Bar-On, Tamir. The World Through Soccer: The Cultural Impact of a Global Sport. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. Pp. xxiii+307. Appendix, notes, bibliography, and index. $92.00 hardback, $89.99 electronic book.
Reviewed by Zachary R. Bigalke
Anyone who has watched soccer in recent years has seen a dizzying array of different formations and tactics being employed. Some, such as the tiki-taka of Barcelona and Spain and the gegenpress perfected at Borussia Dortmund and exported to Liverpool by Jürgen Klopp, have been revolutionary. When running at peak efficiency each has provided a divergent yet equally stunning display of performance art. Some have been counterrevolutionary, such as Diego Simeone’s reliance on tenacious defending in a traditional 4-4-2 formation. And some have been nostalgic, such as Pep Guardiola’s playful reversions to the 2-3-5 formation last popular at the turn of the 20th century during his time at Bayern Munich and now as manager of Manchester City.
At one time, the numbers on soccer jerseys correlated to a specific position on the pitch, shifting slightly based on formation. Some of these conventions remain in place. Starting goalkeepers around the globe regularly wear the number one. Defenders more often than not will be marked with low numbers. Strikers more often than not don the number nine, while great orchestrators continue to pull on jerseys adorned with the number ten made famous by maestros such as Pelé and Diego Maradona. While tactical innovations have disordered some of these conventions, numbers remain a powerful means of visualizing the layout of a soccer team. They also provide a valuable way of examining the broader impact of the sport.
In The World Through Soccer: The Cultural Impact of a Global Sport, Tamir Bar-On uses these shifting definitions of positionality to demonstrate how soccer can serve as a pedagogical device for understanding everything from politics and religion to art and philosophy. The book is at once familiar and novel. It delves into similar subject matter and follows in the footsteps of other sociocultural examinations of the game such as Franklin Foer’s 2004 How Soccer Explains the World. Yet Bar-On, a professor of international relations and humanities at the Tecnológico de Monterrey in Querétaro, Mexico, by day, brings an academic lens to the treatment that incorporates his background in political history and theory with a longtime passion for the sport. The author has also developed a creative framework which, when coupled with a heavier emphasis on fully-cited analysis, renders the book unique in its construction and valuable to both casual and academic readers.
In this framework Bar-On has the opportunity to cast a wide net across global soccer. He centers on some of the legends of the game, female as well as male, as the hooks for each chapter. While the look at men’s soccer invokes stories from around the world, however, the pool of women considered for the book draws almost exclusively from U.S. women’s soccer. Bar-On does expand his treatment of women beyond the stars at the top of the sport, offering a broader look at women’s participation at all levels. Examples such as the Kabul Girls Soccer Club, a group that provides opportunities for Afghan teenagers to attend soccer camps in the United States, demonstrate the transformative power of the sport to traditionally underserved populations.
Bar-On draws upon several exemplars who wore the numbers one through eleven at each position throughout soccer history as the foundation from which to jump into critical inquiries into soccer’s impact on a global scale and the ways in which it impacts the societies that adore the game. Each position serves as a chapter, providing a natural yet creative way to break up the individual subjects. The author has taken care to select players based on how each can illuminate the subject in question, and his knowledge of soccer history shows in his selections.
In the first four chapters, Bar-On deals with subjects that are aligned with his main fields of expertise. These chapters resonate strongest, as they deal with soccer as a political and ideological tool. He shows how patriotism and jingoism can be exposed at different times in the stadium, and how players are catalysts for these displays. He shows how players have been forces for both the perpetuation of and the fight against military juntas and other autocratic regimes. These chapters also focus on political discourses around class, and how players can be engines for social change as well as for the status quo.
The discourse shifts slightly in the fifth chapter. Here Bar-On delves into the notion of soccer as a secular faith, with fans as devoted as an adherent to any spiritual sect. In this world even the most imperfect individuals are deified if they have the requisite soccer skills. In specific the author focuses on the mesmeric qualities of transcendent soccer stars who play out their careers out in modern cathedrals replete with the pageantry, songs, and customs that help to create a mythic experience for all parties involved. Bar-On transitions from this mystic quality of the sport into the perception of fair play. In this chapter Bar-On draws upon the thoughts of Algerian-born philosopher (and former amateur goalkeeper) Albert Camus to parse the ethics that shape soccer and examines the discourse of hero and anti-hero.
The main focus of chapters seven and eight are marketing, business, and the development of leadership both on and off the pitch. The case studies in these chapters focus on modern players to examine the growth of soccer as a major global economic engine and as a means of evaluating effective leadership in modern society. The rise of the modern athlete as marketing icon is examined in chapter seven. Through a look at David Beckham and others that have benefitted from the blueprint he set, Bar-On provides a well-sourced but hardly new argument detailing how performance on the field results not just in large contracts from a club but also outside revenue streams. This is juxtaposed against a critique of leadership in chapter eight, as megabucks stars inevitably only continue to be signed to large contracts if they continue to perform as well as to elevate the performance of everyone else around them.
As Bar-On gets to the forward line, the topics drift further away from the historical into the interpersonal. These final chapters all present soccer in various ways much like Michel-Rolph Trouillot presented the Haitian Revolution in Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), not just as a historical subject in its own right but as a means of examining historicity and the liminal space between what has happened and what is said to have happened. The goal-poachers of chapter nine afford an opportunity to examine the power of dreams within societies and why “soccer is ultimately a series of dreams and attempts to fulfill dreams.” (pg. 184) Chapter ten, with Pelé and Maradona as the centerpiece, is an essay on how events on the field shape the place that individuals occupy in larger national and international memory and become immortal through their exploits. Chapter eleven focuses on artistry and the creation of beauty that transcends time, and how the artistic mentality required to excel on the pitch can also translate to artistic expression outside the stadium.
In concluding the book, Bar-On finds one last historical exemplar that embodies all of the subjects of sociocultural reference portrayed through the first eleven chapters. The tale of Dragan Džajić, a Yugoslav star who was hailed as the “Serbian Miracle” for his innate talent with the ball, provides a referent for soccer as a universal construct capable of describing politics, the world, and life for anyone who follows or plays or is involved in some way with the sport.
Bar-On has produced a meticulously researched and cited book that offers a tangible starting point for instructors and scholars to incorporate elements of sport more broadly into teaching and writing cultural histories. The author structured the book in a way that each chapter was framed both as its own concept and in its individual context, but also positioned each as an integral part of a team. The book at once was clever, entertaining to read, and informative. Through his writing Bar-On had demonstrated both his passion and his knowledge about soccer as well as its influence upon the panoply of sociocultural forces.
Zachary R. Bigalke is a graduate student in the Department of History at the University of Oregon focusing on the impact of immigration and industrialization on the early development of various forms of football in the Americas. He is a regular contributor to the college football website Saturday Blitz, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at @zbigalke.