Franklin Foer is an American journalist and editor of The New Republic. He is also that rarest of American conceits; a lifelong football (soccer) fan. In 2001 he took a year off to research a book about the impact of football on the world. The results of his research were published in 2004 as “How Football Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization”. Actually he called it “soccer” in the US edition but in the UK Arrow Books version Woolly Days read, it is helpfully re-translated to football. However, the American spelling of globalisation remains.
Both Foer’s title and subtitle are misnomers. The book doesn’t explain the world and it isn’t a theory of globalisation. Nevertheless it does take the reader on an entertaining and colourful tour around the world to see if football explains such diverse concepts as ethnic cleansing, sectarianism, anti-Semitism, hooliganism, political corruption, racism, oligarchy, nationalism, Islam’s attitude to women and American cultural wars.
The most compelling chapter of the book is the first. Here Foer examines the role played by fans of top Serbian club Red Star Belgrade in the Balkans Wars of the 1990s. Across the road from Red Star’s home ground lies the castle home of Željko Ražnatović. Ražnatović was better known to the world as Arkan. Arkan was a notorious gangster and the leader of a hooligan paramilitary force of Red Star supporters. Arkan was a hero to his people and served his time as a petty criminal in Northern Europe. He escaped from prisons in Belgium and Netherlands. He busted his partner from a Swedish court and escaped a third time from a German prison hospital. To escape the heat he came home to Belgrade to work for the secret service.
When Yugoslavia dissolved, Arkan used his Red Star connections to build a paramilitary force which he called the Tigers. They fought in Bosnia in 1991-92 and again in 1995 when Croatia remobilised. By the end of the war, the US State department estimated Arkan’s Tigers had executed over 2,000 civilians. The war made Arkan famous and rich. When Red Star refused to sell the club to him, he created his own Red Star. In 1996 he bought a Belgrade lower division team called Obilic. Under Arkan’s stewardship, Obilic won promotion to the top flight and won the Serbian league at first time of asking. Their methods were simple: Arkan threatened to shoot opponents if they didn’t let Obilic win. But their glory lasted just one season. The year after, all the other clubs banded together to thwart Arkan’s intimidation. Eventually Arkan met the fate he threatened to dish out to others. He was gunned down by unknown assassins in Belgrade in 2000.
The book’s second tale is about the deep sectarian rivalry between Protestant Rangers and Catholic Celtic in Glasgow. The two clubs are called the Old Firm because of their profitable collusion of mutual loathing. Foer describes it as unfinished business over the Reformation. Glasgow today is a multi-cultural city with a globalist focus that would appear to make old hatreds redundant. The clubs see themselves as entertainment conglomerates and international capitalist entities. But their fans remain rooted in the bigotry of history. They crave an ethnic identity in their football tribalism or as Foer calls it “pornographic pleasure”.
In the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation took root strongly in Scotland with the work of John Knox. Catholics remained in the Scottish shadows for centuries until the Irish potato famine saw a new influx of Catholics seeking a better life. They were shunned by the Glasgow Protestants and excluded from their society. In 1888 a Marist monk named Father Walfrid started the Catholic community’s own football club, Celtic. After Celtic’s early success, Rangers became the Protestant team of choice because they were the only team capable of beating them. Until the 1990s Rangers practiced a policy of hiring only Protestant players and staff. The hatred is fanned to this day by supporters who make the politicised trip across from Northern Ireland. Celtic remain the Nationalist lynchpin, as Rangers are the ultimate symbol of Loyalism to the Crown.
The book’s third tale is an unusual sidestep in history. Foer examines why Jews don’t generally do well in sport. He tells the story of Hakoah Vienna who won the Austrian league in 1925. Today there are only 7,000 Jews in Vienna but before the war there were 200,000. In the 1920s, muscular Judaism and Jewish teams were commonplace in the cities of Eastern Europe. They deliberately cloaked themselves in Jewish nationalism and played with the King David star as their logo. The Austrian Hakoah club was founded in 1909. Hakoah means strength in Hebrew. They did well and regularly filled their 18,000 seater stadium with cheering unabashed Jews. Having won the league they travelled to the US where they promoted Zionism. But for most of the players, US was the real Zion and they never went home. The club went into decline before being totally killed off by the Nazi Anschluss of 1938.
The fourth story is one of the weakest of the collection. Foer takes a closer look at the scourge of modern football: hooliganism. He met a middle aged hooligan named “Alan Garrison”. Garrison is mostly retired these days and talks more about violence than actually doing any of it. Since the Taylor report in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster of 1988, English football grounds have become all seater and rid themselves completely hooliganism. It still exists today as a social problem but happens well away from the stadia and the glare of police camera. Alan Garrison is a tedious interviewee who doesn’t add much to the book’s premise.
