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How Soccer Explains Human Nature

Last summer at IAD airport, waiting for my son to depart to visit his grandparents, I picked up How Soccer Explains the World by Franklin Foer.  This little book connects the institution of Soccer, the capital-S soccer, to observations of culture, economics, religion and a whole host of other themes.  Foer explores connections to gambling and the mafia, religious tensions, and of course racism (which remains world Soccer’s biggest enemy, I’d say).  He explores how history and culture have shaped the identities of, say, Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain, and how their supporters either implicitly or explicitly embrace that historical context.  And how and why Tottenham in England is historically the “jewish” club, and what it means today.  Some of the most interesting observations revolve around the cultural and political environments in individual countries, and how those prevailing forces impact the style of Soccer played in either the domestic leagues or by the national team.   Grow up in a totalitarian regime?  You probably play well-defined, disciplined, positional Soccer, and the manager pulls the strings on strategy and preparation.  You give your best to the team, you are not the central focus of the team;  you humbly play your role to make the team stronger.  Grow up in a more nebulous political regime with a rich and vibrant culture, say, Brazil?  Then you probably play a style of Soccer the embraces individual creativity and flair, ambition and aggression, you control the ball at your feet with exquisite skill and calmness, and you play somewhat on the razor’s edge between fearless confidence and reckless risk-taking.  And don’t even get me started on Total Football

Then this past summer, I re-read the brilliant, laugh-until-you-cry Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby.  I had read Fever Pitch maybe 8 or 10 years ago when my two boys were very young.  And since Fever Pitch is at least in part a story of father and son, and largely about a coming of age that almost never happens for Hornby, the book didn’t resonate with me the same way it does now that my boys are older and have their own personalities**.  Nonetheless, Fever Pitch is about how a team’s supporters define the identities of the clubs they support.  This is not a book about capital-S Soccer (unless you think, perhaps as Hornby does, that Arsenal are the perfect metaphor for what Soccer is), rather it’s about little-s soccer and how this one particular soccer club has come to define one man’s life, his obsession, in fact his view of the world.  Hornby is a humorist, after all, so yes the book is deeply funny and parts are laugh-til-you-cry.  But the frailties of human nature exposed by the bizarre, almost unbelievable choices he makes about how and when to support his club–it’s an addiction, after all–make you cry-til-you-laugh.  Missing a dear friend’s birthday party to listen to an away game on the radio?  How does this man sort out his priorities around soccer, family, friends, and the basic expectations and social/cultural norms that most people respond to?  And whatever you do, don’t equate the book to this.

These two books, together, provide a multi-scale view of how soccer, and Soccer, really do explain the world and human nature.  Foer presents a pretty compelling organizing principle for the macrocosm of sport, culture, identity, and membership in a community.  That community may indeed be the fans at the Stretford End at Old Trafford, the Serbian mafia, or the Chelsea Headhunters, but nonetheless, Soccer provides a framework of mutually-understood expectations its community.  Manchester United will win.  Newcastle will be the (more or less) lovable underdog.  Real Madrid are the blue blood team.  Cruz Azul supporters are the common working man.  And the macrocosmic view is reinforced when we realize that all these clubs are intense, successful global brands (I happen to be wearing my 40th anniversary commemorative May 29, 1968 [for winning the European cup] blue Manchester United jersey as I write this), there is an intense local culture around the club.

Hornby’s view of the world makes an American cock her head sideways, contorted as if driving by the worst traffic accident you’ve ever passed on the highway, because of its extremeness.  The devotion of supporters like Hornby is at once admirable, lovable, crazy, insane, and worthy of both deep praise and deep sympathy.  It is the razor’s edge between love and insanity.  What can you say to a man inflicted with such a deep personality defect that so many people in his community want to share?  And where does this devotion come from?  Supporters like this exist in other sports, but not on the scale of soccer and they are often the objects of derision–in a socially-acceptable way.  Soccer supporters are, because of the culture of soccer and the cultural contexts in which these fans live, socially accepted, and even celebrated, as passionate, devoted, lifelong, I-bleed-(insert your colors here), and so are my kids, as will their kids, and theirs, and so on.  This book could not be about baseball (although again, they’ve tried), or American football, or NBA basketball.  It just wouldn’t be credible.  But about soccer?  Sure, of course, what’s unusual about that?

Both Soccer and soccer continue to fascinate me for all these reasons.  But there’s even a more microcosmic view that’s compelling as well.  The view between the whistles of a single game:  the emotion, the building and relieving of pressure, the ebb and flow and continuous action that unfolds like a great drama–smoothly and with a pace and rhythm that mimics life–rather than the jumps and starts of discrete-action-sports like baseball and American football.  Watching Manchester United play in Europe (especially a tight, high-stakes match) is emotionally exhausting in a way that baseball could never be.  Viewing Man Utd at Sunderland on the last day of the 2012 season (they won, 1-0) on TV while watching online Man City beat QPR 3-2 to win the title on goal differential, well that was almost too much to take.  I was sitting in my media room, Sunday morning with some friends, hanging on every pass, every shot, every innocuous throw in, dividing my attention between the big screen for Man Utd and my small computer screen for Man City (and of course that, in itself, is a metaphor for fan-dom).  QPR were a man down–a man down!–and Man City scored twice in injury time to take the title.  Heartbreaking.  Emotionally draining.  And despite the outcome, a fabulous way to spend a sunny May morning.

** Incidentally, probably my favorite book about fathers and sons is The Road by Cormac McCarthy.  Not laugh-til-you-cry, more like cry-til-you-puke in its depth of emotion.  A very different kind of book, and somewhat polarizing, but I find it to be a small classic.

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