Is Soccer A Universal Language?

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The countdown is on for the Soccer World Cup 2010. Just how important is soccer on the global scale? Host Michel Martin speaks with Frank Foer, an editor at The New Republic, soccer fanatic and author of the book "How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization."


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we'll tell you about a new documentary that explores how silent meditation is bringing peace and hope to a place that traditionally has had little of either. That's a maximum security prison in Alabama. That conversation in a few minutes.

But, first, World Cup. It starts in South Africa in less than two months. And while here in the U.S. we might not be hearing much about it, the rest of the world is gripped with excitement. So we've called Frank Foer back to see if we can get Americans a little bit, you know, infected with World Cup fever.

He's an editor at The New Republic. He's author of "How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization." Welcome back, Frank Foer.

Mr. FRANK FOER (Editor, The New Republic; Author, "How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization"): Thank you. I'm gripped with excitement.

MARTIN: That's right. Well, explain for all those listeners who are not soccer fans just how big of a deal is World Cup.

Mr. FOER: Well, just as a soccer spectacle, it's incredible because you have a month's worth of games where you watch essentially all-star teams from 32 different countries compete against each other. And so these teams don't really get assembled, you know, all that often. There's a long qualifying session. But so you have the best players in the world playing against the best players in the world in matches that in match-ups that rarely happen.

You have a massive television audience. I think it's last time 26.3 billion people watched this. And so, really, it's the single moment every four years where the world is maximally tied together in one lingua franca, which is soccer.

MARTIN: You know, so we talk about the World Series, but this really is the World Series. No disrespect to the baseball fans, but this really is a worldwide sporting event. Which does beg the question of a lot of kids play soccer in the United States and I'm just wondering why it doesn't seem to have it's not really quite taken on to the same degree.

Mr. FOER: Yeah. I'm going to...

MARTIN: A lot of school kids play soccer, but I don't know, why is that?

Mr. FOER: I'm going to quarrel with you a little bit there, which is that, yes, it's taken awhile for the game to build to the level of, say, even hockey, which is hardly, you know, a grand sport in this country, although it's very fun to watch. But it is growing and the television audience for this World Cup is going to grow by leaps and bounds. And if you look at the way in which ESPN and ABC are getting behind the World Cup, they clearly view this as a pretty massive opportunity for themselves. And so...

MARTIN: Okay, but that's a different question. Let's if we got out on the street, I mean, I'm not going to say people aren't there, but if we go out on the street right now and stop five people...

Mr. FOER: No, of course. Of course, of course, you're right.

MARTIN: Okay. So, but I'm just wondering why that is and why do you love it?

Mr. FOER: All right, well, why hasn't it taken off here? There are many people have many different theories. My theory is that a lot of it has to do with, you know, we're a country of immigrants and we've had infusions of immigration from soccer playing countries throughout our history and that was true going way back.

And so if you go to the early part of the century, there were actually thriving soccer leagues with German and Italian and Eastern European and English immigrants playing the game. And so there were thriving leagues, but they weren't well managed. And so soccer had an opportunity in the 1920s and in the 1930s to become a national sport, because there were no national sports between the 1920s and 1930s. And the game was just poorly managed then and it missed its window of opportunity.

So I don't have I don't think it had anything to do with our national character or the fact that we don't the game doesn't have a lot of goals. Baseball doesn't have a lot of runs. It just hasn't happened.

MARTIN: Well, we'll see. We'll see. Maybe the window's opening back up again.

Mr. FOER: Yeah.

MARTIN: You're going to tell us about it. And I do want to mention you're going to be live blogging from the World Cup. One quick thing, though, why South Africa? And is it a big deal that the World Cup is being held in South Africa?

Mr. FOER: It's a very big deal. I mean, Africa has never hosted a World Cup before. And this is seen as kind of a test of the country, which is striving to prove that it's worthy of hosting something like this, that it can accommodate so many visitors. And so Jacob Zuma has called this the president of South Africa has called this the biggest event since 1994 when apartheid fell.

MARTIN: And I would be remiss if I did not mention that the French are having a bit of a sex scandal here. I want to mention prostitution is legal in France, but apparently several top players on the team are accused of...

Mr. FOER: Underage prostitution is not.

MARTIN: Underage prostitution is - and they are accused of having had...

Mr. FOER: That's right.

MARTIN: with a woman a girl who was at the time underage. And so...

Mr. FOER: Yeah, and so there are four French stars, four very big French stars are accused of being part of this prostitution, underage prostitution. They've all denied it. There is a prosecutor looking into it. The prostitute has come forward and said that she doesnt think that these guys did anything wrong or should be penalized for having underage sex. But its the last thing that the French team needs because they were already going into this tournament a kind of demoralized bunch. They only qualified for the tournament on the basis of a player smacking a ball in with his hands.

MARTIN: Oh dear. Well, which we cannot have.

Mr. FOER: No.

MARTIN: So finally, what are your top picks for what are your top picks and we will be following your blog.

Mr. FOER: Okay. So there is...

MARTIN: Some of us.

Mr. FOER: There is Brazil always, and Brazil does very well in World Cups that are not hosted in Europe and they have a very well put together team. Very defensively sound which is not typically the way that Brazilians put together their teams. Theres Spain which won the (technical difficulties) championships two years ago and they have a wonderful midfield player named Chavey(ph). The best player in the World Cup people should be watching is a player named Lionel Messi who plays for Argentina which is managed by Diego Maradona, one of the greatest players of all time who is a crazy man.

And so if they weren't managed by a maniac they would be in contention for the World Cup, too.

MARTIN: Okay. Sounds exciting. You going to be painting your face?

Mr. FOER: My chest. Full-body.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. Awesome. Frank Foer is an editor at The New Republic. Hes author of "How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization." Hell be live blogging at World Cup and hes here with us now before he disappears. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. FOER: Thanks.

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