Sports, Games & Hobbies » Football (Soccer)

The best books on Global Sport

recommended by Andrei Markovits

The Professor of Comparative Politics & German Studies at the University of Michigan and avid baseball, basketball, American football and ice-hockey fan gives us his views on Global Sport.

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Tell me about your first book, Soccernomics, by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski.

I like this book because it is breezily written and the authors clearly display a solid mastery of their subject. The book discusses ‘soccer’, which of course is the shortened Oxbridge term for association football emanating from the 1860s. Contrary to the common view in Britain and Europe that this term comprises prima facie evidence of yet another American bastardisation of a European cultural icon, the term is not an American invention at all but British slang.

Soccernomics is really the most insightful book about the globalisation of the sport and its current state. Simon Kuper writes for The Financial Times and is a very accomplished journalist on many subjects, including sports. What the book picks up on is that England typically always fails in penalty shoot-outs, whereas countries like Germany normally win in similar situations, apart from once in 1976 when Uli Hoeness – to his everlasting shame – sent his potentially game-deciding shot over the crossbar, thus making Germany the loser to Czechoslovakia in the European Nations’ Championship final in Yugoslavia.

I am less impressed with the authors’ trying to explain this – and similar – oddities of the game, but I am fully aware that they are not trying to do so in a serious manner but rather choose to use these wonderful tidbits to catch the reader’s attention for their larger project, which is to explain why and how soccer has become far and away the world’s most important game. The authors, in my opinion, rightly tie the game’s current global status to its emergence in the latter half of the 19th century.

They also examine how other countries that at the moment still seem peripheral to the game could very well become central to its future. It is in this context that they offer a fine analysis of soccer’s status in the United States. The authors are among a very small number of European football experts who truly understand the game’s different gestalt in America. Moreover, they genuinely engage in American soccer on its own terms, which they do not deride as yet another American abomination and/or a deformation of a European cultural treasure, but appreciate fully as a different social construct and cultural expression of the game’s being in football-traditional places like Europe and Latin America. The authors gained my respect and admiration for their thoughtful contrasting of American soccer to English or European football without letting their normative orientation colour their analyses.

As to their belief that such peripheral countries to the world of global football as the United States, Japan and even Iraq might indeed mutate into powerhouses and potentially win such major tournaments as the World Cup, I remain a good deal more sceptical. Personally, I am quite convinced – as this World Cup will show – that the football giants of Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Germany, England and Holland will continue to get bigger and that Iraq, Australia and the US are a long way off from winning. As in most things, on football, too, what sociologists call the Matthew Effect remains fully operative and displays an immense resilience: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Let’s move on to From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sports, by Allen Guttmann.

This is a classic. The book argues very well how modern sports arose mainly in England in the 19th century and to a lesser degree in the United States. This entity called sports, which had myriad precursors in the form of localised games, competitions and various physical pursuits that were quite disorganised and, above all, not intelligible to outsiders, changed in the 19th century in these capitalist countries that created a world of organised leisure. And this then becomes the bailiwick for modern sports, which features secularisation, quantification, equality of opportunity to compete, the establishment of uniforms, of institutions, of written rules and the quest for records, which incidentally was not something that concerned the Greeks in their Olympic Games many centuries before. By creating records and rules you create an awareness of the sport over time, you permit a discourse with history and over different eras that has become such an essential ingredient of all our modern sports languages.

This modern construct of sport became part of an overall educational mission of the English public schools, in which the idea of a healthy mind and a healthy body assumed pride of place. Furthered at Oxbridge, sports mutated into an integral part of what constituted a real gentleman. In this milieu, the only thing that mattered in sports was participating, not winning, a rather understandable phenomenon since most of sports’ protagonists were already winners by dint of their social standing and wealth. But once sports – particularly association football, but others as well – entered the world of workers, to whom this formerly leisurely pastime mutated into a welcomed means of livelihood, winning not only became everything, it was the only thing, to paraphrase Vince Lombardi, the legendary NFL coach of the Green Bay Packers.

Your next book, Global Games by Maarten Van Bottenburg, leads on from this and looks at the idea of why some sports thrive in different areas and become global.

Yes, it takes the Guttmann analysis one step further and picks up on the legendary works of Norbert Elias and Eric Dunning. Norbert Elias argues, convincingly in my view, that the reason these modern sports arose in Britain remains intimately linked to her developing a liberal parliamentary democracy that was to govern its capitalist economy. Or put differently, Britain’s early establishment of a functioning bourgeois society – in notable contrast to so many of its continental neighbours – initiated a civilising process of which sports, perhaps particularly team sports, formed such an integral part. Maarten Van Bottenburg picks up on this analysis and Elias’s notion of ‘sportisation’ which he uses masterfully to explain how myriad sports developed in key countries such as Britain and the United States and how they essentially mutated into globally understood and practised constructs that have come to play such an important role in our global culture.

I then extend Van Bottenburg’s notion of sportisation by analysing – and analogising – sports as languages. In my view, one speaks different footballs, ie, American football, association football, rugby football, Australian football. They are all related, to be sure, they are all Romance languages – if I am permitted to apply my language analogy here – they all had a common Latin background, but they have become mutually unintelligible in their current usage to anybody not schooled in them. Ditto with bat games: cricket and baseball are related but they are sufficiently different to constitute their very own metrics and grammar and rules. Of course, just like languages, these sports create their own lyric, poetry, beauty, their own masters of creation and interpretation. Those in the know appreciate their nuances, their colloquialisms, their idiomatic quirks that give each and every one of these sports their essential identities. And just like with languages, these sports, too, create their meta levels that only the true aficionados, insiders and experts appreciate. Just like I am in some way a different person when I speak German from when I speak English, I am convinced that I am equally a different person when I speak association football as opposed to its American or Australian or rugby variants, let alone basketball or any of the other two languages comprising the North American big four team sports.

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Van Bottenburg also does a masterful job in analysing the proliferation of these sports in terms of their structure, agency and contingency. To be sure, skiing, skating and most of the winter sports performed on ice or snow emerged in countries where such climactic conditions prevail. And sure enough, it is also obvious that different social actors created and fostered the development of different sports. And yet, contingencies also play a role. Thus, for example, by any historical and structural measure, Van Bottenburg’s Holland should have emerged as a global powerhouse in the game of ice hockey. After all, the place features many flat surfaces, created a culture in which skating has become a national religion, millions of its citizens embark on daylong treks across many miles of frozen dykes, and its speed skaters are nothing short of national heroes. And yet, the game of ice hockey is virtually unknown, even though some kind of predecessor to it, maybe akin to the game of ‘bandy’ that is still played prolifically in Russia and Sweden and very marginally in the United States and Canada, was obviously played in the Low Countries in the 16th century, as paintings by Pieter Brueghel the Elder in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum amply demonstrate.

Tell me about your forth book, The Modern World System by Immanuel Wallerstein.

Even though this book’s writing style remains quite problematic and is anything but elegant, its content has influenced me deeply. The book is a classic because it looks at the larger question as to why modern capitalism that conquered the world arose from this Asian archipelago sticking out into the Atlantic Ocean ­– Europe. Furthermore, Wallerstein looks at the reasons why in this Europe, it was mainly Britain and the Low Countries that became the major bulwarks of this immensely powerful social, economic and political development that was soon to conquer much of the world.

In answering this question, Wallerstein posits a framework in which he categorises countries as the core of this development – Britain and the Low Countries – its semiperipheries, and lastly its peripheries.

I find this framework immensely useful and adapted it to my analysis of sports, particularly what I have come to call hegemonic sports cultures, in other words those very few sports – team sports all played with some kind of ball-like objects – that move millions, even billions, of people to watch, follow, breathe, eat, live them on a daily basis. Association football with its forthcoming World Cup furnishes a prime example of such a hegemonic sports culture on a global basis.

In the world of the big four North American Sports, the United States (with Canada in ice hockey) furnishes their uncontested core. That means if you are a great basketball player in China, Brazil or Germany or anywhere in the world, you go to the NBA. That is because it features the best of the best in basketball on a global level. Ditto for the worlds of baseball, American football and ice hockey. The rest of the world in these sports furnishes semi-peripheries and peripheries. To be sure, none of these categories are immutable and countries can – and have – moved from one circle to another. Thus, for example, Russia’s KHL professional hockey league has grown immensely over the past few years and could easily challenge the NHL’s undisputed position as ice hockey’s core. Still, as long as all Russian greats migrate to the NHL, and no Canadian superstar travels to the KHL, hockey’s core remains firmly anchored in North American, as remains the case for baseball, basketball and – of course – American football.

But just think how in the world of cricket the Indian Premier League has not only emerged most recently like the phoenix from the ashes (pardon the pun) but might very well be on its way to become this venerable game’s new global core, in which the very best players from the former core of England, Australia and South Africa might find lucrative employment, thereby establishing a real first in a major global sport in that a developing country surpasses developed ones as the sport’s most important centre.

