Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

May 30, 2010

Geopolitics of the World Cup, or Why the US Doesn't Rule Soccer

On the eve of South Africa 2010, a father-and-son writing team parse the multivolume epic that is world soccer into a guide for uninitiated Americans.

David Downs

Africa is about to host its biggest sporting event since the Rumble In the Jungle between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire in 1974. On June 11, people across the world will start to watch South Africa host the World Cup, the world's premier international football tournament. The apartheid-traumatized country might rank among the murder and rape capitals of the world and lack advanced infrastructure, but it also spends more on education, as a percentage of GDP, than the US.

Steven Stark and Harrison Stark
"The idea that half the planet can do anything at the same time together and enjoy it: What can't we do?"—Harrison Stark

Steven Stark and Harrison Stark

Such geopolitical realities get thrown into sharp relief during the quadrennial soccer event, and they've inspired the book World Cup 2010: The Indispensable Guide to Soccer and Geopolitics, by Steven Stark and his son Harrison Stark. It's a breezy and insightful guide to the tournament that is targeted to a country where many residents ignore the sport. Steven, an NPR cultural commentator and syndicated columnist, once matched that description but went soccer-crazy a few years back while living in England.

In the following interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, the Starks talk about American exceptionalism, racism, magic, and the World Cup as both globalization incarnate and the last yardstick of nations.

Gelf Magazine: Average Americans don't watch soccer. They think it's for five-year-old girls who can't play Pee Wee football. It seems like your book argues that this perception is tied to sexism, racism, and xenophobia in the US.

Steven D. Stark: There's an old saying that Americans learn their world geography through wars, while the rest of the world learns it through soccer. And I think for us that's the best reason to follow the sport. You learn so much about Ghana, what's going on in soccer, and what's going on in Ghana—all from the way its people play soccer and the stories of the people on the team as they are playing. In a way, watching soccer is like travel; you learn a lot about these cultures in a very enjoyable way, if you're a sports fan.
Soccer is sort of like baseball in that way. It's like stepping into Page 600 of a 2,000-page novel that's been going on for 50 years. I can see why it would seem intimidating to people in a certain way, because there is so much out there, but, again, with baseball you have to start somewhere.
Originally, soccer did not become popular in the US because it was thought of as an English game, and the English were not popular. Then it was the game that your immigrant parents played, but when you came here you played baseball instead. And I think soccer still suffers from that a lot.
I think it's going to be a while before Americans are good at soccer, which is another element: Americans like to win. Winning is big to us. It's not like winning isn't big to other countries, too, but there are very few countries that do well at the World Cup, and for the rest, even qualifying is such a huge thing. For Americans, if we don't win something, we're not as interested in it. Because we win so many other things, we take winning for granted.

Harrison Stark: The point of the book is that soccer is not just a sport; it is the biggest phenomenon in the world. In politics, in culture, people talk about globalized communities all the time. If you want to understand this new, globalized world, you have to understand soccer. Americans don't really get that. It's American exceptionalism. It's hard for us to imagine anything is that big. It's also hard for Americans to stomach soccer for a variety of other reasons. We're not that good at the sport. We didn't have a lot of these huge local and national rivalries. The closest thing to the World Cup for Americans would be the US beating the Soviet Union in hockey at the 1980 Olympics. It was a huge sociocultural event played out in a sports arena. What other thing besides soccer is done by literally every country in the world? It transcends sport. Billions of people watched the 2006 World Cup final. The idea that half the planet can do anything at the same time together and enjoy it: What can't we do? It's really a beautiful thing and it's fascinating. It goes beyond any global religion. It goes beyond any border. If Martians landed, they would have to report back that Earth is covered in water, it has seven billion sentient beings on the land, and by and large they're crazy for soccer. It's crazy.

Gelf Magazine: I think Americans might be surprised to learn that we have a player on our team who is a rapper, whose rap act is called Deuce.

