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Michael Young
This discrepancy afflicts the author as well as is subjects. Take his favorite team, F.C. Barcelona. It says a lot about Foer that he supports Barca--or so he tells us." If you have liberal politics and yuppie tastes," he writes, "it isn't easy to find a corner of the soccer firmament that feels like home.... Barca elegantly fills this vacuum. Over the course of its history, it has self consciously announced its sophistication." The team is not surrounded by a "cloud of virulent racism," and it isn't an impersonal "multinational conglomerate" like Manchester United or Juventus of Turin. Indeed, Barcelona is alone in not advertising on its jersey, "to show that it resides on a higher plane than the base world of commerce."

So here you have one of the wealthiest teams in Spain, whose products can be bought in virtually any major city in the world, which has plundered many a lesser squad to replenish its endless carnival of talent--and somehow it disdains commerce? Foer's attitude reveals an ambiguity in the author himself: He clearly likes it that the club can behave so uncommercially, yet in an earlier chapter he mocks some fans of Inter Milan for seeking to impose a left-wing, anti-globalization identity on a team no less wealthy than Barca, one that has dribbled through globalized soccer as adroitly.

Evidently, the world's most popular sport is also a monument to role playing, with fans adopting multiple identities through their clubs. Some of these can be very disturbing: Many hard-core European fan clubs are nationalist, even racist; Belgrade's infamous Red Star fans, for example, formed the core of Arkan's Tigers, a militia devoted to ethnic cleansing.

That said, most fans are not budding Arkans, and even soccer bigotry is often more part of the ritual of collective fan identity than a true call to violent action. That doesn't make it less loathsome, of course, but for a phenomenon to be understood, some lucidity is demanded. As author Tim Parks wrote in his ode to Italian soccer, A Season With Verona (strangely absent from Foer's bibliography, though he did interview Parks), for the soccer fan, "Identity is more important than morality. Extremism offers an excitement that moderation cannot afford."

Some will find this an unsatisfactory explanation, but it goes to the heart of modern random: The stadium, like many a subculture, is frequently an outlet for the forbidden, for what group members can share collectively without outside intrusion. This phenomenon can be noble--Barca was a stronghold of anti-Franco Catalan nationalism--or it can be repellent.

Foer writes of the rivalry between Glasgow's predominantly Catholic-supported Celtic and mostly Protestant-supported Rangers (a Scotsman once refused to tell me which team he supported, claiming I was trying to ascertain his religion): "The city has kept alive its soccer tribalism, despite the logic of history, because it provides the city with a kind of pornographic pleasure."

Michael Young

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