How Soccer Explains the World by Franklin Foer by Franklin Foer - Read Online

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How Soccer Explains the World - Franklin Foer

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I suck at soccer.

When I was a boy, my parents would turn their backs to the field to avoid watching me play. I don’t blame them. The game’s fundamental principles only dawned on me slowly, after I had spent many seasons running in the opposite direction of the ball.

Despite these traumas, or perhaps because of them, my love for soccer later developed into something quite mad. I desperately wanted to master the game that had been the source of so much childhood shame. Because I would never achieve competence in the game itself, I could do the next best thing, to try and acquire a maven’s understanding. For an American, this wasn’t easy. During my childhood, public television would irregularly rebroadcast matches from Germany and Italy at televangelist hours on Sunday mornings. Those measly offerings would have to carry you through the four years between World Cups. That was it.

But slowly, technology filled in the gaps. First, praise God, came the Internet, where you could read the British sports pages and closely follow the players that you had encountered at the World Cup. Then Rupert Murdoch, blessed be his name, created a cable channel called Fox Sports World, dedicated almost entirely to airing European and Latin American soccer.* Now, a rooftop dish brings into my living room a feed from the Spanish club Real Madrid’s cable channel, as well as games from Paraguay, Honduras, the Netherlands, Scotland, and France, not to mention Brazil, Argentina, and England.

At about the same time these television stations began consuming disturbingly large chunks of my leisure time, op-ed columnists and economists began to talk about the era of globalization. Because I spend many of my non-soccer-watching hours as a political journalist in Washington, I found myself drawn into the thick of this discussion. Thanks to the collapse of trade barriers and new technologies, the world was said to have become much more interdependent. Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist and high priest of this new order, hailed the inexorable integration of markets, nation-states and technologies to a degree never witnessed before—in a way that is enabling individuals, corporations and nation-states to reach around the world farther, faster, deeper and cheaper than ever before.

As a soccer fan, I understood exactly what he meant. It wasn’t just the ways in which the Internet and satellites had made the world of soccer so much smaller and more accessible. You could see globalization on the pitch: During the nineties, Basque teams, under the stewardship of Welsh coaches, stocked up on Dutch and Turkish players; Moldavian squads imported Nigerians. Everywhere you looked, it suddenly seemed, national borders and national identities had been swept into the dustbin of soccer history. The best clubs* now competed against one another on a near-weekly basis in transnational tournaments like the European Champions League or Latin America’s Copa Libertadores.

It was easy to be wildly enthusiastic about the new order. These tournaments were a fan’s sweet dream: the chance to see Juventus of Turin play Bayern Munich one week and Barcelona the next. When coaches created cultural alchemies out of their rosters, they often yielded wonderful new spectacles: The cynical, defensive-minded Italian style livened by an infusion of freewheeling Dutchmen and Brazilians; the English stiff-upper-lip style (or lack of style) tempered by a bit of continental flair, brought across the Channel in the form of French strikers. From the perspective of my couch, the game seemed much further along in the process of globalization than any other economy on the planet.

What’s more, I could think of a further benefit of soccer’s globalization that had yet to be realized: Someone needed to write a book on the subject that would require the (oh-so-arduous) task of traveling the world, attending soccer matches, watching training sessions, and interviewing his heroes. For eight months, I took a leave from my job at the New Republic magazine and visited the stadiums that I most desperately wanted to see.

At about the time that I started working on this book, in the fall of 2001, the consensus on globalization changed considerably—for obvious reasons. It was no longer possible to speak so breathlessly, so messianically of the political promise of economic interdependence. And there was another problem. The world’s brief experiment in interdependence didn’t come close to delivering the advertised result of prosperity. This book tries to use the metaphor of soccer to address some of the nagging questions about this failure: Why have some nations remained poor, even though they had so much foreign investment coursing through them? How dangerous are the multinational corporations that the Left rails against?

This is not to dredge up the tired old Marxist criticisms of corporate capitalism—the big question of the book is less economic than cultural. The innovation of the anti-globalization left is its embrace of traditionalism: its worry that global tastes and brands will steamroll indigenous cultures. Of course, soccer isn’t the same as Bach or Buddhism. But it is often more deeply felt than religion, and just as much a part of the community’s fabric, a repository of traditions. During Franco’s rule, the clubs Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad were the only venues where Basque people could express their cultural pride without winding up in jail. In English industrial towns like Coventry and Derby, soccer clubs helped glue together small cities amid oppressive dinginess.

By the logic of both its critics and proponents, the global culture should have wiped away these local institutions. Indeed, traveling the world, it’s hard not to be awed by the power of mega-brands like the clubs Manchester United and Real Madrid, backed by Nike and Adidas, who have cultivated support across continents, prying fans away from their old allegiances. But that homogenization turned out to be more of an exception than I had anticipated. Wandering among lunatic fans, gangster owners, and crazed Bulgarian strikers, I kept noticing the ways that globalization had failed to diminish the game’s local cultures, local blood feuds, and even local corruption. In fact, I began to suspect that globalization had actually increased the power of these local entities—and not always in such a good way.

On my travels, I tried to use soccer—its fans, its players, and strategies—as a way of thinking about how people would identify themselves in this new era. Would they embrace new, more globalized labels? Would people stop thinking of themselves as English and Brazilian and begin to define themselves as Europeans and Latin Americans? Or would those new identities be meaningless, with shallow roots in history? Would people revert back to older identities, like religion and tribe? If soccer is an object lesson, then perhaps religion and tribe have too much going for them.

This book has three parts. The first tries to explain the failure of globalization to erode ancient hatreds in the game’s great rivalries. It is the hooligan-heavy section of the book. The second part uses soccer to address economics: the consequences of migration, the persistence of corruption, and the rise of powerful new oligarchs like Silvio Berlusconi, the president of Italy and the AC Milan club. Finally, the book uses soccer to defend the virtues of old-fashioned nationalism—a way to blunt the return of tribalism.

The story begins bleakly and grows progressively more optimistic. In the end, I found it hard to be too hostile toward globalization. For all its many faults, it has brought soccer to the far corners of the world and into my life.


How Soccer Explains

the Gangster’s Paradise


Red Star Belgrade is the most beloved, most successful soccer team in Serbia. Like nearly every club in Europe and Latin America, it has a following of unruly fans capable of terrific violence. But at Red Star the violent fans occupy a place of honor, and more than that. They meet with club officials to streamline the organizational flow chart of their gangs. Their leaders receive stipends. And as part of this package, they have access to office space in the team’s headquarters in the upper-middle-class neighborhood of Topcider.

The gangs have influence, in large measure, because they’ve won it with intimidation. A few months before I arrived in Belgrade to learn about the club’s complicity in the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, Red Star fan clubs had burst into the team’s training session. With bats, bars, and other bludgeons, they beat three of their own players. After their havoc, they aren’t typically shy about advertising their accomplishments. In this instance, the hooligans told reporters bluntly that they could no longer tolerate lack of commitment on the pitch. It took only one phone call to organize an interview with a handful of them in their first-floor meeting room at the Red Star headquarters.

The Belgrade neighborhood around Red Star is cartoonishly ominous. An enormous gaggle of crows resides on the stadium’s roof. When goals are scored and the crowd erupts, the birds flee—across town, it’s possible to gauge the results of a game based on presence or absence of an ornithological cloud above the skyline. On the other side of the street from the stadium, the family of Arkan, the most notorious warlord and gangster in Serb history, lives in a castle he constructed, a nouveau riche monstrosity with tiers of towers and turrets. When I loiter near the house for too long, a large man in a leather jacket emerges and inquires about my business. Because of the atrocities committed by Arkan’s men, I describe myself as a lost tourist, nervously ask him for directions, and walk away briskly. On the evening of my visit, the sky is gunmetal.

My translator had arranged for me to meet with Draza, a leader of a Red Star fan club that calls itself the Ultra Bad Boys. He had persuaded him with the overblown promise that an interview would bring glory unto the club and world renown unto the achievements of the Red Star fans. Six of Draza’s loquacious colleagues join him. At first glance, the Bad Boys look entirely unworthy of the first part of their name and too worthy of the second. Aside from the big red tattoos of their gang name on their calves, they seem like relatively upstanding young men. Draza wears a fleece jacket and chinos. His head of overgrown yet obviously manicured hair has the aura of a freshman philosophy student. As it turns out, he is a college student, swamped with preparations for exams. His comrades aren’t any more menacing. One of them has a bowl haircut, a pudgy face, and an oversized ski parka that he never removes—he looks like the kind of guy who’s been shoved into his fair share of lockers.