Steven D. Stark: Yeah, Clint Dempsey. He's probably the best player on the team. He's very unusual for an American player in that he is very working-class. American players still tend to be upper-middle-class or originally from abroad. Their families were in the military or they left the US when they were young.
There are very few African-American soccer players, even in college. And those players who are African-American tend to be from the Caribbean. They're not from places that produce much of the rest of the African-American athletic community. If you are an athlete, you go play football or basketball; you don't play soccer. As long as that's the case, we're not going to be among the best teams in the world, because our best athletes don't go into the sport. The fact that we're not good at the sport becomes self-fulfilling.

Gelf Magazine: Your book notes one thing we can pat ourselves on the back for: We're a lot less racist than other countries.

Steven D. Stark: Yeah, that's true. Racism is a big problem. In a lot of European venues, the black players are hooted at. Fans greet them with monkey chants. Some fans throw banana peels on the field. I think that could affect some teams in South Africa, because I think fans from countries where there's this strong racist tradition and that have no black players on their teams are going to have, or could have, more trouble in South Africa.
Spain, for example, has a lot of problems with racism in its league, and there are black players there, but it's tough. Will that affect the Spanish team? I think it's possible. Slovakia is another one—there's a lot of racism in Slovakia.

Gelf Magazine: Tell me about including the chapter on magic in African soccer. Are there people out there who will say that even covering that topic is racist? Did you think about that?

Steven D. Stark: We did, and we tried to write it in a sympathetic way. First of all, it's a huge part of African soccer. If you talk to any African footballer, it's just a part of the game there. There are these legions of stories of putting spells on locker rooms and lighting things inside nets.
What we do point out is that, first of all, there are a ton of European players who have their own incredibly idiosyncratic, weird customs. And in baseball you have to sit in the same space on the bus each ride—or if there's a no-hitter, you're not allowed to mention it in the dugout. Well, how different is that? To us, it's the same kind of thing.
Athletes are superstitious. I would put African superstition in a slightly different league. It's the same church, just a different pew.
Including the chapter did give us pause, but I don't think you can write about African soccer and not mention magic. If you look at any of the books that have done a good job on African soccer, there's always a chapter on magic. It's huge.

Gelf Magazine: Everyone has a ritual in the batter's box. I was reading about the cognitive neuroscience of failing to perform to your capabilities, i.e. choking, and a lot of choking comes from overthinking. Superstitions seem like a great tool to distract people from the pressure of failing.

Steven D. Stark: Oh, especially in soccer. In a lot of these tournaments, games come down to penalty kicks.

Gelf Magazine: That's a choking nightmare.

Steven D. Stark: There are a couple countries' teams that just can't kick them. Similarly, there are teams that never miss. And you know, I think all of this plays into it. I don't think the magic stuff with Africa is derogatory in any way; it's just part of many African players' approach to the game.

Gelf Magazine: You also don't shirk away from the stats showing that South Africa has among the highest rape and murder rates in the world. Is the US up there?

Steven D. Stark: Oh, no. South Africa's rates are higher.

Gelf Magazine: It shocked me that this poor country also spent more on education than the US, as a percentage of GDP.

"What's interesting to us is, what do the North Korean players do when they lose? They are going to lose."—Steven D. Stark
Steven D. Stark: Yeah, and it's a poor country. I give FIFA a lot of credit for hosting the World Cup there, because in the past, with the exception of Mexico, only the rich countries have gotten to host it. And that's not really fair: that you have to be this highly industrialized nation to be able to host the World Cup. By putting it in South Africa, there are risks. But I admire FIFA for trying by putting it there. If it comes off, it'll be great.

Gelf Magazine: It can't be any worse than having the Olympics and World Cup in Rio, right?

Steven D. Stark: I don't know.

Gelf Magazine: That's a wild place.

Steven D. Stark: It is a wild place. It is. And it's part of the same trend—of sort of beginning to take these events all around the world. To take the World Cup to Japan and South Korea—it's different than South Africa; those countries had a lot of the infrastructure in place. South Africa didn't. And Brazil has hosted the World Cup before, years and years and years ago. But having it in Africa, this is the first huge sports engagement other than Ali-Foreman to come to Africa. I think that's important, and I think it's great.

