Africa United: Soccer, Passion, Politics, and the First World Cup in Africa
Harper Perennial, 2010
299 pp., 17.99
How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization
Harper Perennial, 2010
288 pp., 18.99
World Cup Time
I've watched my seven children have a go at it in the suburbs of Chicago. I've seen children give it a rip in the slums of Nairobi, on the hillsides of Rwanda, in the parks of Bucharest, and in the dusty courtyards of Kabul. It's soccer. And it rules. And finally, after an interminable four-year wait, the World Cup begins again. This year's event will be held June 11-July 11 in South Africa, that continent's first-ever opportunity to host the world's greatest sporting event. (I waste no space defending or justifying this self-evident truth.)
In the predictable cunning of the market, and just in time for the Cup, loads of soccer-themed books have issued forth for our reading pleasure. Franklin Foer's How Soccer Explains the World and Steve Bloomfield's Africa United can be seen as high- and middlebrow efforts to situate "the beautiful game" in contexts beyond the pitch. Both writers are professional journalists with a mad love for the sport. Both give us fluid, engaging accounts not just of soccer and its teams and their fans but also of the important cultural and political roles the game has in countries across the globe. And both have their confessed loyalties: Barcelona for Foer, Aston Villa for Bloomfield. (The expression of their loyalties reflects the status of each club: For Foer, Barca, that perennial European soccer power, represents "one of God's greatest gifts to leisure time"; Bloomfield simply acknowledges that "finding a Villa fan in Nairobi is impossible.") It must gall Bloomfield to have his book published under the title Africa United, with a bold red cover, as both clearly suggest Manchester United, the bête noir of his beloved Aston Villa. But such is the price we pay when we dance to the market's tune.
Now we embark upon a month unlike any other. As Bono claims in one of those ESPN/World Cup commercials, "this is the one month every four years when we all agree on one thing." While neither of these books attempts to tell the story of soccer with the encyclopedic sweep of David Goldblatt's 2006 history The Ball is Round, both do have interesting stories to tell, and both are well worth reading at this particular moment, although for different reasons.
If one wants a single book to better understand the meaning and significance of this particular World Cup, then Bloomfield's Africa United is the one. His book is clearly a one-off, written to capitalize on this historic moment of the World Cup coming to Africa. Having lived in Nairobi since 2006 as a correspondent for the UK's Independent, Bloomfield recounts his travels up and down the continent, "searching for the stories which put Africa's soccer in context." In Africa, he says, "soccer can rebuild a country, end a war or provide a beacon of light in time of despair," and he proceeds to persuade us that this claim is not mere hyperbole. The story of soccer in Africa thus contributes to what Bloomfield calls "Africa's economic, technological, and cultural renaissance," a promising trend "ignored in much of the West." Here then is a narrative counter to our standard, media-driven impressions. But only somewhat. For while there is hope, beauty, and possibility in Bloomfield's account, there are also the all-too-familiar themes of corruption, violence, and abuse. As he acknowledges, "soccer in Africa often reflects the political and cultural struggles that a country is experiencing." Thus, Bloomfield complicates our understanding of Africa rather than romanticizing it. His Africa feels real because of both the beauty and the corruption he finds there.
Each chapter in Africa United is a set-piece that involves a team or two (club or national), several characters around whom Bloomfield builds his story, and some riveting political and cultural analysis. Perhaps the most moving is his eighth chapter, which centers on the Leone Stars of Sierra Leone versus the Lone Stars of Liberia. At the outset we meet Moussa Manseray, who asks the author to simply call him Messi (after the Argentine striker Lionel Messi, arguably the current best player in the world). Like Messi, Manseray is fast and possesses great ball control. But now Bloomfield comes with the clincher: "There's one big difference between them, though. Moussa has only one leg." What has soccer done for Sierra Leone? It could not stop that country's civil war (though in Ivory Coast it could and did), but it could provide a source of play, passion, and purpose for the war's thousands of amputee victims. Soon after the fighting stopped, the first soccer team of amputees was formed. This was followed by five clubs and then the creation of a national amputee team. This has become a continent-wide movement, with Liberia winning the 2009 Africa Cup of Nations for Amputees. Like wheelchair basketballers in the United States, amputee footballers in Africa have enjoyed both social and psychological rewards from this civil society experience. Soccer's small step in national reconciliation is remarked upon by one player, Samuel Eastman, who confides to the author that he has no problem playing on the same team as former rebels. States Eastman, "If we can come together, then the whole country can come together."
It's in Bloomfield's final chapter, on South Africa, that we find the reason for the global appeal of this game. The words come from John "Shoes" Moshoeu, a black former player on the "rainbow" South Africa national team that won the 1996 African Cup, who describes what soccer meant for blacks under apartheid: "We could forget about everything and just play." Among human games, soccer possesses the most accessible possibility for such playful forgetfulness. For as Shoes goes on to explain:
You can play anywhere, anytime. You don't need specific equipment. You can get something round to kick about. For me, soccer is a poor man's sport. It has given a lot of people from underprivileged societies a lease of life. It was something that would make us happy.
What does the World Cup mean for Africa? A chance to show the world how happiness can still be found in the midst of misery. That's no small lesson to meditate upon while in relative comfort and security we watch the Super Eagles (Nigeria), the Indomitable Lions (Cameroon), the Black Stars (Ghana), the Elephants (Ivory Coast), the Desert Foxes (Algeria), and Bfana Bfana ("the boys," South Africa). The Cup in Africa? Yes, please.
For a more lasting account, one turns to Foer, whose How Soccer Explains the World— first published in 2004 and now reissued with a new afterword—remains the single best book on the place of soccer globally. Despite my frustrations with this reissue (see comments below), I still consider this book an indispensable guide for the uninitiated for "getting it" when it comes to soccer. It may not convince one why the game is so beautiful, but it does a great job in helping us understand why soccer is the world's game, and what that means for the world.
In ten chapters, Foer tries "to use soccer—its fans, its players, and strategies—as a way of thinking about how people would identify themselves in this new era" of globalization (and its discontents). The first chapter focuses on Red Star Belgrade and its fan club, the Ultra Bad Boys, to get at how violence has since the 1980s "become part of soccer's culture." The story revolves around how such teams as Red Star and Obilic were used to further Serbian gangster nationalism, right down to players and fans serving as paramilitary units in the Serbo-Croatian civil war. And in his account of the Glasgow rivalry between the (Protestant) Rangers and (Catholic) Celtic, Foer identifies how on the one hand, discrimination against Scottish Catholics has faded "thanks to globalization," yet, nevertheless, "Catholics gained their social equality without forcing Scotland into reckoning with its deeply held beliefs." Just beneath the surface of this rivalry, long-harbored religious resentment still simmers—resentment which, while usually confined to the private sector, occasionally spills out into public spaces for all to see.
But certainly the most fascinating chapter is Foer's third, in which he analyzes the place of Jewish identity in European soccer. Foer describes the exploits of the mid-1920s Hookah of Vienna, a Jewish club that in 1925 won the Austrian club championship and were "for a short spell, one of the best teams on the planet." Shifting from history to contemporary reflections, Foer considers the ironic philo-Jewishness of the Tottenham Hotspurs and Ajax of Amsterdam. Tottenham fans refer to themselves as the Yids or the Yiddoes. Indeed, as Foer puts it, "only one club in the world … can out-Jew Tottenham," and that's Ajax. Their stadium is decorated with the Israeli flags, and the club has officially "made Judaism part of its ethos." For Foer, the appropriation is ironic: by "identifying with the Jews … [Tottenham and Ajax] confirm that the Jews are foreigners, not like themselves. They still treat Jews as bizarre curiosities, reducing them to alien symbols—yarmulkes, sideburns, a Star of David," much like Native American "mascots" for college and professional sporting teams in the U.S.
There are other delights to be found in How Soccer: the chapter on Barca and how the club "doesn't just redeem the game from its critics; it redeems the concept of nationalism"; the chapter on the "football revolution" in Iran and how soccer there plausibly "represents the inevitable challenge that globalization poses to Islam"; and the final chapter, in which Foer suggests that the familiar red state/blue state model used to explain our culture wars should be replaced by a better descriptor:
There exists an important cleavage between the parts of the country that have adopted soccer as its pastime and the places that haven't. And this distinction lays bare an underrated source of American cultural cleavage: globalization.
Living in rural upstate South Carolina, where it's softball for young women and baseball for young men but soccer for neither, I tend to think that Foer might be onto something!
And for certain faux-radicals with their academic sinecures, who preach theory, sip wine, and follow football, what could be more transporting than the passage in which Foer describes the relationship between Inter Milan and a "bohemian theater and cultural club called Comuna Baires"?
It hosts literary evenings with the team. At its readings, foreign Inter players (from Colombia, Turkey, and so on) share the stage with writers from their home countries. After the events, Inter players, coaches and team officials join pro-Inter intellectuals for dinner around a long table in the theater's basement. It's the type of evening that could only happen with Italian leftists, who have been nursed on Antonio Gramsci and his theories of counter-hegemony.
(It's alright, ma, I'm only sighing.)
But having said all this, there remains the problem that this How Soccer is a mere reissue of the 2004 original with a new afterword slapped on. So much has changed in the world and in soccer since its original publication that reading this reissue can be an exercise in frustration. So, for example, Foer's seventh chapter, on how Italian soccer "explains the new oligarchs" (think Berlusconi and his club, AC Milan), still makes for fascinating reading. But the great Italian Soccer Scandal of 2006 (which involved both Milan and Juventus of this chapter's focus) cries out for a Foerian analysis. And so it goes. A little wailing, a lot of gnashing of teeth; one insightful chapter after another accompanied by an inveitable, "yeah, but what about … ?" How would Foer respond to the harsh crackdown on Irani protestors in 2010? Is the football revolution over in Iran?
In his afterword, Foer indulges in a bit of whimsical social science. After re-examining the empirical data from 18 World Cups, he confidently announces "that the outcome of each match in the World Cup can be forecast by analyzing the political and economic conditions represented on the pitch." His conclusion is that football glory is best realized by European social democratic polities over authoritarian, fascist, or communist regimes and their ilk. But maybe in this bit of whimsy lies Barack Obama's real secret agenda. Maybe he's not out to turn the U.S. into either a Muslim brotherhood or a socialist hell-hole. Maybe he and his inner circle are just a-whoring after European social democracy, all for the sake of the Jules Rimet trophy that some nation (other than the U.S.) will hoist in the air on July 11 in Johannesburg. Is this it? If so, then footballers of America unite!
Ashley Woodiwiss is Grady Patterson Professor of Politics at Erskine College.
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