How Soccer Explains the World

by Franklin Foer
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How Soccer Explains the World Summary

How Soccer Explains the World is a 2004 work of nonfiction that explores the connections between soccer and globalization.

  • American journalist and soccer fan Franklin Foer examines soccer culture in Serbia, Scotland, Austria, England, Brazil, Ukraine, Italy, Spain, Iran, and the United States.
  • Foer identifies negative aspects of soccer culture, including “hooligan” culture, violent nationalism, corrupt politics, racism, anti-Semitism, religious divides, and exclusion.
  • Foer also discusses positive aspects of soccer culture, such as its offer of a sense of hope and unity, and argues that both nationalism and globalization can function as forces for good.


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Last Updated on July 1, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 987

How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization is an examination of the ways in which soccer and globalization are historically intertwined. The work begins with the darker aspects of soccer’s influence and progresses into chapters which are increasingly hopeful.

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The first chapter of the book begins in Serbia and details the influence of Red Star, a soccer team which is often associated with “hooligan” activities. Foer believes that Red Star’s fans resorted to violent and intimidating tactics for complex reasons that include both economic depression and a growing global trend of “gangsterism.” The transformation of Red Star into a more socially acceptable organization coincided with Serbia’s political turn, indicating the political influence of the sport.

The second chapter examines how the historical religious divisions in Scotland are evident in its rival soccer teams. The Celtic and the Rangers have a long history of intolerance, and even modern fans proudly scream obscenities which target the opposing team’s religious roots. The animosity surrounding this rivalry is intense, leading to physical violence and even numerous deaths. This behavior defies the principles of globalism, which imagines that multiculturalism should give birth to tolerance and democracy. Instead of fostering open-mindedness, fans in this setting seemingly take great pleasure in maintaining historical pains.

Chapter 3 is set in Austria and highlights the Jewish soccer experience. Though almost completely forgotten by history, the 1925 Hakoah of Vienna club was once recognized as being one of the best in the world. Jewish teams at this time generally avoided identifying themselves through an allegiance to any nation and instead proudly identified primarily through their religious identity; the teams commonly wore the Star of David on their uniforms or chose blue and white to symbolize their faith. MTK, a club who is quite successful but who fails to secure a substantial fan base, is evidence that anti-Semitism continues to exist in soccer.

Chapter 4 investigates the ways in which globalization has transformed soccer culture in England. Once a prime example of “hooligan” culture and viewed with great disdain by the upper classes, soccer has evolved because of globalization and gentrification. Stadiums that were once filled with working-class men who attended games with great hopes of watching a fight are now also populated with women and wealthy “yuppies.” The former “hooligans” of English soccer stadiums bemoan the new culture, which supports one of the key arguments against globalization: that such efforts destroy local traditions. Still, Foer contends, some aspects of history—such as the violence of the hooligans—is better left in the past.

The fifth chapter uses Brazil’s soccer culture to expose the way the sport can be used to perpetuate the power of the wealthy. The cartolas, or top hats, are supposedly volunteers who receive no income from the clubs they work with; in reality, they often take incredible sums of money for personal use by using their position and influence. This financial deceit often comes at a great price to the players, who have even had to dip into personal funds to ensure that all other players receive a salary.

In the sixth chapter, a clash of cultures is explored through Nigerian Edward Anyamkyegh’s integration into a Ukrainian soccer club. While he had longed to compete in Europe since he was a boy, he found himself less than welcomed by his Ukrainian teammates. So few children in the area had ever seen a Black person before that Edward was often a point of visual fascination in the town. A strong sense of nationalism fuels exclusionary views toward Edward and his Nigerian teammate.

Chapter 7 examines the corruptive power the media can exert on soccer. In Italy, there is a public fascination with the referees of the sport, which is greatly fueled by the media’s constant appraisal of particular referees’ calls. Not only do teams do whatever is possible to influence referees, but the media also exerts pressure that sometimes sways referees’ decisions. AC Milan is portrayed as influencing the press through its openness and incredible generosity. It is suggested that those who manipulate the media to sway outcomes in soccer are capable of performing similar political feats.

Using the author’s own adoration of the Barca club in Spain, the eighth chapter reflects an almost idyllic view of soccer. Foer believes that the “pure” gestures of Barca reveal that a soccer club can love both team and country passionately and without resorting to violence. Foer examines the history of the rivalry between Barca and Real Madrid, believing that ultimately the feelings of animosity allow modern Catalans to believe they are engaging in a centuries-old struggle against centralism and are united against imperialism.

Chapter 9 relies on the experiences of Iranian clubs and illustrates the cultural norms of a club that operates within an Islamic nation. Banned from soccer stadiums for decades, Iranian women were finally able to watch soccer on television beginning in the mid-1980s. Being entirely excluded from the sport has led to some women taking bold action, including dressing as men to gain admittance into stadiums and forcing their way into victory celebrations. In this case, globalization through soccer is seen as offering hope to the oppressed.

The final chapter is an examination of the ways in which American soccer doesn’t follow typical global norms. For example, the average American soccer youth isn’t from a “common” background but is more likely economically advantaged, with parents who encourage their playing the sport in order to avoid more “dangerous” types of activities. These parents want their children to compete but not lose. They want them to be physical but not be at risk of injury. This culture is quite removed from the book’s early depictions of hooligan soccer culture. Additionally, Foer makes a case for the lack of an American impetus behind globalization, insisting that the United States is not the “wicked villain” in this tale.

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Chapter Summaries