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(Photo: antoniothomas/Flickr)

What Does Soccer Mean Today? A Conversation With Simon Kuper

• June 10, 2014 • 10:00 AM

(Photo: antoniothomas/Flickr)

The author of Football Against the Enemy talks to us about the way the game has changed over the past 20 years, the globalization of America, and his son’s angry kindergarten teacher.

“My first question, then, was how soccer affects the life of a country. My second was how the life of a country affects its soccer.”

Those two lines are from the first chapter of Simon Kuper’s Football Against the Enemy, which was written 20 years ago. In the book, Kuper travels across the world—from England to the Ukraine to South Africa and back—trying to answer those questions. The book inspired a way of looking at and writing about the sport—“An inspiration,” reads a cover blurb from Franklin Foer, author of How Soccer Explains the World—but it also inspired Kuper to continue writing about the sport. (“After I finished this book at 2 A.M. one night in 1993,” Kuper writes in the preface to the book’s American edition, “I had intended to stop writing about soccer.”) And, as you know if you read our into, it also helped to inspire this package of stories. So, some two decades later, we spoke to Kuper about how things have changed since his first book and what, if anything, the sport says about the world today.

(Also, in case you were wondering: We spoke a few days before the New York Times published its big investigative report on match-fixing. He is a prophet.)

What do you think has changed the most from when you wrote the book?

At that time you had different national styles—the way that Italians played was very different from the way the English played—so it was a real kind of voyage. People had their own national football cultures, and now it’s much more globalized. So now you have people in Los Angeles supporting Real Madrid. And there are very large numbers of these people, from Bangladesh to South Africa to Shanghai. So I think that’s the big difference: Soccer’s gone global.

If you were going to set out to write a similar book with some big unifying theory for the sport’s role in the world today, what would it look like?

I think the first book was about how each country had its own soccer culture, and I was exploring how that was in the Ukraine or in Cameroon or wherever. And now the world shares these big clubs and big players, but what’s interesting is how it plays out—what it means to a Bangladeshi as opposed to somebody in Tennessee as opposed to somebody in China. They all watch the same soccer to some degree, but of course it has different meanings for each of them. So I think a book would be about that. You might sort of go about finding 10 Manchester United fans in different countries—but each one would be different.

“I’m not sure that there is such a thing as Africa. If you’re a Moroccan or Cameroonian, how much is South Africa part of your country? Do Americans feel proud of things that happen in Mexico? Do they claim them as part of their heritage?”

Some have said that this globalization has lessened the importance of the World Cup. Basically, anyone with an Internet connection can watch any game. And with club soccer, they’re watching better, more cohesive teams. Where do you see the World Cup fitting within all that?

It’s still the most meaningful for players and for fans, so your career can be made in a minute. You score a brilliant goal or you score a terrible own goal at the World Cup, and that marks you for the rest of your life just because of the interest and the meaning that people attach to it is still much higher—even though all the things you say are true. What’s special about the World Cup—if you go back to before the World Cup in the U.S., very few Americans were interested, very few Chinese, Indians, Japanese, Indonesians, so really, the biggest countries in the world were excluded. And now each World Cup really is a World Cup, so in that sense it’s much more wider and deeper than it used to be. And I think that’s quite thrilling: The idea that when somebody plays, he’s watched by people literally all over the world. It’s the most uniting event in our planet’s history, given the increase in global communication. The World Cup in Brazil will be the biggest media event in history, judged by numbers of viewers and numbers of clicks, and there’s something majestic about that.

As someone who got to experience the nascent soccer culture here in the U.S. in the early ’90s, outside of just how much it’s grown in size, what stands out?

There’s this cliche that globalization is Americanization—or it certainly used to be before the crisis. That what globalization is spreading is this American culture that some people say is worthless—Hollywood movies and rap and jeans—and it’s just American colonization of our cultures. And actually what you’re seeing through soccer is the reverse: That America has been globalized, and it’s particularly the most globalized groups of Americans that have most embraced soccer. It’s the immigrants, especially the Hispanics. And then it’s the educated upper-middle classes who play soccer and who increasingly follow English soccer, so I think this shows that the kind of cultural streams in the world are going in all different directions now, and your country’s being taken over by stuff that’s coming from England and Spain. Who would’ve thought that 20 years ago?

Just the sheer role of soccer in American culture is kind of mind boggling to me. I’m told that in colleges people get up at nine in the morning on Saturdays to watch English soccer together. This would’ve been unimaginable 20 years ago. It’s almost funny. I remember before the Holland-Denmark game at Euro 2012, the Green Bay Packers quarterback tweeted about how excited he was about it and how Denmark’s victory blew open the Group of Death. I mean it’s amazing that an icon of American culture is himself obsessed with European football.

Can you use the lens you originally looked through—seeing a country through soccer—for countries that are relatively younger in their soccer lives today?

Yeah, it would be very interesting to go to Tennessee, say, a place you don’t really expect soccer, and hang out there with the people who are watching Arsenal. American soccer’s this enormous mosaic of all sorts of things from the English league to the El Salvadorian league and the Mexican League and MLS and women’s soccer, but I think that the difference would be that you have to be much more aware of the kind of international component. That one reason people in Tennessee like watching Arsenal is because it makes them feel part of this connected world, and that’s not what I was writing about 20 years ago.

What issue in world soccer is the most under-covered?

