June 26, 2004 - New York Times SHELF LIFE Globalize Soccer? Not in Your Lifetime, Chum By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN he Duke of Wellington famously declared that the battle of Waterloo was decided on the playing fields of Eton. No longer can such things be said. But playing fields still have an unusual connection to major battles and conflicts. Particularly if the fields host games of soccer. In the last few weeks, for example, as an election for the European Parliament was taking place in a supposedly post-national world, hundreds of thousands of fans have been gathering at the European soccer championships in Portugal to display more atavistic sentiments. English hoodlums have attacked the fans of other nations. The anthems of France and Germany were booed and jeered. An Italian soccer star was barred from play after spitting in the face of a Danish opponent. Reports of the death of nationalism are, apparently, highly exaggerated. So, it seems, are the effects of globalization. The interchange of goods and the crossing of borders were supposed to lead to a shedding of tribalism. And as Franklin Foer shows in his unusual book, "How Soccer Explains the World," the game has indeed become part of the global marketplace: Moldavian squads import Nigerian players; Basque teams field Dutch and Turkish players; Brazilian clubs attract international investment. But in soccer, at least, old forces remain virulently intact. In Belgrade, the first open violence between the Serbs and Croats since World War II came at a soccer match in 1990. In Glasgow, the traditionally Protestant Rangers confront the traditionally Catholic Celtic team by cursing the Pope and militantly chanting: "We're up to our knees in Fenian blood." In Budapest, a soccer team called MTK Hungaria, founded in 1888 by Jews and long since Judenrein, is jeered by opponents with taunting banners: "The trains are leaving for Auschwitz." And black soccer players are typically mocked by English and Italian fans with ape noises and by Poles with bananas tossed on the playing field. Perhaps, though, nationalism, tribalism and racism are emitting their last gasps? After all, soccer, in most European countries, has a working-class fan base; economic explanations are typically offered for such intolerance. But Mr. Foer, a staff writer for The New Republic, suggests that these explanations are unsupported by the facts. In traveling to soccer fields from Brazil to Ukraine speaking to owners and fans while studying the political history of the game, he finds middle-class hoodlums who are devotedly teaching younger aspirants, widespread corruption unaffected by foreign investment, national styles of play that persist despite international teams. And no theory that fully explains it all. The book is actually mistitled. For Mr. Foer, soccer does not explain the world; it demonstrates that other explanations are inadequate. Mr. Foer does not present a theory of globalization; he almost argues that such a theory isn't possible — that globalization doesn't work the way its supporters or its opponents propose: it produces neither prosperity nor homogeneity. It is not in explanations but in illustrations — in finely observed detail — that Mr. Foer makes his mark. Birds in Belgrade's stadium, for example, erupt into flight when a goal is scored, creating an "ornithological cloud" sweeping across the city — an image of the sport's prevailing influences. Disrepair and pools of urine in Brazil's showcase stadium reflect a national sport hobbled by corruption. A Glasgow hotel receptionist examines the colors of Mr. Foer's clothing to make sure he won't offend either team's fans, unconvincingly reassuring him that whatever is sung or said, "they don't really mean it." A Belgrade hooligan demands that Mr. Foer give him a three-finger Serb salute — just as Serb killers demanded of their victims. But everywhere Mr. Foer goes, the culture of soccer is the culture of nationalism and the culture of the nation affects the culture of play. In Ukraine, a system of player evaluation developed during the Communist era rewards "physical and frenetic" play while stifling individual initiative. In Italy, the style of play emphasizes defense; scoring is low, so, Mr. Foer argues, much hangs on decisions of referees who are subject to corruption and manipulation. Soccer also plays a central role in national political dramas. A Serb paramilitary group grew out of a soccer fan organization; so did groups that deposed Milosevic. The political rise of the current Italian president, Silvio Berlusconi, began when he bought the AC Milan soccer club in 1986; fan clubs later served as his party's headquarters. Even the history of modern Iran, Mr. Foer suggests, can be read in soccer. The game was first cultivated for its connections to the West — just what makes current games testing grounds for the power of the Islamic mullahs. Mr. Foer argues that a "football revolution" is taking place. The regime censors soccer broadcasts, even inserting stock crowd footage to prevent unseemly images, but interest is unabated. Women defy bans on attendance. Dissent grows after major matches. Mr. Foer sees such liberatory nationalism as soccer's promise. Perhaps similar impulses, more futilely exercised, were at work in March when a soccer match in northern Syria was accompanied by Kurds chanting, "We will sacrifice our lives for Bush," while opposing fans held aloft signs praising Saddam Hussein. The Baathist Syrian police were reported to have fired into the crowds of dissenting Kurds; days of riots, deaths and demonstrations followed. Perhaps globalization is just a surface phenomenon, a movement of currency and bodies and cultures that leaves more fundamental forces untouched. When those forces are ruthlessly quashed or dismissed, they erupt in the safety of crowds and soccer stadiums — either seeking liberation or ruthless vindication. The European Union, which wants to replace its nation states with an enormous statist bureaucracy, may face similar reactions. Soccer fans are bound to flee. Meanwhile, as Mr. Foer points out, the United States is the curious exception. Children's soccer is being cultivated by the middle and upper-middle classes. And it is being associated not with American nationalism but with an ideal of globalization. Mr. Foer is empathetic, but the lessons of the book are far more sobering: that kind of globalization is, for now, pure fantasy, particularly when there are games to be won.