The clue is in the title. This is a book written by an American for Americans. About a game and a passion that Americans (of the Caucasian variety at least) largely do not get. As such, it will do a good job of fostering whatever preconceptions its target readership brings to the table. For readers who call the round ball game “football,” tend to scoff at American “helmetball” and know at least as much about football as the author, it may prove less successful.
I’m unsure how much Franklin Foer—a senior editor at The New Republic—actually believes in the twin theories he propounds throughout this book: in brief, that football can be used to explain the world and that local societies are reacting to globalization with a return to nationalism. I suspect he’s just trying to milk a nice gimmick for all it’s worth, but I did once take a similar stance in the early 1980s so I’m prepared to be open-minded on this one. At the very least, Foer’s angle offers a fresh if largely superficial approach to a sport that has been deeply entwined with the politics and culture of Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere.
Certainly, Foer’s opening chapter is a good one. “How Soccer Explains The Gangster’s Paradise” details the relationship between the football club Red Star Belgrade and the Serbian paramilitaries who committed atrocity after atrocity against Bosnians and Croats in the wake of the collapse of the former Yugoslavia. The notorious Zeljko “Arkan” Raznatovic’s Serb Volunteer Force (or Arkan’s Tigers) started as a group of 20 Red Star hooligans, peaked as a body of 10,000 well-trained fighters and was responsible for thousands of deaths. In Belgrade, Foer speaks to Arkan’s successors—loosely speaking—as the leaders of the Red Star fighters, to a former Tiger and to his flamboyant widow. The ex-Tiger is particularly well painted:
“A Croatian, a cop; it doesn’t make a difference. I’d kill them all.”
In his second chapter, “How Soccer Explains The Pornography Of Sects,” Foer addresses the Protestant-Catholic hatefest that is the Glasgow Derby. Of course, mindful of his audience, he spends more time vilifying Glasgow Rangers and their hatefully bigoted Protestant supporters than he does on the equally unpleasant and bigoted Catholic supporters of Glasgow Celtic. That aside, he does a good job of describing elements of the complex relationships at play, including the fact that the clubs themselves profit from the sectarianism of their supporters, and he should be commended for taking a trip to Belfast with supporters of both faiths to explore and make clear the roots of the divide between the two clubs. But he misses the subtleties that would mitigate against the apparent starkness of the Glasgow divide, and this is the root of my problem with much of Foer’s book. Make no mistake about it, he writes well, he gives good anecdote, he describes some interesting characters and tells some interesting stories, but I’m not convinced he actually gets football and I distrust him as a writer and an analyst.
I cannot claim any expertise on the experiences of Nigerian imports into Ukrainian football (“How Soccer Explains The Black Carpathians”), the corruption that is apparently rampant in Brazilian football and politics (“How Soccer Explains The Survival Of The Top Hats”), or even the history of Jewish football (“How Soccer Explains The Jewish Question”), but I’m reasonably well-informed on the English game, and when I see Foer claim that “based on death toll—more than one hundred in the 1980s—the English were the world’s leading producer of deranged fans,” my bullshit detector immediately kicks in. You see it is absolutely true that the English set the trend in European football hooliganism, but in claiming that English hooligans killed more than one hundred people in the ‘80s, Foer reveals either a complete lack of understanding or a total ignorance of English football history.
The truth is that English football supporters were far from the lethal killing machines Foer would have you believe. I’m aware of a single Tottenham Hotspur supporter, who died in 1982 after a fall from an escalator in a London Underground station during a chase, and there may have been one or two similar isolated incidents that I can’t recall from the ‘80s, but Foer’s fatuous claim is clearly based on just two major disasters.
The first is the Heysel Stadium Disaster of 1985 when, before the European Cup Final between Liverpool FC and Juventus, hooliganism, awful policing and an utterly unsafe stadium combined to cause a wall to collapse and 39 people to die. The second is the Hillsborough Disaster of 1989 when 96 people died during an English FA Cup Semi Final. I could write a book about Hillsborough, others have, but all that needs to be said here is that there is absolutely no justification for attributing the deaths that day to football hooliganism. As Lord Justice Taylor’s inquiry into the tragedy confirmed, the 96 died because of overcrowding and incompetent police control at a badly maintained and unsafe (literally—the Hillsborough ground held no valid safety certificate) stadium. The truth about Hillsborough is well documented and well known. It is utterly unacceptable for an author claming to write with authority on his subject to make a mistake of this dimension. Foer might as well have included the deaths of the 56 people who died in a fire at Bradford City’s dilapidated stadium in 1985, and his credibility must therefore be ever open to question.
As if that weren’t enough, Foer bases an entire chapter (“How Soccer Explains The Sentimental Hooligan”) around the unlikely stories of a single character, the self-proclaimed Chelsea Headhunter Alan “Garrison.” Foer admits upfront that “Garrison” is not his protagonist’s real name, which he says he doesn’t know, so we’ll just have to call him Alan for now. Foer also expects his readers to believe Alan’s story without question. And why not? It’s a frightfully good story.
According to Foer, Alan’s father was a lieutenant in Hitler’s SS who was shot and captured in the South of France at the end of the war, and sent to a military hospital in Edinburgh, Scotland, to be healed and to fall in love with his Jewish nurse. At which point, the Allied Forces succumbed to the inevitable power of lurve, dropped all war crimes charges against the SS lieutenant and instead allowed him to set up home with his nurse; first in Scotland and then, presumably in protest at the sectarianism of the Glasgow Derby, in London. Alan, born in 1946, was the first progeny of this happy marriage and he grew up to be—brace yourself—an elite British special forces soldier, who doubled as an elite football hooligan at weekends. After serving five years for attempted murder (at a football match), he somehow transformed into a graphics designer who specialized in computer games for the Commodore 64. Well, of course. He then somehow managed to evade US Immigration Service checks on his criminal record (I think the US tends not to welcome convicted would-be murderers) to obtain the visa that allowed him to relocate to California in the 1990s, where he then promptly introduced English-style hooliganism to a group of Raiders fans in Oakland. Oh, I almost forgot, Foer is also keen to relate that at the time he spoke to Alan, he had just started a new career working as a mercenary in Croatia and Kosovo. At the age of almost 60. Hello? Is anyone else seeing Walter Mitty here?
Now to be fair, I really don’t know the truth behind Alan “Garrison” and his unfeasible stories. But I devoted a full 35 minutes of my life to researching him via the wonders of the information superhighway, and I think I’ve got a pretty good handle on his story, including his real name. But that’s largely immaterial, the important thing here is that there are just so many obvious unanswered questions in a story that Foer presents as gospel without any evidence of fact checking or skepticism, that I am utterly unconvinced of its truthfulness. And that’s a shame, because there are plenty of well-known former hooligans available for interview, including Chelsea’s Steve Hickmott—whose name is given as “Hickmont” by Foer.
How Soccer Explains the World is a good and largely interesting read, but based on the failings that I found within its pages, I find it hard to recommend. A better choice for an interested reader would be Simon Kuper’s Football Against The Enemy.