Soccer and the intellectual.

Dissecting the mainstream.
June 9 2006 5:31 PM

Among the Brainiacs

The intellectual classes descend on soccer.

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Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

At the start of the World Cup this week, a group of men will enter a state of soccer-inspired apoplexy. They will be mouthing nationalist slogans, screaming profane anthems, and carrying on as if the fate of the world were at stake. And once the intellectuals get out of the way, wait till you get a load of the soccer hooligans.

Soccer has become a favorite pastime of the American intellectual. "Many people would say that soccer is the latte or the Subaru of the sporting spectrum," says Matt Weiland, who, with Sean Wilsey, is co-editor of The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup, a new compilation that reads like a roll call of the soccer intelligentsia. Soccer has long been a magnet for brainy Americans—see Bill Buford's Among the Thugs (1990). But the Thinking Fan's Guide represents its full flowering. The bookincludes essays from novelists Dave EggersandRobert Coover, New Republic Editor Franklin Foer (author, How Soccer Explains the World,2004), muckraker Eric Schlosser, and a half-dozen New Yorker contributors. (Slate has excerpted the Eggers piece.) As the World Cup begins this week in Germany, even more eggheadery will pour forth from the mouths of wonks. The tournament has already proved sufficiently inspiring to rouse Henry Kissinger—"Nobel Peace Prize winner, former secretary of State, soccer fan"—who writes in the new issue of Newsweek, "I have firm plans to attend one of the semifinals and the final in Berlin."

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For decades, it was baseball that felt brainy and top-heavy—thanks to the efforts of men like George F. Will, who was forever wondering how Tony LaRussareminded him of Tocqueville. From John Cheever to Stephen Jay Gould,baseball's beat poets looted the game for metaphors for and clues to the national character. Those same deep thoughts are now regularly located in soccer, which seems primed to yield both grand sociopolitical theories and inchoate childhood longings.

What brought soccer to the smart set? Well, one could simply argue that soccer's time had come. Many of the writers in question (Eggers, Foer) were in their formative years when soccer became a mandatory youth sport in America, as well as a part of the American sporting scene (a moment generally pegged at Pelé's signing by the New York Cosmos in 1975.) "What you're seeing now is the result of the gold rush of soccer in the 1970s, when Pelé came to America and made it cool for kids," says David Hirshey, soccer aficionado and executive editor of HarperCollins. "Those kids have grown up to be McSweeney's and Granta writers."

A Gen X intellectual, then, might be just as likely to write about soccer as baseball. (Why join the reminiscences of 70-year-olds when you can join your peers?) But while much of soccer-love may come from nostalgia, a bit of it feels like it is self-styled. It's fair to assume that a great many of the new wave of soccer fans came to the sport in their teens and 20s—the lack of satellite TV and the Internet making the international game difficult to follow until then. Unlike those who had baseball thrust upon them since birth and never paused to adequately consider the implications, soccer fans were liable to ask themselves, "What would being a soccer fan say about me?"

Well, it would say a lot of things, many of them flattering. Taking an interest in soccer indicates a certain cosmopolitanism; the game is an international one. A rooting interest in a British club like Arsenal might indicate Anglophilia, which never hurts in polite society. Soccer-love also says—and this is perhaps most important—that you reject the overweening hype and made-for-TV packaging that surrounds American sports for something that, in theory, approaches a purer experience. "If you're an intellectual, the kitsch that shrouds, say, football is almost intolerable," says Franklin Foer. "If you look at a European soccer crowd, all the shouting is coming organically from the crowd itself—that's so much more appealing." Soccer, largely divorced from shrieking announcers and Jumbotrons, feels more like an artistic endeavor than a television show.

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'sFootball Against the Enemy and 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 Moneyball treatment—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.