It’s been my impression that there’s a small sub-genre of American soccer writing in which a far-flung or expatriate American non-sports writer with eclectic interests—usually global in scope, mostly centred on politics—inevitably comes around to telling his or her fellow, wine-clinking chattering class friends just why the rest of the world is just so darn crazy about that sport of football, the one with the scarves that used to be plagued with hooligans.
This usually involves contorting football into a catch-all metaphor that can tell us all about democracy, politics, and American exceptionalism, much in the same way folding a five dollar bill in the right way can make Lincoln smile/frown. In between, we get mentions of muddy soccer pitches in Africa and stories of violent enemies in decades-long conflicts loving the same Premier League clubs. Think: impossibly broad brushstrokes. So broad in fact, you can’t tell where they begin or end. There will be glowing words for Barcelona in there somewhere too.
Franklin Foer’s insufferable How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization is the crown jewel of the form. The book description on Amazon sums it up:
Soccer is much more than a game, or even a way of life. It’s a perfect window into the crosscurrents of today’s world, with all its joys and sorrows. In this remarkably insightful, wide-ranging work of reportage, Franklin Foer takes us on a surprising tour through the world of soccer, shining a spotlight on the clash of civilizations, the international economy, and just about everything in between. How Soccer Explains the World is an utterly original book that makes sense of our troubled times.
More than a game. Mes que un juego. ‘A window into’ something else presumably far more important. Clash of civs, international economy, everything and the kitchen sink. A simple game of 11 v 11 becomes fodder to spew out half-thought out ideas about globalization and the USA’s place in the world.
Of course, Foer’s claims don’t hold up under any sort of actual, empirical scrutiny (thank you University of Nebraska for taking the time to demonstrate that soccer does not in fact explain the “Culture Wars”).
But that’s not the real point. Really, it’s to give a certain type of American reader the ability to enjoy soccer without having to actually watch it, or indeed know anything about it beyond the fact Lionel Messi exists and plays a club that was apparently instrumental in toppling the Franco’s dictatorship, or something.
Which is why I don’t think John Carlin’s essay “The Greatest Game” fails because of what it says (which is obviously hokum), but where it’s said. Had it appeared as a throwaway article at the back end of Harper’s, chances are none of us would be trashing it on Twitter right now. Because we’d instantly know based on its surroundings who it’s for: readers of Harper’s who hate sports except soccer because soccer is a ‘Homeric’ sport in which both short and tall players do well, which ones, I don’t know, I only watch it during the World Cup, thanks.
But because it’s on SB Nation’s new long-form site, which up until now has been pretty good, it reads kind of a ‘fuck you’ to people who actually like soccer because it’s soccer and not a means to explain why America hates ties, or why the universe is fundamentally unjust (it has to do with the lack of video evidence and because referees are dressed in “funereal black,” I think).
So I’m not going to bother Fisking it. You can only shoot so many fishes in so many barrels. I would simply mention to the editors at SB that the next time they receive a pitch for something along these lines, they forward to the New Yorker or the Atlantic, let Andrew Sullivan link to it, and have the chattering classes who like the idea of soccer—insofar as it’s a stand-in for their cozy liberal ideological cubbyholes—enjoy it.
Meanwhile the rest of us will do the dirty, day-to-day work of loving the game like it ain’t no thang.