By Franklin Foer
New York: Harper Perennial, 2004
ISBN # 10: 0-06-073142-7
261 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
June 2010

I enjoyed this book a great deal, yet have to begin my comments by attacking it’s pretentious name and seeming purpose. When I gave up on reading it as the author presented it, and read it as I think it works – a series of fascinating glimpses of interesting football clubs (I can’t stand to call them soccer clubs), then it reads marvelously.

However, Foer claims the book to be something more, and that part of the argument just failed for me completely. I’ll get back to this theme, but let me first talk about the delight I had in reading the separate chapters, and reading them as just that, fairly separate chapters.

Beginning with the frighteningly violent story of Red Star of Belgrade, followed by the bitter rivalry of Glasgow’s Protestant Rangers and Catholic Celtic, the Jews of the 1920s of Austria, horrifying us with the hooligan era, most especially in England, then ranging on to other continents, revealing the mindboggling corruption in both Italy and Brazil, ending up in the boring story of U.S. “soccer,” Foer tells just great tales, interviews informed folks and delighted this football fan.

My only disappointment in all that was there wasn’t a chapter on my beloved Manchester United, whom he clearly doesn’t like and dismisses as a modern big business conglomerate.

Foer seems to have had lots of fun travelling all over the world (save Asia or even the Asian subcontinent) and he set up interviews, most of which were quite revealing, even the refused interview from Hristro Stoichkov.

The picture he paints is that the football world is changing. For the first 100 years the general story was of the football world as a collection of neighborhood teams which were much more that just local teams. These were the strongholds of working class city and town dwellers who used the football club as a rallying social institution, and which produced fierce loyalty having political and social implication far beyond sport.

Overtime these teams got separated by skill, and the various leagues were formed and some traditional giants emerged, not so much different in kind from all the others, but just larger, richer and with better players.

Things began to change significantly from the 1990s on, and since much of that change has to do with increased money coming into the sport because of TV revenue, Foer begins to try to build his feeble case for understanding all this as globalization writ small.

There are some parallels with economic globalization, but were one to wish to emphasize the differences rather than a few similarities, the differences would predominate. No matter. The stories he does tell are well worth the read. They are detailed treatments and in each chapter I came away thinking I had a very rich picture of this or that particular team, and began to understand the complexity of football in the modern world.

I think Foer himself reveals why he would present the book with such a pretentious title and subtitle. In the chapter on the hooligans, especially in the 1980s and 90s, he indicates that there was so much interest that dozens, or more, books sprang up do analyses and revelations of that factor. The book shops in Europe were just filled with them, and the later books weren’t selling well; the market was saturated. I would speculate that he wanted to write this book but was worried it might end up at the end of the line of this huge spate of books he speaks of, and he hit upon a way of doing his book that would give the appearance of a much larger topic and thus there would be a reason for buying it.

Were that his tactic, it certainly worked on me, and while I was rewarded for buying the book with a wonderful read, I didn’t much get what was billed in the title and subtitle.

The gist of his argument is that “modern” football – from the mid-1980s on, has followed the model of big business. Foreigners became business owners and didn’t honor old hiring practices

“. . . multinational capitalism strips local institutions of their localness, it homogenizes, destroys tradition, and deprives indigenous proletarians and peasants of the things they love most.”

Yet Foer, himself, acknowledges the flip side:

“. . . the tendency toward glorifying all things indigenous even when they deserve to be left in the past.” . . .

“So, in a way a hooligan’s nostalgia for his youth is the most honest kind of nostalgia.”

And football meshes both, unlike the global economy.

I was especially delighted with his treatment of Brazilian football, which has resisted a great deal of this new movement, which Foer rightfully argues is why they can’t keep the great players in Brazil or attract many great foreigners.

They are still operated as social clubs, and non-profit organizations at that for which the “president” doesn’t even get paid. Then Foer gave me a great laugh as he revealed how these various presidents, with no salaries, end up living like oil rich sheiks. Said one non-paid Brazilian when asked how he survived:

“I take no salary, just enough expenses to get by on.”

One specially outrageous Brazilian crook, Miranda, explained why Brazil resists the modern movement toward the European model in local soccer, appealing to tradition to defend their way of milking the clubs:

“Miranda is trying to argue that foreigners created the impression that clubs are just businesses, not repositories of traditions and superiority morality.”

The Brazil chapter brought me another great laugh when I read that when the young Pele, in 1960, was beginning to catch the eye of Europe’s richer clubs that the nation declared Pele: “ . . . a non-exportable national treasure.”

Whether or not there is much sense in the globalization comparisons, the book stands on its own as a football book. Any serious football fan who has some knowledge of European football in particular, and some care for world football, will find this book to be a delightful and rewarding read.

Bob Corbett


Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett