How Football Explains The World

How Football Explains The WorldWhen you hear Foer, you think, Jeopardy-style: ‘Who is Jonathan Safran?’ You don’t—at least, I didn’t until a few weeks ago—know Jonathan Safran has siblings. Writerly siblings, no less.

Franklin Foer is Jonathan Safran’s older brother, is also a writer/journalist, and was the editor of The New Republic (for the record, there’s also a younger, writerly sibling called Joshua). It turns out too that Franklin’s a rabid football fan with an outward-looking interest in world issues, having written a book entitled How Football Explains the World*.

I’m not sure how I didn’t know Franklin existed, and how I hadn’t read his work until now. He’s written for such publications I frequent as Slate. He was also The New Republic editor at the eye of the Scott Beauchamp storm.

You remember Beauchamp, don’t you? He was a private in the US army and The New Republic published, with his permission, some diary entries that catalogue the troops’ misbehaviour in Iraq. These included saying that ‘I love chicks [who] have been intimate with IEDs’ and that he favoured a particular type of vehicle because it enabled him and his mates to deliberately run down wild dogs.

The authenticity of the entries was questioned (never mind the impeccably poor taste), with the magazine and its fact-checking coming under fire. As someone who writes and edits and checks facts for a living, I have to weigh in to say that this is not a black-and-white issue—verifying diary entries that document memories of happenings in a warzone is easier said than done. But I’m rapidly digressing—that controversy is not what this post is about. If you want to read more about it, Wikipedia sums it up pretty thoroughly here.

What I’m stoked about is Franklin’s football book, which pins complex, intangible, and very often elusive concepts of globalisation to tangible, engaging, concrete cultural understandings of football, its fans, its players, and its clubs.

Through the book, Franklin aims to answer why some nations, despite foreign investment, remain poor, how dangerous multinational corporations’ influence is, and how the world and its various cultures fits together (or more often doesn’t). It’s a clever idea that provides a compelling and cultural angle to what could otherwise be a reasonably dry, economics-focused read.

He also acknowledges that the book is a pretty good jaunt: ‘Someone needed to write a book on the subject that would require the (oh-so-arduous) task of traveling the world, attending [football] matches, watching training sessions, and interviewing [their] heroes.’

Judging him from his writing alone, Franklin feels something of a kindred spirit. He’s a football lover who lacks on-field prowess (his parents, he writes on the Prologue’s opening page, used to turn their backs to the field to avoid seeing his travesties).

And, with my tastes firmly rooted in non-fiction, Franklin’s is more my type of book than Jonathan Safran’s. (I must be the only person who doesn’t get gushily breathless of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Everything Is Illuminated. I haven’t read Eating Animals because I’m already vegan and already know the horrors it contains, though I do enormously respect Jonathan Safran’s exquisite bravery for researching and writing it, and for lending his literary weight to bring the issues to the world’s attention.)

With chapters entitled such things as ‘How football explains the Gangster’s Paradise’, ‘How Football Explains the Sentimental Hooligan’, and ‘How Football Explains the New Oligarchs’, Franklin clearly defines each chapter’s intent.

In them, he interviews thugs who will never hang up their hooliganism, but who are mentoring future generations on the best ways to operate—living vicariously, you could say. He meets gangsters who go by the name the Ultra Bad Boys, but who have morals that include not swearing, not using firearms, and not beating their enemies after they lose consciousness.

Jewish JocksHe demonstrates dark undercurrents of football, including fans who scorned Jewish players by hissing through their teeth to mimic the sound of Zyklon B being released in gas chambers.

He then alerts us to football and cultural faux pas, such as when football clothing and boots manufacturer Umbro came under fire for putting out a line of clothing entitled ‘Zyklon’. The word’s actual translation is ‘cyclone’, but its association is clearly, damagingly, with concentration camps.

Franklin also points to some significant historical events and football’s role in them. Romania’s 1990 World Cup qualification celebrations, for example, led to rifles being trained on then-dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

Along the way, he relates events to globalisation, such as how football fans became Milosevic’s troops who carried out ethnic cleansing. The fans-slash-murderers weren’t specific to Serbia, though. They can be more widely viewed as men who had lost their industrial jobs when they were outsourced to third-world nations, and who were disaffected and emasculated and desperate to reassert their worth.

Franklin has a fantastic way of conveying these tales that impressed me as much as the tales themselves: ‘In their path,’ he writes of some fierce-fisted hooligans, ‘they left lines of casualties, like the fresh tracks of a lawnmower.’

Jewish Jocks is Franklin’s latest book, released as a hardcover in November 2012. He seems to have contributed to it along with his brother, Jonathan Safran. I suspect it, along with scouring the interwebs for some of his articles, will be next on my reading list.

*There’s another version that substitutes ‘soccer’ for ‘football’, but petulant and semantic-splitting as it is, I refuse to condone that one. As The Guardian Australia learnt in their opening days, the term is football.

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Fiona Crawford

Fiona Crawford is a freelance writer, editor, blogger, proofreader, and voracious reader. She regularly appears as a book reviewer in Australian BOOKSELLER+PUBLISHER magazine. Fiona is also (unfairly) known as the Book Burglar due to her penchant for buying family members—then permanently borrowing—books she wants to read herself.

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