you never knew existed, but those familiar with the European leagues may or may not like some of the portrayals.

Foer crisscrosses the globe to chat with a wild variety of characters: a neo-Nazi Chelsea supporter in London; drunken Glasgow Rangers fanatics who spit on the pope whenever they face crosstown Catholic rival Celtic; a Nigerian player in the Ukraine who can't deal with that country's bizarre mathematical style of play; an arrogant Hristo Stoichkov on a bad day in Washington, D.C.'s locker room. Foer also explains the role of soccer in Iran's future as well as the corporate machinations behind Silvio Berlusconi's A.C. Milan team.

Chapter titles include "How Soccer Explains the Pornography of Sects," "How Soccer Explains the New Oligarchs" and "How Soccer Explains the Discreet Charm of Bourgeois Nationalism." That last one focuses on FC Barcelona, Foer's favorite team, and the Catalan opposition to Franco. "The motto of FC Barcelona is 'mas que un club,' more than a club," he explains. "For the purposes of full disclosure, I agree. It's more than a club; it's one of God's greatest gifts to leisure time. ... With the rest of the stadium, I will be singing [Javier] Saviola's name like a Gregorian chant, exaggerating each syllable for maximum haunting effect. The person sitting next to me will be flying a 10-foot Catalan flag above my head." This chapter vibrates with optimism and effectively counters the negative imagery of the hooligans, thugs and criminals in other chapters.

The last chapter, "How Soccer Explains the American Culture Wars," is long overdue. Foer exposes the hysterical talk show hosts and old-school sportswriters who ridicule a game they've never understood. They feel like America is being bludgeoned over the head with globalization and the world is again asking us to "get with the program," much like the scenario surrounding our failure to adopt the metric system.

He quotes conservative congressman and former Buffalo Bills Quarterback Jack Kemp, who ridiculously argued on the congressional floor against bringing the World Cup to America: "I think it is important for all those young out there, who someday hope to play real football, where you throw it and kick it and run with it and put it in your hands, a distinction should be made that football is democratic, capitalism, whereas soccer is a European socialist [sport]."

The book gushes with eye-popping anecdotes, but if you're a follower of the European leagues, most of it is nothing new. A real surprise, however, is Foer's elaborate research into the bizarre all-Jewish Austrian squads in the 1920s. In fact, the title really should be How Soccer Explains Everything Outside America. The only time Foer even covers an American team is when he tries to interview Stoichkov, and only then it's because he used to play for Barcelona.

And, sadly, Foer has provided all the weaponry for anti-soccer folks to start shooting with. This book will not bring any new American fans to the sport. Folks who hate soccer will hate the sport even more after ingesting it all. People obviously don't want hooligans, Nazis and more corporate criminals in this country. In writing a wonderful tribute to a great game, Foer may have accomplished just the opposite.

Franklin Foer appears Tuesday (July 27) at 7:30pm at Cody's Books, 2454 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley (510.845.0837) and Wednesday (July 28) at 5:15pm at the Commonwealth Club, 595 Market St., San Francisco (415.597.6732)

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From the July 21-27, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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