Review of Beyond Soccer

Tamir Bar-On. Beyond Soccer: International Relations and Politics as Seen through the Beautiful Game. Lanham and New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2017. 340 pages (including selected bibliography, index, and author information) US$35.00 (paperback).

Reviewed by Patrick Salkeld

As sport historians know, politics and sports coexist in the same spheres. Athletes, such as Colin Kaepernick or Muhammad Ali, use their platform to bring attention to political issues. Similarly, political leaders use sports in efforts to spread ideology, suppress groups, or recruit to the military, as in the case of the United States Department of Defense paying sports organizations for patriotic displays.[1] In other situations, governments actively use sports in international relations with other countries as detailed in Tamir Bar-On’s fourth book, a textbook titled Beyond Soccer: International Relations and Politics as Seen Through the Beautiful Game.

Beyond Soccer

Rowman & Littlefield, 2017

Bar-On, a professor in the School of Social Sciences and Government, at Tec de Monterrey, wrote Beyond Soccer as a textbook for undergraduates. It mirrors similar works that infuse popular culture within political science and international relations (IR). He mentions three works that inspired him to combine international relations and soccer in one book: “Iver B. Neumann and Daniel H. Nexon’s edited collection entitled Harry Potter and International Relations (2006), Cynthia Weber’s International Relations Theory: A Critical Introduction (2005), and an edited volume by Michael A. Allen and Justin S. Vaughn called Poli Sci Fi: An Introduction to Political Science through Science Fiction (2016)” (p. xiii). Like the Harry Potter universe and science fiction, students will find soccer an effective and intriguing lens to learn about IR theories and more concrete applications of them.

FIFA consistently repeats its desire to keep soccer out of politics and for countries to leave their differences off the field. Joao Havelange, president of FIFA from 1974 to 1998, once said, “No, we are a sport, we are not politics in that sense,” in response to President Ronald Reagan’s proposal to arrange a soccer match between Israel and Palestine to bring peace to their long-standing conflict.[2] Despite this reluctance from the sport’s governing body, soccer’s status as the world’s most popular game places it in the precarious position of being used either to aid society or to harm it in some capacity as described in Beyond Soccer.

In Chapter 1, “Theory and International Relations Theories in Brief,” Bar-On explains the importance of theory to IR and borrows the concept of “one world, many theories,” or theoretical diversity, from Stephen Waltz. If scholars focus solely on one theory and ignore the others, they miss key “aspects of world politics” (p. 7). A foundation in all theories offers students a stronger understanding of the world around them, which Bar-On hopes to achieve with this textbook. As the chapter title suggests, he briefly explains each of the theories then delves further into them in the following chapters: realism, liberalism, and Marxism (Chapter 2); realism and constructivism (Chapter 3); postcolonialism (Chapter 4); feminism (Chapter 5); and realism and emancipatory international relations (EIR) in Chapter 6. The final three chapters examine “political science concepts and case studies” (p. 284). Chapter 7 outlines three soccer discourses: “soccer has great potential for unity, social integration, and international friendship (Nobel Prize); serves and can also subvert the powerful (Gramscian); and engenders extreme nationalism, violence, sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and even wars (Soccer War)” (p. 284). Chapters 8 and 9 discuss geopolitics and sovereignty, respectively.

In his other book, The World Through Soccer: The Cultural Impact of a Global Sport as reviewed by Zach Bigalke, Bar-On writes about eleven soccer stars to highlight the various topics of each chapter. He uses a similar method in Beyond Soccer with chapter representatives to better illustrate the theories. For example, in Chapter 5 “You Just Don’t Understand’: A Feminist Reading of the ‘Beautiful Game,’” he chose Abby Wambach and her prolific career as both a soccer player and an activist for gender equality (although, hopefully in the near future, academics will examine non-US examples of women’s soccer in addition to the USWNT and NWSL, but this issue coincides with the problem of growing the sport globally). Nonetheless, this chapter offers an important contribution to the field, and to this reviewer, is the most significant chapter of the book. It further normalizes feminism and emphasizes its necessary place in theoretical perspectives across academia. Bar-On notes, “Few academic pieces that tackle soccer use a feminist lens and, if they do, they are often misunderstood and not widely accepted” (p. 128). By including this chapter, he brings feminism into the classroom and exposes students to the theory in conjunction with other more widely accepted ideas rather than addressing the topic separately.

While Bar-On provides detailed explanations of the theories, concrete examples, and exercises for students to complete, the definitions of each theory are scattered over eight chapters. From my experience as a student and as a professor, Beyond Soccer lacks an attribute commonly seen in textbooks: a glossary. This addition would aid student comprehension with the ability to find the key terms and theories defined in one location and to assist them as a reference when they need a quick reminder (if not right before an exam). Professors also might find it helpful to include in their lessons as a go-to definition for students to jot down before listening to the theory behind it and its application.

Despite this minor issue, Beyond Soccer is another iteration of Tamir Bar-On’s legacy. He wrote it specifically for “political science and IR students and professors,” but scholars from many disciplines, such as economics, sports management, sport studies, and history, should see the relevance of his book to their work if not only as a tool for them to teach their students succinctly and effectively these theories (p. xi). Bar-On already sees success in his own classes when he discusses soccer, politics, and international relations because it is a different approach and makes theory “more lively, interactive, and dynamic” (p. xi).

Patrick Salkeld received his Master of Arts in History from the University of Central Oklahoma in 2017. His research focuses on the rise of mainstream soccer in the United States from the 1960s to the present in addition to the relationship between social movements and sports, the role of the LGBTQ+ community, race, and gender. His twitter is @patsalkeld and his website is patricksalkeldhistorian.wordpress.com.

 

[1] For examples of political leaders who use sports in efforts to spread ideology, suppress groups, or recruitment to the military, see Kevin E. Simpson’s Soccer Under the Swastika with his discussions of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

[2] Alan Tomlinson, FIFA: The Men, the Myths, and the Money (New York: Routledge, 2014), 66.

One thought on “Review of Beyond Soccer

  1. Pingback: Additions to the Archive: A Look at the Soccer Web for December 2017 – The Soccer Scholar

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