I think it’s match fixing. I think most leagues in the world are pervaded by match fixing. And this World Cup may be as well. If a poor country, where many of the players are not millionaires, is in its third group match and they’re already knocked out, then I think very suspicious things will start to happen because the betting on World Cups is enormous—much bigger than even on league soccer. And very little is being written about this. Almost nobody has gone to jail. This one Singaporean, [Wilson Raj] Perumal, has, but I think soccer is right in the middle of this crisis that very few people want to see.

Who is the most compelling figure?

I’m very interested in [U.S. coach Jurgen] Klinsmann—how he’s kind of made the leap from one continent to another. He’s obviously a guy who’s always gone his own way, almost sort of outside all national soccer cultures. I think he’s an intriguing person. I’d like to interview [Arsenal manager Arsene] Wenger. And Zlatan Ibrahimovic—I think his book is one of the most fascinating football books I’ve read. He’s obviously an extremely interesting person.

“The national team is a way of debating the state of the nation, but I don’t think it changes the nation. It’s just a forum. It throws up issues that people use to debate where they think the country is.”

When you spoke about Africa in the book, you wrote about how people on the outside look at it in this stereotypical way, as this massive well of untapped soccer potential, but how in reality it hadn’t made any progress. Today, it still kind of feels that way.

It seems to have gone backward. Obviously the results in World Cups have not lived up to Cameroon’s promise in 1990, just before I wrote the book, but also teams like Algeria and Cameroon are actually recruiting their teams very largely from French players of Algerian and Cameroonian background. I think virtually no one in this Cameroon team has played in the Cameroon league, and it’s not because they’ve left for Europe as young talented players, it’s mostly because they actually come from Europe because France and European countries in general do a better job of producing good soccer players than African countries do. And I think in these European networks that we exchange information about lots of things, including how to produce good soccer players, but in Africa these networks are much weaker because distances are bigger in every sense.

Do you think the last World Cup had any real lasting positive impact?

I don’t think it matters much, no. I mean I think it was kind of a boost to the self-confidence of some Africans that it was well organized and went off smoothly, although as many South Africans would confirm, that was mainly due to FIFA organizing things well. But no, I don’t think so. The idea of Africa is very weak anyway. I’m not sure that there is such a thing as Africa. You know, if you’re a Moroccan or Cameroonian, how much is South Africa part of your country? I mean, do Americans feel proud of things that happen in Mexico? Do they claim them as part of their heritage?

The latest big news story out of Europe that’s getting coverage here is the rise of these right-wing parties in the Union’s parliamentary elections. Comparing it to soccer, though, so many teams in the World Cup have these progressive-looking, multi-ethnic rosters. Yet there seems to be a rising political tide against that.

Look at the U.S., where many of the best athletes have been black people—but that doesn’t mean that racism goes away in America? In fact, it can also just confirm stereotypes: that the place of these people is in sports, that that’s what they’re good for, and that they don’t have a place in, say, law firms or medical schools. I think it’s perfectly possible for people to support a multicultural football team and be racist in their voting. And also, where I sit in France, there’s a lot of anger against the soccer players and against the national team. They’re seen as spoiled and badly behaved and trashy, so a lot of racist stereotypes are applied by many ordinary French people toward their own French national team. Although, that doesn’t seem to be true in Germany, where the multicultural team is seen as much more popular.

Is that a particularly unique view to France?

Yeah, it’s probably the French more. Also, because their team went on strike at the last World Cup, and that was seen as unpatriotic. But the Dutch had that issue with their black players in the national team in the ’90s. They were felt to be disloyal and not patriotic. I mean, the national team is a way of debating the state of the nation, but I don’t think it changes the nation. It’s just a forum. It throws up issues that people use to debate where they think the country is.

Does any nation in the World Cup stand out in that regard?

I am following the French drama because I live here, and I think the team is now very good, but it’s still trying to mend its relationship with the nation. One of my boys took a sticker, these Panini stickers, to school of Franck Ribery, who’s probably the best French player at the moment, and his teacher, his kindergarten teacher, said, “Ribery. He’s the ugliest. I hate him.” It’s a very bad relationship that many of them have with their team.

Will we look back on the World Cup in Brazil and talk about how smoothly it went, just like South Africa?

I think it will be less smooth because the South Africans kind of sacrificed everything since they were so desperate to show the world they could organize the World Cup. Whereas in Brazil, as you know, there are different pressures. They’re very unhappy about the spending, while in South Africa it was seen as this great point of national pride that they were going to put on a smooth World Cup—and that the World Cup was going to be be this enormous boon to the economy. These kind of bogus lies were much more widely accepted in South Africa, whereas in Brazil, quite rightly, there’s been much more push back. So the upshot is that they’ve made less of an effort to get the infrastructure ready, and it isn’t ready.

Will they just go on as planned, or will there actually be any fallout with these next two World Cups in these countries with, at best, spotty human rights records?

It’s much easier for those countries to keep their populations under control, so in that sense, that works for FIFA. If it’s not in a democracy, you can stop people protesting. But there will be more pressure from the outside. You’re seeing more pressure on Qatar, and the bad way it treats migrant laborers. And in fact, the World Cup is helping to improve Qatar because they’ve always treated migrant laborers badly, and now this is suddenly giving them bad publicity. Whereas in neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia or Dubai, it’s exactly the same thing. And because of the World Cup, there’s pressure on Qatar to change, which it probably will.

Ryan O'Hanlon
Senior Digital Editor Ryan O’Hanlon joined Pacific Standard from Outside, where he was an online editor. He is a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross, and his writing has appeared in Grantland, the New York Times Magazine, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @rwohan.

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