How Soccer Explains the Dead Hand

This year’s World Cup hasn’t converted me to soccer fandom, but it did motivate me to read a good book. I’m talking about TNR editor Frank Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization.

The book, which came out in 2004, offers a series of fascinating, compulsively readable profiles of soccer’s cultural and political underbelly — its connection to, among other things, war crimes, sectarian conflict, racism and anti-Semitism, political corruption, and culture wars. The beautiful game, perhaps, but what goes on off the pitch is frequently anything but. The picture, though, isn’t all bleak: Foer also tells how soccer has figured into resistance to fascism in Spain and Islamist tyranny in Iran.

The book is heavy on storytelling and light on argument, but through soccer’s prism an interesting picture of globalization emerges. And my apologies to Frank if I’m stretching here, but the picture is quite similar to that offered in my own book about globalization. Soccer, of course, is the global game par excellence — played and loved and marketed around the world. The best teams compete for talent and fans without regard for national boundaries. At the same time, though, this thoroughly cosmopolitan product is consumed in a world where national boundaries — and racial, religious, ideological, and class divisions as well — remain very real and continue to exert an often pernicious influence.

Soccer, then, is the global economy in microcosm. Goods, services, and capital flow across political boundaries as never before, but the global division of labor must contend with local institutions, interests, and mindsets that are frequently profoundly hostile to the market order. At the World Cup as in the larger world economy, the invisible hand of the market and the dead hand of anti-market forces struggle for mastery.

Whether or not you follow soccer, the book offers a wealth of great stories and an overarching perspective that makes our highly interconnected, highly conflicted world a little more comprehensible. And if you are a “football” fanatic, you might also want to check out Frank and friends’ World Cup blog as we head into the final weekend.