Gelf Magazine: Talk to me about North Korea. Its team qualified and its players play a really tight-knit style, because unlike with every other team, they play together all year.

Steven D. Stark: They play full-time there and they play ultra-defensively, which is not surprising, given the mindset of North Korea. They snuck in, basically. They tied South Korea. To be fair, the last qualifier in Asia is usually terrible. We're talking Iran. We're talking Saudi Arabia. The last qualifier usually goes to the tournament and never wins anything. So you don't have to be that good to win that spot.
Now, it's still a surprise that North Korea did it, but part of it is that anything North Korea does is a surprise, because nobody knows anything about the team. Most teams are going to play a lot of exhibition games before they go to South Africa just to get their players ready. North Korea apparently has scheduled very few games. Heaven only know what the team is like. North Korea's regime is very paranoid and totalitarian.
What's interesting to us is, what do the North Korean players do when they lose? They are going to lose. They're in the toughest group. And I would be shocked if they weren't routed in every single game.

Gelf Magazine: Americans definitely know the horror stories of players in Latin America getting killed for failing at soccer.

Steven D. Stark: Like the Colombian player from the World Cup hosted in the US [who was killed after scoring an own goal against the US]. And there were stories after the 1966 World Cup, unconfirmed, that after North Korea lost in the quarterfinal, when players got back home they were sent off to work camps or something.

Gelf Magazine: Also, you write that two Latin American countries fought a Soccer War, with 2,000 confirmed deaths.

Steven D. Stark: Yeah, that was between Honduras and El Salvador. That was quite a famous incident that arose over a World Cup qualifier. It was similar to what happened this year between Egypt and Algeria, except in the earlier incident, things got out of hand and there was a short war fought. There was a lot more going on between those countries. But the soccer match precipitated the war in very much the way that tension got way out of hand with that Algeria-Egypt playoff.
There were rumors about fans from each country being beaten up, and the Egyptian president's son issued threatening statements. But there's history going back decades. Algeria always felt Egypt didn't do enough to support it in its war of independence against France in the 1950s. And then there was a very celebrated incident in the 1980s where I think the Egyptian doctor had an eye put out by a bottle, and an Algerian player was blamed for it. It's like what I talk about: stepping into a 2,000-page book.

Gelf Magazine: Reading your own book, it becomes apparent that the World Cup superficially pits nations against nations, but its best players are fully globalized. They move effortlessly across borders chasing money.

Steven D. Stark: That's absolutely true. That's really the way in which soccer has changed in the last 10 to 15 years. All the great players really only play in one of three or four countries, but that's one reason why I think the World Cup still triggers such nationalism, because it's the one time when Lionel Messi or all these Argentinian players or all these Brazilian players are still representing their respective flags. I mean, when Pelé played for Brazil, he was on a Brazilian club team, so he was home all the time. This is really many players' one home-nation experience.

Gelf Magazine: In that respect, it reshuffles the deck irrespective of global finances.

Steven D. Stark: Yeah, that's absolutely true. So for that reason, if anything, it's become almost more important to people, because it's like your last yardstick of nationalism. In most of these places, unlike the US, the World Cup dwarfs the Olympics exponentially in terms of how much people pay attention to it and how important it is to them.

"Increasingly the World Cup becomes more like the All-Star Game than like the World Series."—Steven D. Stark
Gelf Magazine: I guess it would be like if every baseball player had to go play for his hometown, and then seeing which town would win.

Steven D. Stark: It'd be great. They are trying to do that with the World Baseball Classic, but the Americans don't take it very seriously. At the time when it's held, right before the season, nobody really wants to get hurt, so it's very different than the World Cup. But it would be interesting if the WBC really were taken seriously by the US. Again, Americans don't take to international sports, unless it's like that hockey game against the Soviets. And if we hadn't won that game, nobody would remember it. It's the fact that we won that everybody remembers, not the fact that we played them.