In the world of association football, of course, the core comprises clearly the English Premier League, Italian Serie A, La Liga in Spain and Germany’s Bundesliga. It is this core that dominates the ‘beautiful game’ in every respect: it attracts the world’s best players, it pays the most money, it has the most renowned year-long tournament in the form of the Champions League, and it has the globe’s most coveted teams that have become global icons with millions of fans following their games on a regular basis. It is the core that defines the major ebbs and flows of each game’s essential structure, from when its major tournaments are televised to how the game is governed.

Your final book is Grant Wahl’s The Beckham Experiment.

I think David Beckham is a fascinating guy and Grant Wahl nails the whole phenomenon superbly. Beckham is unique. He is metrosexual in a homophobic sport. He is a wonderful player, although was never close to being the game’s best. And then he comes to the United States and professes to be a pioneer for the sport – and succeeds at it almost despite himself. Beckham’s trials and tribulations in America parallel – and presage – in some way the game’s as well.

There is one bit in the book that I really love, when Beckham invited the team out for dinner in Washington DC and the waiter – as a matter of course – asks all the players for their identifications prior to serving them alcohol. Apparently, Beckham had no identification on him that night – or possibly ever – never imagining that there exists any living being on this earth who would not know who he was. But sure enough, this particular waiter did not know him and made quite a fuss about not serving Beckham were he not to produce some sort of ID. Things were resolved in the end, but the story says so much as to where on the American sports firmament association football continues to reside, especially in comparison to the powerhouse big four. Nothing of the sort is even vaguely imaginable for a Kobe Bryant [basketball] or a Tom Brady [American football] or an Alex Rodriguez [baseball] or a Sidney Crosby [ice hockey].

Wahl shows Beckham’s rough reception in the United States, how things were anything but a cakewalk for him on so many different levels. The book also demonstrates how to Beckham – like to any first-rate athlete – it really matters among whom he performs and plies his trade. Excellent players want to play with players of equal abilities. And thus, Beckham’s escapades to depart temporarily from the Los Angeles Galaxy to play for AC Milan were in good part driven by his wish to play the game at a level that was higher than still remains the case in Major League Soccer. This is not to say that the league has not come a long way from its inception in 1996 and is not getting better by every season – visible improvements to which players like David Beckham have certainly contributed.

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Wahl captures well Beckham’s contributions to the complex world of ‘American soccer’. Not only has the Los Angeles Galaxy shirt with his name sold more than any comparable football shirt, but the very fact that his name has become associated with MLS, has given this young league a boost that nothing else could have – including victories by its teams on the playing field. No player in the world – not Lionel Messi, nor Cristiano Ronaldo, both of whom are arguably better players than Beckham – could have given soccer such a boost (albeit sometimes rocky and temporary) than did this English-speaking crossover superstar with his Posh wife. Yes, the entire package was necessary to create this buzz. And yes, it was easy for many European football experts and Beckham detractors to ridicule this whole endeavour as nothing more than Beckham’s succumbing to Hollywood glitz, glamour and money. But as Wahl demonstrates so well, there is a lot more to the story than that. The Beckham experiment’s real results will not become visible until ten to 15 years from now when, quite possibly, a brilliant young American footballer will dazzle the world and make it clear to everybody that he chose this sport over the big four North American sports because he was fascinated by the Beckham phenomenon in all its complexities and contradictions.
Were I allowed a two sentence addition to these five books, I would like to add a sixth, or a kind of 5A, which would be Murray Greenberg’s Passing Game: Benny Friedman and the Transformation of Football. Rarely have I read such a brilliantly comprehensive biography of any individual — let alone a sports figure — that presents topics as complex as anti-Semitism, discrimination, competition, transformation of society, culture and identity throughout 20th century America as this book does.

This interview was updated July 20, 2017.

June 11, 2010

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Andrei Markovits

Andrei Markovits

Currently an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and the Karl W. Deutsch Collegiate Professor of Comparative Politics and German Studies at the University of Michigan, Markovits offers courses on sports identity and culture in the United States and Europe on a regular basis at the University of Michigan as well as universities elsewhere in the world.

Andrei Markovits

Andrei Markovits

Currently an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and the Karl W. Deutsch Collegiate Professor of Comparative Politics and German Studies at the University of Michigan, Markovits offers courses on sports identity and culture in the United States and Europe on a regular basis at the University of Michigan as well as universities elsewhere in the world.