Perhaps to increase their credibility, the Bad Boys have brought along a gray-haired man called Krle, who wears a ratty black San Antonio Spurs jacket. Krle’s sinewy frame gives the impression that he fills his leisure time with pull-ups on a door frame in his flat. Many years of living a hooligan life have aged him prematurely. (When I ask his age and occupation, he changes the subject.) Unlike the naïve enthusiasm exhibited by the teens, who greet me warmly, Krle blares indifference. He tells my translator that he has only joined our interview because Draza insisted. His one gesture of bonhomie is to continually pour me warm Serbian beer from a plastic bottle. After I taste the beer, it hardly seems like such a friendly gesture. But because of his angry gray eyes, I find myself drinking glass after glass.

Krle serves as senior advisor to the group, a mentor to the aspiring hooligans. Putting aside his intense glare and unfriendly demeanor, I was actually glad for his presence. My interest in Red Star centers on the 1990s, his heyday as thug, when the fan clubs played a pivotal role in the revival of Serbian nationalism—the idea that the Serbs are eternal victims of history who must fight to preserve a shred of their dignity. With little prodding, Draza speaks openly about the connections. Unfortunately, his monologue doesn’t last long. Exerting his authority with volatile glances and brusque interruptions, Krle seizes control of the conversation. He answers questions curtly.

Who do you hate most?

A pause for a few seconds’ worth of consideration. A Croatian, a cop: it doesn’t make a difference. I’d kill them all.

What’s your preferred method for beating a guy?

Metal bars, a special kick that breaks a leg, when a guy’s not noticing. He sharply stomps down a leg, an obviously well-practiced move.

Because the beer has kicked in, I try to get closer to the reason for my visit. I noticed that you call Arkan ‘commandant.’ Could you tell me a little more about how he organized the fans?

His look is one of deep offense and then unmitigated fury. Even before the translation comes, his meaning is clear. I shouldn’t be answering your questions. You’re an American. And your country bombed us. You killed good Serb men.

As good a reason as any to redirect the conversation to another topic. In an aside to my translator, which he didn’t tell me about until after our interview, Krle announces, If I met this American asshole on the street, I’d beat the shit out of him. Krle then drops out of the conversation. At first, he stands impatiently on the far side of the room. Then he plops into a chair and leans back on its hind legs. When this ceases to hold his attention, he stands again and paces.

In the meantime, his protégés continue their enthusiastic descriptions of violence. They tell me their favorite guerilla tactic: dressing in the opposition’s jersey. This enables them to befriend visiting fans, lure them into their cars, transport them to remote locales, and beat them. They boast about their domination of fans from Partizan, their Belgrade rivals. Draza especially relishes describing a game against Partizan the previous season. Thirty minutes before kick off, the Ultra Bad Boys had quietly gathered their toughest guys at one end of the stadium by a small outcropping of trees. Each thug carried a metal bar or wooden bat. They formed a V-shaped formation and began to rampage their way around the stadium, beating anyone in their path. First, they attacked the visiting fans. Then, they slugged their way through a horde of police. The Ultra Bad Boys attacked so quickly that neither the cops nor the Partizan fans had time to respond. In their path, they left lines of casualties, like the fresh tracks of a lawnmower. We made it around the stadium in five minutes, says Draza. It was incredible.

Aside from Krle’s paroxysms, the Ultra Bad Boys never curse. They consider themselves to occupy higher moral terrain than their foes: no use of firearms, no beating of the enemy after he loses consciousness. Draza explains, Partizan fans once killed a fifteen-year-old Red Star supporter. He was sitting in the stadium, and they fired flares at his chest. Those monsters killed the boy. They observe no limits. The Ultra Bad Boys speak until they exhaust my questions.

As I put away my pen and notebook, Krle reengages the group. He stands over me and demonstrates the three-fingered salute of Serb nationalism, the peace sign plus a thumb. The gesture signifies both the holy trinity and the Serb belief that they are the planet’s most authentic representatives of the holy trinity. Now you, he says in English. I comply. Before I leave the room, Krle makes me repeat the gesture four more times. When I later describe this moment to a human rights activist who has spent many years in Belgrade, he tells me that, during the war, paramilitaries forced Muslims and Croats to make this salute before their rape or murder.

Krle had been a Red Star thug during the club’s most glorious year. In 1991, the team won the European Champions Cup—the most prestigious annual prize in club competition. That team had been a metaphor for the crumbling hulk of Yugoslavia. Despite its history as a vehicle for Serb nationalism, Red Star had included players from across the country, even a vociferous Croatian separatist. Each state of the old Yugoslavia had developed widely accepted ethnic stereotypes that sports commentators then transposed to its players. Slovenians were superb defenders, tirelessly trailing opposing forwards. Croatians possessed a Germanic penchant for pouncing on scoring opportunities. Bosnians and Serbs were creative dribblers and passers, but occasionally lacking in tactical acumen. At Red Star, an amalgam of disparate Yugoslavs bundled their specialties and beat the superpowers of Western Europe.

This performance should have given a modicum of hope for the salvage of multi-ethnic Yugoslavia. But in the shadow of this championship season, in Red Star’s headquarters and stadium, the destruction of this Yugoslavia was being plotted. From Red Star’s own ranks, a hooligan paramilitary force was organized and armed. Krle, who took a bullet in his leg, would serve in this army. The Red Star fans would become Milosevic’s shock troops, the most active agents of ethnic cleansing, highly efficient practitioners of genocide.

It’s hard to imagine that Ultra Bad Boys are typical figures. They seem a product of a war-torn country and its diseased ideology. But they’re really not such a homegrown oddity. Starting in the 1980s, the soccer hooligan widely came to be considered a leading enemy of the West. A disgrace to civilized society, Margaret Thatcher once said. Based on death toll—more than one hundred in the 1980s—the English were the world’s leading producer of deranged fans, but they were far from alone. Throughout Europe, Latin America, and Africa, violence had become part of soccer’s culture. And even in places where violence had long accompanied soccer, it became more widespread and destructive in the eighties and nineties. The Serbian fans were merely a bit better organized and much better armed than the rest of the world.

Susan Faludi and a phalanx of sociologists have an explanation for this outburst. They have written about downsized men, the ones whose industrial jobs were outsourced to third-world labor. Deprived of traditional work and knocked off patriarchal pedestals, these men desperately wanted to reassert their masculinity. Soccer violence gave them a rare opportunity to actually exert control. When these fans dabbled in racism and radical nationalism, it was because those ideologies worked as metaphors for their own lives. Their nations and races had been victimized by the world just as badly as they had been themselves.

Economic deprivation and displacement are obvious explanations. But there’s so much these factors can’t explain. Ultra Bad Boys like Draza can also be college boys with decent prospects. The Chelsea Headhunters, the most notorious English hooligan gang, include stockbrokers and middle-class thrill seekers. Besides, human history is filled with poor people, and rarely do they get together in groups to maim for maiming’s sake.

Something different happened in this era. An ethos of gangsterism—spread by movies, music, and fashion—conquered the world. The Red Star fans modeled themselves after foreigners they admired, especially the Western European hooligans. The name Ultra Bad Boys was ripped off from Italian supporters’ clubs. Another fan club called itself the Red Devils, after British club Manchester United’s nickname. In the late eighties and early nineties, the Red Star hooligans would go to the British Cultural Center in downtown Belgrade to scan the papers for the latest antics of English hooligans. The Serb hooligans also paid tribute with their fashion. They wore Adidas track suits, gold chains, and white leather sneakers, just like the crazed fans they read about on the other side of the continent. Of course, the genealogy of this aesthetic had other roots than England. It borrowed heavily from African American gangster rap, a favorite genre of Serb youth, and filched mores from the emerging Russian mafia. Gangsterism and its nihilistic violence had become fully globalized. And it was in the Balkans that this subculture