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Michael Young
THESE DAYS ONE rarely remembers that soccer legends once traveled to America to die in that elephant's cemetery known as the North American Soccer League. Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, George Best, Johann Cruyff (who returned to Europe for a few good years), and countless others alighted Stateside to kick a ball around in a country where, even today, professional soccer has not gotten over its image as a distraction for Eurotrash sissies.

In one chapter of How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization, Franklin Foer evokes this alleged effetism by using soccer to help explain America's culture wars. Foer distinguishes two camps that emerged in the U.S. after 9/11. One is cosmopolitan, shares values with Europe, opposes war in Iraq, and, presumably, is amenable to soccer; the other believes in American exceptionalism, views Europeans as lax and degraded, and regards soccer as "a symbol of the U.S. junking its tradition to 'get with the rest of the world's program.'"

Foer adds that there are exceptions to his dichotomy, and that soccer is a "small touchstone" in the culture wars. But despite the overreach, his book largely succeeds in fulfilling its ambitions: to explain just how soccer and culture interact and, more specifically, to see how soccer works against a backdrop of globalization. It is an often brave effort to make sense of a baffling counterpoint. The first third of the book explores globalization's failure to erode the game's great rivalries and the hatreds they can produce. The second uses soccer to address economics: migration, corruption, the rise of soccer oligarchies. The third uses the game to defend the persistence of nationalism as "a way to blunt the return of tribalism." A running theme is the distance between soccer reality and soccer image.

Michael Young

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