Simon Kuper: Soccer Does Not Explain the World

Cross posted from Mother Jones.

In the 17 years since his trailblazing travelogue cum anthropological study Soccer Against the Enemy pioneered what might today be called “soccer lit,” Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper has established himself as one of the sport’s preeminent writers. After a childhood spent in Uganda, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, the United States, Sweden, and Jamaica, the 40-year-old Kuper now calls Paris home. But as we chatted about his new book, Soccer Men, outside a Starbucks in San Francisco’s Mission District, I learned that his rise to global renown began just a few blocks away.

“I won a student travel writing contest in 1991,” he told me. “I wrote about being mugged in the Mission District actually, which happened around then.” A book deal followed, and with the roughly $5,000 advance, a 22-year-old Kuper embarked on a nine-month, 22-country trek to chronicle soccer’s geopolitical import. On his travels, he encountered, among other things, a Ukrainian club that exported nuclear missile parts and an East Berliner who’d been harassed for decades by the Stasi for supporting a West Berlin team. Since Soccer Against the Enemy‘s release, hundreds of kindred books have flooded the market, all aiming to deploy the planet’s most popular sport to understand assorted phenomena.

Today, Kuper is more circumspect about soccer’s power to, as Franklin Foer’s 2004 bestseller famously put it, “explain the world.” “I think when you start writing about soccer and politics, you’re quite missionary about it,” he said. “Over time, I’ve begun to see soccer as an illumination—a lens—and not as a hammer. It doesn’t change things. Almost never.” It’s not that soccer and politics don’t mix. Kuper pointed to the coalition of hard-core supporters from Cairo’s two fiercest rivals that was instrumental in bringing down Hosni Mubarak. But whereas an event like the World Cup was once a hub of nationalistic zeal, fans now support their national teams in a “much more jokey, relaxed manner than they did even in ’80s.”

So what does he make of Foer’s audaciously titled tome? “I haven’t read the whole book,” Kuper said, adding that he doesn’t generally read soccer books for fun. “I think he’s got some really nice stories and some really nice times and places. I don’t think it adds up to a theory of how the world works.” In fact, last year, Kuper penned an essay for Foreign Policy called “Soccer Explains Nothing.” (He’s quick to point out that he didn’t write the title—and that he’s contributing to a collection Foer’s putting together on Jews in sport.) Even so, Kuper’s growing skepticism of a soccer-centric worldview is clear. As he wrote in Foreign Policy, “It seems that the main geopolitical significance of the World Cup now lies in the logistics of organizing it.”

Kuper’s last two books reflect this shift in thinking. Last year, he coauthored (with economist Stefan Szymanski) the Moneyball-inspired Soccernomics, which employs statistics to answer questions like, “Why does England always lose?” Soccer Men, which hit bookshelves last week, pulls together 15 years’ worth of Kuper’s profiles of players and coaches. They are his attempt to bring the Zinedine Zidanes and Lionel Messis of the world back down to earth by asking what they’d be like as ordinary people.

Not that Kuper is particularly interested in what the players have to say. He takes the unusual tack of introducing a book about professional soccer players by remarking on just how damn boring professional soccer players are. “I have never thought that most soccer players have anything special to say,” he writes. “Today’s superstar—Lampard, Kaká, Messi—is a slightly monomaniacal corporate man and yes-man.”

Kuper doubles down on his depiction of the vacuous superstar in the profiles that follow. He refers to Pelé as a “smiling doll who travels the world shaking hands for global corporations.” And he gets a special kick out of Lothar Matthäus, whom American soccer fans might recall as the whiny German star who showed up in the States in 2000 barely long enough to collect his six-figure salary from the then-New York/New Jersey MetroStars before jetting off to St. Tropez to “rehabilitate” his injured back. Writes Kuper, “At a very young age, [Matthäus] developed a gift for articulating dumb and irritating thoughts.” The odd player earns Kuper’s full-fledged admiration, but those examples are few and far between.

Whether the overall portrait Kuper paints of the professional soccer player is a fair one—or whether the profiles reflect a writer jaded after almost 20 years covering the sport (he confesses to hoping to write less about soccer moving forward)—is hard to assess. Either way, Kuper’s effortless wit and keen sense of irony make Soccer Men well worth the read. Still, the romantics out there might find themselves pining for a little less cynicism from the author who, back in 1994, wrote this: “When a game matters to billions of people it ceases to be just a game. Football is never just football.” After all, what’s the harm in explaining the world through soccer, even if it is just for fun?


Westboro Baptist Church to Picket Funeral of “Gay-Friendly” Jobs

Cross posted from Mother Jones.

If you’re ever at a loss for what the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, is all about, take a gander at its website, tastefully titled There, you’ll learn that a “modern militant homosexual movement” poses “a clear and present danger to the survival of America.” And that to combat this menace, the church has conducted 46,635 demonstrations since June 1991 “at homosexual parades and other events, including funerals of impenitent sodomites (like Matthew Shepard) and over 400 military funerals of troops whom God has killed in Iraq/Afghanistan in righteous judgment against an evil nation.” At these protests, church members parade around with signs declaring “FAGS BURN IN HELL” and “THANK GOD FOR AIDS.”

