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Fevered pitch: Why soccer isn’t only a game
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Fevered pitch: Why soccer isn’t only a game

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

The World Cup captured Americans’ attention this year like never before. Although the U.S. team may no longer be in the running, World Cup fever is likely to continue to draw wide attention throughout the States until the international soccer competition concludes on July 11. While Americans are unlikely to give up their obsession with American football, the intensity of these matches has exposed some interesting political lessons.

Watching the competition and the fans’ response, one feels the jingoism that these Cup matches engender. The Olympics are certainly about national competition, but many of its events focus on individual feats in figure skating, gymnastics, or track and field. In soccer, it is all about the team, the country, and national honor.

Soccer today is no longer restricted to lower or lower middle class enthusiasts and fans. Thanks in large part to television and the new media, it is a game with devotees from all classes. The costs for hosting and attending the quadrennial competition certainly demonstrate the prestige and financial benefits attached to the sport.

Devotion to soccer rivals religion, politics, and nation. Within a country’s internal or club competition, the local team embodies local or regional loyalties. In international competitions, the team carries a nation’s honor, and is even thought to reflect a nation’s character: the methodical Germans; the feisty, creative Brazilians; the stoic Brits.

These and other tendencies are raised extensively by Franklin Foer, the editor of the New Republic, in the re-issued paperback edition of his 2004 book, How Soccer Explains the World. While Foer focuses on the relationship between soccer and the new global economy, he does not hesitate to address many of the underlying forces behind the attraction of fans. He also paints some very ugly pictures of racial, religious, and ethnic biases which are consistently expressed by fans stirred up by the emotion and the “spirits” which are an inevitable part of soccer matches.

Foer and other observers explain that the violence so frequently associated with the sport is usually generated by the fans and not the athletes themselves. In the United States, while there are occasional fan outbursts, most of the “violence” in American team sports, when it occurs, is generated by the players. Compared to the physical violence in American football, for example, soccer is almost ballet-like. Foer suggests that while world soccer matches emphasize the international rivalries and the international antagonism, national competition tends to bring out the even baser human hostilities of race, religion, and ethnicity.

Discussing Foer’s book, a World Cup blogger for the left-wing Mother Jones magazine wonders why soccer “routinely” inspires “riots and drunken brawls and roving gangs of hooligans — and even the odd war or two.” Sadly, the answer would seem not to be so complicated.

Intense, tight, long, and relentless games (there are few time-outs in soccer, and a 2-1 score is typical) invariably evokes frustration and baseness in the stands. Under all that pressure — and fueled by alcohol — unacceptable behaviors explode.

Most sadly, soccer demonstrates how fundamentally intolerant the world remains. For all that regional and nationalist fervor, it’s curious how cosmopolitan a sport soccer is. Players from all over the world are paid extremely well to play for teams in far-flung countries. Israelis are playing for many European teams, for example, and a top British team has had an Israeli coach. You might have thought that would have fostered tolerance among fans. Unfortunately, the Israelis are subject to anti-Israel and anti-Semitic taunts, which are sometimes even more tolerated in crowds today than the repulsive attacks that black and Muslim players receive. The French World Cup team imploded this year, at least in part, because of apparent racial intolerance.

Sadly, you may still only need a ball to play soccer, but how you will be judged may have little to do with your physical prowess.

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