A close friend of mine (a fantastic soccer dribbler and mathematician) insisted on sharing Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization (New York: Harper Perennial, 2010). I am not much of a sports reader. But real soccer being in hiatus during the winter, reading about it seemed like an appealing substitute. Luckily for me, the book turned out to offer an analysis of the culture of soccer as it intersects with migration, globalization, identity, corruption, and power. I’ll begin with the larger picture.
Foer argues that people expected globalization to wipe away small, local institutions and identities. But as he wandered among lunatic fans, gangster owners, and crazed strikers backed by multinational corporations like Nike and Adidas,
“[he] kept noticing the ways that globalization had failed to diminish the game’s local cultures, local blood feuds, and even local corruption. In fact, [he] began to suspect that globalization had actually increased the power of these local entities—and not always in such a good way.” (pg. 3)
As regards the smaller picture, it’s a little more complicated. Reading about Brazilian soccer—in anticipation of the upcoming FIFA World Cup—is both thrilling and disturbing. Foer dedicates a whole chapter titled “How Soccer Explains The Survival of Top Hats” (the Portuguese colloquial term for top hats is “cartolas” and it is used to refer to “volunteer” amateurs secretly drawing on the team treasury) to talking about Brazilian soccer. Specifically, he begins by addressing investors. During the mid-1900s (a high-point for transnationalism and globalization), foreign investors implicitly promised
“to wipe away the practices of corrupt cartolas and replace them with the ethic of professionalism, the science of modern marketing, and a concern for the balance sheet. ‘Capitalism is winning out against the feudal attitudes that have prevailed in the sport for too long,’ Brazil’s venerable soccer journalist Juca Kfouri crowed at the height of the foreign influx. [But] when the investors talked about exploiting the potential of Brazilian soccer, they wanted to capitalize on a single fact of the game: The Brazilian style is so much more aesthetically pleasing than any other brand of play. On the postwar years, when international competition truly began, Brazil became an international power because it played without the rigid strategic strictures of continental soccer. Positions, formations, and defense weren’t valued nearly so much as spontaneity, cleverness, and the scoring of goals. To paraphrase the Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s formulation, where the European style was prose, the Brazilian was poetry. The Brazilians created a whole new set of conventions for the game: passes with the back of the heel, an array of head and hip fakes, the bicycle kick. But while the Brazilian style and some Brazilian players have flourished in the global economy, Brazil has not. In fact, by many objective measures, the game is now in worse shape than when [its investors] arrived. So this is more than a tragic tale of sporting decline; it’s an example of how the bad parts of globalization can undermine the good ones; this is the story of how corruption beats back liberalization and turns Thomas Friedman on his head.” (p. 121)
Modern people take globalization for granted. Soccer clubs are now used to the benefits of international line-ups. But back in the day, before globalization made buying and selling easier and faster, soccer figures found it harder to recover from economic losses. Many were limited by their national teams. I was most surprised to learn that in 1960, the Brazilian government declared Pelé a non-exportable national treasure.