Among the Brainiacs
The intellectual classes descend on soccer.
In a weak moment, the soccer intellectual might even admit that the sport's stars are aspirational male role models. Most soccer players are not human grotesqueries like NFL stars or attenuated beanpoles like NBA players. They're possessed of attainable physiques, strong and compact—the kind that might impress intellectuals and the women who love them. As Matt Weiland puts it, "A soccer player tends to look like someone who came to your last party and you didn't get a chance to talk to." Meanwhile, soccer's casual fashions—the jerseys, sandals, and shaggy haircuts—meld well on Ivy League campuses and Brooklyn house parties.
But what about writing?Well, it's no secret that American writers see soccer as a can opener to crack the geopolitical scene. In the owners and obsessives, Americans find clues to foreign politics and cultures. This, too, is an intellectual tradition borrowed from the Brits, in particularSimon Kuper's Football Against the Enemyand Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch."Once American intellectuals saw how successful the British pinheads were at writing about soccer, they realized that they, too, could use it as a backdrop to writing about culturally significant events," says Hirshey.
There's also a frisson of underworld glamour in soccer writing. To chronicle the international game is, in many cases, to mingle with thugs, hooligans, and all sorts of unsavories. "There's a strong, strong element of working-class chic in American fandom," says David Plotz, Slate's residentsoccer obsessive. "It's like fake macho for smarty-pantses." One needn't venture to Glasgow or Rome to seek out lunch-pail pals, of course—the intellectual could just as easily find them stateside at a college football game or NASCAR event. Perversely, it seems easier for an American soccer fan to make common cause with Italian mobs, who might happen to be shouting pro-fascist chants, than with someone from Alabama, who might happen to be a Republican.
Add the fact that soccer writing has thus far resisted the Moneyballtreatment—no smart aleck has come along and told us that you need advanced mathematics degrees to appreciate its nuances. Much of the soccer writing in the Thinking Fan's Guide reminds me of baseball writing in its pre-Moneyball state—lyrical, impressionistic, given to giddy rhapsodies. (As Sean Wilsey writes, "Watching the 1970s tournament, leaping up at incredible plays, shouting by myself, I wished more than anything that I'd actually been there, in the stands ...") Perhaps the appeal of soccer is that, for the moment, it exists in the happy realm between intelligent vivisection and pure fandom, between grand sociopolitical theories and boyhood dreams—that, for lack of a better term, it allows our young intellectual to pull on a jersey and be a kid again.
Disclosure: Franklin Foer is a friend and spiritual adviser, and I worked on his soccer book. He asks that you read his soccer blog.
Bryan Curtis, Slate's "Middlebrow" columnist, writes for Grantland, Texas Monthly, and Newsweek. Follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Charlie Powell