Published in 1994, a time when football’s historical and cultural impact had yet to be fully appreciated, Soccer Against the Enemy convincingly counters the dismissiveness of intellectuals and gives two fingers up to Americans’ happily glorified ignorance. It cast the world’s most popular sport as a key player in games where the goalposts move – where the stakes are life, death and political power, not just a weekend’s three-point haul.
“When a game matters to billions of people it ceases to be just a game-” Kuper writes in the book’s opening lines. “Soccer is never just soccer.” The rest of the book’s 300-odd pages develop that intricate and multi-dimensional thesis, backing it up with mountains of evidence from Cameroon to Argentina, Margaret Thatcher to Maradona. In Kuper’s hands, football’s century of growth, controversy and drama comes to life and the sport comes into its own; not just as a staple of the modern world, but also as a force that holds society in thrall.
Kuper’s individual arguments are always fascinating: Gazza as a microcosm of 20th century Anglo-European relations. The symmetry between football fan culture and terrorist organizations. The game as a mechanism for resisting oppressive rule. As the book’s subtitle suggests, Kuper sees football as a tool of government. Match results play a role in political campaigns and cover-ups, World Cup appearances publicize a nation’s manufactured image.
Born in Uganda, but an Englishman and Dutchman too, Kuper has a unique vantage point from which to interpret a sport molded in the image of the cultures that harbor it. It’s Kuper’s multinational, citizen-of-the-world appreciation that makes Soccer Against the Enemy so successful in conveying the intricacies of faraway lands. But Kuper’s insight is no genetic windfall: it’s the product of years of toil, travel and expense.
Nights in youth hostels, hours at Moscow airports, conversations in unknown languages… Soccer Against the Enemy takes no shortcuts. A book that promises to traverse the globe does so thoroughly yet simply, moving from one destination to the next with an ease that defies the complexity of such convoluted geographical maneuvers.
Kuper goes about his subtle business with a versatility difficult to quantify. Soccer Against the Enemy covers four continents, innumerable opinions and Roger Milla – arguably, a book in himself. Yet, a high level of perception remains constant throughout; Kuper’s book is never stretched by the vastness of its topic or the ambitiousness of its thesis.
In the final, newly updated chapter, