23 February 2010

108 Days to the World Cup

#12 Soccer Against the Enemy by Simon Kuper

Ah, yes, another book about sports. I couldn't resist.

"How the world's most popular sport starts and fuels revolutions and keeps dictators in power" is the book's main idea. Kuper spent 1992 traveling the world, interviewing people involved in soccer in order to show how soccer, as a global sport, is affected by politics and culture. Dream job right there. He spends hours on trains and planes and finds himself in countries that the State Department would advise one not visit. Traveling and soccer. Totally my kind of thing. To be 23 years old and say "Okay, I'm gonna write a book about soccer, politics and culture, travel the world and meet some cool people." Well, I bow down to you, Mr. Kuper.

Kuper speaks both to people actively involved in professional soccer and the sport's fans. While I thought that his interviews with soccer officials/players were intriguing, it's when he interacts with fans that the book is at its strongest. It's probably because I, too, am a fan of soccer. I obviously have no experience in running a soccer club or playing professionally (or even recreationally), but I could definitely relate with the fan's perspective. I also saw how politics and culture can intervene with the way someone supports their club.

For one thing, I think the timing of Kuper's investigation was spot on. The Cold War was over by 1992, but the countries were still getting acclimated to their new situations. After the Cold War, the USSR became 11 countries. Who do the national players play for now? Once Croatia became independent, there was plenty of controversy over the names of its clubs (Dinamo Zagreb to Dinamo Croatia and back to Dinamo Zagreb).

There's a chapter on East Germany - how the Stasi kept tabs on East Germans who liked West German soccer clubs. I mean, we all know that the Stasi were bad people who ruined people's lives, but to be monitored and considered a risk to the East German state because you like Hertha Berlin (West) instead of Dynamo Berlin (East)? That, of all things, makes you a bad comrade?

Kuper also tackles the rivalry between Celtic and Rangers - the Catholics and the Protestants. Soccer and religion? This is heavy stuff, friends. Kuper tells the story of a group of fans who don't count goals scored by players who play for the wrong team, religion-wise. Um, ok, fools. I'm all for soccer fanaticism, but that's just damn ridiculous. A goal is a goal and if it determines the win, then I'd think it a good idea to count it. There's a lot of players I don't like, but if they score to my club or country's benefit, I'd still want to give them a high-five.

One of the most important sections of the book focuses on football in Africa. The section means a lot more than it probably did back then as the World Cup is taking place in an African nation for the first time. Despite the fact that the book is 15 years old, it still has relevance. It's interesting to reflect on expectations from back then and see how they sized up in reality. Soccer people in Africa expected that an African nation would have won a World Cup by now. Still no dice (and I don't really see it happening this July, either).

I've said it in papers (yes, I wrote college essays on soccer) and even in my review for Soccernomics, but I'll say it again. Soccer is so much more than just a sport. It's a beautiful game, but remains compelling after those 90 minutes are over. You can go on and on about how much better any other sport is, but try to write a politics paper on its vast global impact and then we can talk.

I liked this book a lot (duh), but I had one problem with it - the US version calls American football (NFL) American soccer. Bad! First, I was confused when Kuper made comparisons between soccer and "American soccer." And then I finally got it. Whoever did the editing needs a talking to. There's a new edition coming out in April. Hopefully that'll get fixed.

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