Wednesday Book Review: Soccer Against the Enemy

Kuper, Simon. Soccer Against the Enemy: How the World’s Most Popular Sport Starts and Fuels Revolutions and Keeps Dictators in Power. New York: Nation Books, 2006 (1994).

An Argentine general, upon meeting Simon Kuper and learning the subject of his book said, “Soccer and politics! What an original theme!” (208) In reality, Kuper’s book, Soccer Against the Enemy: How the World’s Most Popular Sport Starts and Fuels Revolutions and Keeps Dictators in Power, is not about soccer and politics. It’s more about soccer and life, or soccer and one particular subculture. To be sure, Kuper’s stories are entertaining, but he sometimes wanders off his point. I’m quite sure that most people can connect soccer to the sectarian violence in Scotland associated with the Old Firm or in the Balkans after the most recent war there. But there are precious few revolutions and even fewer dictators in Kuper’s book. There are, however, a lot of gangsters, superfans, and poor examples set by the English.

Kuper’s book is a product of a year-long journey around the world to various soccer hotspots (and some that were not such soccer hotspots). As a result the book is part travelogue, part match day description, and part investigative report. It is the third part on which Kuper wants the reader to focus. It is true that in some places soccer has assumed a different importance. For example, in Kiev, Dinamo Kiev was more powerful than the city government in the early 1990s. In Argentina, using soccer to cover up the nation’s problems is a tactic that dates to at least 1978. The generals in the 1990s simply used soccer more efficiently. In Africa, soccer was used as a representative example of the dysfunctional nation-state. True, soccer was used by people for various reasons, but there were not a lot of dictators to be found. Kuper wanders off his main point when discussing Croatian fans and the meaning of any Holland-Germany game (like many others, he associated it with World War II). Accidentally, he proved that soccer was a means of defining oneself as a nation.

In the last two chapters, Kuper hammers home his point by jumping around the Middle East and the Balkans. In both areas, soccer is viewed as an expression of nationalism. Like Camp Nou during the Franco era, it is perhaps the only way for people to express anti-regime feelings. Soccer, then, is capable of bringing people together and dividing them. Terrorists, as well, want to use soccer’s global reach for their own awful gains. Kuper paints a horrifying portrait of bombs at the World Cup (this section was clearly revised for the second edition, because it references 11 September 2001). To be sure, soccer is a weapon used by people in power all over the world to keep people in line. National teams, for example, take on an importance in other parts of the world – especially Africa, or new states like Croatia – that is unknown in the United States. Even the Dutch national team, in Kuper’s estimation, are a proxy for the nation itself. Playing Germany is a little war, in which the Dutch can express their resistance, once again. In the end, soccer is simply another political tool for some people, which is not an especially new thesis, but Kuper’s presentation – a comparative perspective – is eye-opening.

Simon Kuper is an excellent writer. He is engaging and eloquent, with often funny asides (though some non-sequiturs are rather pointless; then again, who am I to judge?). He never explicitly connects the dots between areas of the world, but leaves that to the reader. As a result, things can be interpreted in different ways. There are a number of small mistakes throughout the book; some are grammatical while others are factual. It’s also a shame he didn’t have time to visit Central America or Asia (in his defense, soccer wasn’t big in Asia in the early 1990s and South American soccer was more important than Central American soccer).

With all that said, Soccer Against the Enemy is an impressive book. I can see why it won awards, but I wish he had tied everything more concretely to his thesis. Nevertheless, this is a book all soccer fans should own.

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