The fifth story is about corruption in Brazilian football. Here football is run by the cartolas, wealthy and politically well-connected men who manipulate the game for personal gain. Eurico Miranda is a Brazilian politician and owner of top Rio football club Vasco de Gama. He began as a car salesman and rose through the ranks through personal charm and corruption. In 1988 Vasco received $34 million from a Brazilian bank in sponsorship. Most of the money was spirited away into accounts in the Bahamas. Miranda remains free and popular. He is a populist federal congressman who claims affinity with the poor. According to locals, he steals but also steal for his constituents, pushing money into ostentatious public works. As a cynical Brazilian aphorism puts it, “he steals but he makes”.
The sixth chapter tells the story of Nigerian footballer Edward Anyamkyegh. Between 2001 and 2005, Anyamkyegh played for the Ukraine team Karpaty Lviv. He was brought there by Lviv’s oligarch Petro Dyminskyy. Dyminskyy had made his fortune in Western Ukraine’s gas, oil and coal reserves. Anyamkyegh’s signing was a huge gamble in an area renowned for passionate localism. Racism was rife. Neo-Nazi behaviour is also on the rise. His Ukrainian team-mates shunned him and wouldn’t pass the ball to him on the field. Opposition fans made monkey noises and threw bananas at him. The Ukrainian winter was also a shock for Anyamkyegh. His goals came in the warmer weather of autumn and spring. But he went on to do well and he and his Nigerian girlfriend assimilated. He told Foer, “I have satellite and cable” and a home full of African American rap music videos.
Chapter Seven is on the two biggest clubs in Italy: Juventus and Milan. Juve are owned by the old money of the Agnelli family who made their fortune from Fiat. Milan are owned by the brash superstar of Italian media and politics, Silvio Berlusconi. The Agnellis are worth $60 billion and own most of the wealth of the Milan bourse. But they are a quiet retiring family who do not flaunt their wealth. Behind the scenes they quietly controlled the politicians. Juventus dominated Italian football until Milan broke through in the 1980s. The flamboyant Berlusconi started from nothing in real estate moving making millions in media. He bought Milan in 1986 and imported a trio of Dutchmen, Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard. Under their influence, the club was transformed into the best in Europe. Berlusconi took a football chant “Forza Italia” and turned it into a political party. Milan was the springboard for success at the ballot box. Berlusconi became Prime Minister twice, in 1994 and again in 2001.
Chapter Eight is on Foer’s favourite club FC Barcelona. The club reflects the city’s plebeian roots. In the Republican era of the 1930s, Barca became a workers’ collective, a legacy that continues today. The team adopted the Catalan colours of red and blue and the cross of St Jordi, Catalonia’s patron saint. When Franco came to power, he banned the speaking of Catalan. Only at Barca’s home ground the Camp Nou, could locals yell and swear at the regime in their native language. Franco was a passionate supporter of Barca’s bitterest rivals Real Madrid and he gave them decisive aid in the 1950s to allow them to win the first five European cups. Yet he allowed Barca to survive, if only as a harmless way for Catalans to subsume their identity within the larger Spain.
In Chapter Nine, Foer takes the reader to Tehran and the 120,000 Azadi stadium, possibly the largest football venue in the world. After the 1979 Islamic revolution, the venue was closed to women. In 1987 Ayatollah Khomeini revised the fatwa on women viewing football, allowing them to watch the game on television. The grounds remain closed to them. When Iran qualified for the 1998 World Cup in a dramatic game against Australia, the government held the celebration in the Azadi. Thousands of women defied the state and gathered outside the ground shouting “aren’t we part of this nation?” Fearing a riot, police allowed three thousand women into a segregated area. The rest outside stormed the gates. The British brought the game to Iran in the 1920s. Locals learned the game from watching Anglo-Persian oil company staff in action. The Shah seized lands from mosques and turned them into football fields. His British educated son Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was an even bigger fan. Britain gave him the peacock throne after his father made the mistake of backing the Nazis in 1941. His kowtowing to the West earned him hardline enemies and the ayatollahs overthrew him in 1979. The new rulers clamped down on pop culture but couldn’t root out football. They insisted on broadcast delays to root out foul language and political messages. In the 1998 World Cup, Iranian TV refused to show the crowds for fear of giving exiled opponents a platform. Instead of a crowd, they edited in unconvincing stock images. As with its directives against women, the government’s biggest worry was Iran’s football revolution threatened turn nationalist fervour against the state.
Foer returns to his homeland for the final chapter. Youth football in the US underwent a renaissance in the 1980s. Football was a sport where parents, concerned by the violence of American football, could project their values on their children. It could alleviate shyness, foster self-esteem, minimise the pain of competition while still providing life lessons. While in the rest of the world, football was the game of the working classes, in the US the sport was for elites. This differentiation was to become a factor in the 1980s culture wars. A strong anti-soccer lobby grew who believe the game represents a threat to the American way of life. What this is is a fear of globalisation.