Back before the World Cup … can’t remember when, exactly, I don’t seem to have the relevant emails archived … a friend asked me about national stereotypes related to soccer. At the time, I replied with “everyone knows Brazil is stylin’ and Italy plays defense and Germany is boring and inexorable” (thankfully, I was wrong about Germany … c’mon, US Soccer Federation, sign Klinsie as coach). I wish I had read Simon Kuper’s book, Soccer Against the Enemy: How the World’s Most Popular Sport Starts and Fuels Revolutions and Keeps Dictators in Power, for I could have just directed my friend to the book. In the early 90s, Kuper traveled to more than 20 countries, trying to find the essence of soccer in each place he visited. (The book, first published in 1994, has been reissued this year with a U.S. edition, which includes a couple of updated chapters.) He had two basic questions: “how [does] soccer affect the life of a country” and “how does the life of a country affect its soccer.” Soccer and politics, as many people he spoke with understood his agenda. Some of the best parts are, I suppose, the most predictable. He writes about how the Argentine junta tried to use the 1978 World Cup, which they hosted, to paint a pretty picture on the horrors of their regime. He uses the Catalan culture of Barcelona to help explain Scotland (and vice versa). He looks at rivalries, focusing on Celtic-Rangers. And he goes to Ukraine and Cameroon, South Africa and the USA. He even manages to work Osama bin Laden into his story without sounding too mechanical about it. (Soccer fans are always referring to people like Albert Camus when they explain how soccer is more than just a game … Camus was a goal keeper … Osama loves soccer, as well.)
The primary question for the American audience is whether or not the book would appeal to the non-soccer fan. I’d vote yes … soccer is never irrelevant to the points Kuper is making, but the travelogue and political observations are equally as important.