Gelf Magazine: So do World Cup players go easy because they don't want to get injured and mess up their club careers?

Steven D. Stark: There are two things going on. If you played all year, you're bushed. These guys have played 50 or 60 games, so by the time they get to South Africa—Messi, say, may have a bad tournament just because he's tired. The other thing is, in this era of mega-contracts, there's a question of effort. I'm not saying players don't try, but ultimately you've gotta know who's paying your money: It's your club, it's not your country. And I think increasingly the World Cup becomes more like the All-Star Game than like the World Series.

Gelf Magazine: It's sort of like, "Why would you hurt yourself in a dunk contest, you moron?"

Steven D. Stark: Yeah, I think so. I don't think it's conscious that people think that, but I do think it happens. Plus, in the old days, when Brazil played Spain, Brazilian players could say, "I don't know any of these guys on the Spanish team." Now, Brazil goes to play Spain, and the players are all friends. That's doesn't mean you don't try. But I wonder whether there's a difference because they all play on the same club teams.
And the club gets very upset if one of its players goes to a friendly match with his international team and twists his ankle and is out for three months. The club is paying his wages and isn't going to win the title now, and he got hurt in some game that didn't even count. There's a constant struggle between club and country that's an enormous issue in Europe. It goes both ways. A lot of times fans don't think the coach should call players up for friendlies. Fans want to see players healthy for the Cup.
In the old days, it's Brazilian players playing in Brazil, so if Brazil has a qualifier in Uruguay, great, they just go to Uruguay. Now, some of them have got to come home from Italy. It's a big deal to come home for these qualifiers, just from the strain on your body of having to travel five, six, or ten thousand miles.

Gelf Magazine: And there could be random volcanic activity, for example.

Steven D. Stark: It's actually a big issue in Europe as to whether these teams can get to their games. It does affect national-team play over time. It has to. There's just too much money being paid to players to do well for their club teams.

Harrison Stark: On its face these players shouldn't have any loyalties. For example: Messi, who is Argentinean and considered by everyone to be the best player in the world. He was picked up by Barcelona when he was 12 years old. Some people accuse of him of being more Catalan than Argentinean.
But globalization also is an opportunity for smaller countries whose players are not well known to make an impact. A lot of these smaller teams that do well are a product of that globalized soccer culture. The Australians don't have great players, and soccer wasn't particularly popular, but in 2006 they brought in Guus Hiddink, a Dutch coach who is one of the great tactical masterminds of this generation of football.
Read the book Soccernomics. Simon Kuper claims that Guus is the emblem of the globalized soccer export culture from Europe. A team like Australia's can buy this incredible coach like him. He's Dutch, but he's coached South Korea and Russia and he's plied his trade wherever he wants, and it works.

Gelf Magazine: You guys did an electronic book on Amazon for the 2006 tournament. Back then, we had web coverage of soccer, but it sounds like it has just exploded in the last four years.

Steven D. Stark: It has exploded. YouTube hadn't really gotten going, so you couldn't do highlights. Now somebody scores a goal in Zambia and you see it on the web in six hours. It's incredible.

Harrison Stark: Five, six years ago it had been physically impossible to even watch half the number of matches you can watch now. There are statistical analyses that are available to anybody, which is incredible.
Soccer is different. So many people watch the sport that somebody is always recording a match somewhere. In terms of watching soccer, there's just a myriad of highlight-reel web sites. There's this site Footie Tube that's a search engine that consolidates video from third parties. You can watch highlights of any game. Sometimes five to ten minutes after a game has ended, some form of highlight is going to be on that site. It's sort of a testament to how many people watch the sport.

Speaking of which, The Starks will be blogging updates to their book throughout the tournament at

David Downs

David Downs is a journalist based in San Francisco.

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Article by David Downs

David Downs is a journalist based in San Francisco.

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