Margie Phelps, daughter of Westboro Baptist patriarch Fred Phelps Sr., announced the church’s latest picket target last night on Twitter:

Predictably, bloggers are having a field day with the delicious irony that the tweet condemning the iPhone’s progenitor came…via iPhone.

Reached by phone Thursday, Fred Phelps Jr.—Fred Sr.’s son and one of the roughly 100 members of the church—expanded on his sister’s rationale for the planned picket. “The main thing in my mind,” Phelps said, “is that [Jobs] operated in a company that was recognized around the world as being gay-friendly.” Phelps wasn’t sure where this recognition came from, but he insisted, “I’ve read that several places. I don’t think there’s any dispute about that.” (In 2008, a Prime Access/PlanetOut poll determined Apple to be the second most gay-friendly American brand, behind only Bravo.)

Above all, Phelps seemed disgusted at the media’s deification of Jobs in the hours after his death. “I saw something on CNN, and they were interviewing a guy about Mr. Jobs, and in big bold letters across the screen it said that heaven has now been upgraded,” he complained. “So now, you know, you got all the media around the world saying he’s going to heaven.” Suffice it to say, Phelps foresees Jobs spending eternity someplace a little less cushy.

As for railing against a “gay-loving” company and its public face by using their own products, Phelps failed to see the irony. “I mean, anyone involved in any profession is using this technology nowadays,” he said, somewhat bemused by the question.

Margie Phelps posted a more colorful explanation on Twitter. “Rebels mad cuz I used iPhone to tell you Steve Jobs is in hell.God created iPhone for that purpose! :)” It’s worth noting that this tweet (and her others since) came “via web.” No word yet whether the computer in question was a Mac.

President Bartlet on President Obama

Cross posted from Mother Jones.

As Barack Obama continues to frustrate many of his most ardent supporters, liberals have found themselves casting about of late for a modern-day champion—a new FDR, or Teddy Kennedy, or—dare I say it?—Josiah Bartlet.

Quick-witted, media-savvy, and unapologetically liberal (check out his evisceration of an Ann Coulter look-alike radio show host here), The West Wing’s President Josiah (“Jed”) Bartlet provided diehards an alternate reality from the nightmare of the Bush administration. Since it first aired in 1999—wrapping up in 2006—the show has spawned a cottage industry of fan sites and message boards.

But nowhere does the spirit of The West Wing live on like Twitter, where enthusiasts role-play under the names of their favorite characters, including the chief of staff, White House counsel, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and even the press secretary’s goldfish. And as on screen, none holds a candle to the snark and sheer force of the POTUS character himself.

The creation of a self-described “struggling writer who was having trouble writing in character” in his late 20s, @Pres_Bartlet has racked up 23,000 followers in its 15-month, 12,000-tweet existence. Besides serving as a go-to source for timely West Wing references, @Pres_Bartlet has emerged as an internet cult figure, above all, for saying what liberals wish their real-life president would say.

Take his response to President Obama’s December 2010 deal with the GOP to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, in which the president decried Republican negotiators as hostage takers: “I’m not an expert or anything, but I’m pretty sure when someone holds people hostage and demands a jet, you don’t give them the damn jet.” That tweet caught the attention of one follower, Rachel Maddow, who cited it approvingly on her show a couple nights later.

Despite his often biting criticism of the president, the twentysomething behind the tweets—who remains anonymous to, you know, preserve the mystique—has a lot of sympathy for the Oval Office’s current occupant. When I asked him over Gchat whether his shtick was borne out of frustration with Obama, he replied, “Actually, no. I think that some of the more popular tweets have come from that feeling, but that wasn’t how it was born. Being POTUS is a hard job.”

Indeed, for the almost mythic reverence afforded President Bartlet by liberals, regular viewers will recall that his tenure bore some striking similarities to Obama’s. So enraged did Bartlet drive the left in his first term that a retiring Supreme Court Justice fumed at the president during their parting exchange on The West Wing, “I wanted a Democrat, but instead I got you.”

As for liberals’ clamoring for a replay of Bartlet’s immortalized “Then shut it down” moment (see clip below), when he refused to cave to Republican demands for further cuts in order to avert a government shutdown, @Pres_Bartlet’s ghostwriter cautioned that the analogy didn’t exactly apply to recent impasses over the budget and debt ceiling. “It’s important to remember that when [Bartlet] shut down the government, he was already in his second term.”

Fair enough. But if current polling trends hold, Obama could miss out on a second term altogether. Might a plea for advice by the president to his fictional predecessor be enough to coax this liberal lion of the Twitterverse out of anonymity?

“I think that if Obama wanted to find out who I was, he’d be able to,” came the reply. “Remember, the FBI works for him.”