Franklin Foer discusses what makes this year’s game so hard to watch—and what it says about the world in 2022.
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Franklin Foer, a staff writer who is contributing to The Atlantic’s new World Cup pop-up newsletter, The Great Game, has been a soccer fan since he was a kid in the 1980s. I talked with Frank about the disturbing aspects of this year’s Cup and what keeps him coming back to the sport.
But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.
Plus, some Atlantic news: Last night, Imani Perry, a contributing writer and the author of the newsletter Unsettled Territory, was awarded the National Book Award for Nonfiction for South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation. Here’s a sampling of her writing for the magazine. Congratulations, Imani!
Isabel Fattal: You published an article today that begins: “This World Cup doesn’t start until Sunday, but I already loathe it.” What’s the most disquieting thing for you about watching this year’s competition?
Franklin Foer: Really, it’s the fact that the stadiums in which the games are going to be played were built in the worst circumstances for labor. Human-rights organizations have estimated that thousands of people perished in order to make this World Cup happen. [The Qatari government disputes those numbers.] I think a lot of times with sports or things that we love, we’re vaguely aware that, for example, people working at a resort will get treated badly and paid very little, or that a piece of meat was raised unethically. But here, there’s this incredibly direct sense everyone should have that these games are being played in arenas that were responsible for a huge number of deaths. It’s a hard thing to get past.
Isabel: You’ve written a book called How Soccer Explains the World. How do you think this World Cup explains the world in 2022?
Frank: One of the most marked developments in European sports over the course of the past two decades is that it’s become this place where extremely rich people have taken oil money (or ill-gotten fortunes) and plowed it into buying teams. So you have these kind of monomaniacs who made their money in very, very dodgy sorts of ways, who bought these clubs for reasons of personal vanity, but also as a means of self-defense. One of the iron laws of kleptocracy is that kleptocrats try to find ways to protect their wealth by improving their reputation. And the best way that you can do that is to latch on to this thing that people love most in the world. That’s been happening for a long time, but it feels like the fact that Qatar is hosting this year is the culmination of this era of kleptocracy in sports.
Isabel: What should World Cup spectators—be it longtime fans or new ones—look out for while watching?
Frank: I remember when I first watched the World Cup when I was a little kid, in 1986. One of the things that was so exciting to me was this sense of discovery. Watching the World Cup was a bit like opening up an atlas. As I’ve grown into the sport, the thing that’s so exciting is that there’s always novelty. It’s impossible to have a comprehensive sense of all the players and all the teams who participate in a World Cup. There are stars that emerge in the course of a tournament. There are teams you never thought would be excellent who somehow manage to have deep runs. That’s always the thing that I love most about a World Cup. The soccer is not necessarily as good as it is in, say, the English Premier League. But the global nature of the phenomenon is the very thing that makes it so wonderfully thrilling.
Isabel: How far back does your own interest in soccer go?
Frank: I grew up playing in the 1980s when the game was still somewhat esoteric in the United States. I’d have to schlep out to the suburbs to play for a rec team. I had a German coach named Gunter, and his English wasn’t quite perfect. I remember he was asking us to chest the ball. And I just remember him telling me, “Use your breasts, Frankie!,” which it felt like encapsulated the way in which the game hadn’t quite fully translated yet.
I quite frankly was so bad that my parents would tend to turn their backs on the field rather than watch the car wreck that I was engaged in. But then I did that thing that nerdy kids do, which is you try to master the thing intellectually that you’re incapable of mastering physically.
Isabel: Where do you usually watch the game? Your couch, or a bar, or somewhere else?
Frank: I have a raft of cousins who live in Brazil. When I grew up, they would come visit and give me that bright yellow jersey as a gift, and it made me very attached to that team. So starting when I was a teenager, I would go to a Brazilian cultural center in Washington where they would play the games. And so I would go there and take my friends to watch. And there was always the height of feeling that sort of connection, that you’re absorbed in a tribe, that makes spectating so wonderful.
Listen to “A Short History of Brazilian Soccer,” a special new episode of Radio Atlantic hosted by Frank, and sign up for The Great Game here.
Meetings Are Miserable
By Arthur C. Brooks
The Washington Post columnist George Will was once asked to explain his long-standing distaste for American football. The sport is, he responded, “violence punctuated by committee meetings.” To my mind, this is a savage condemnation not so much because of the violence, but because of the meetings.
Read the full article.
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I asked Frank if he had any recommendations for great books about the game (besides his own). “One of the fun things about watching Ted Lasso, which I think is everyone’s entry point into soccer right now, is that Coach Beard is frequently seen reading various tomes about the game as he tries to educate himself,” Frank told me. “He has a pretty excellent reading list. There was an episode titled ‘Inverting the Pyramid of Success,’ which is named after a great book written by the journalist Jonathan Wilson about the history of tactics in the game.” He also recommended David Goldblatt, “a wonderful British historian who has written countless excellent, super engaging histories of the game.”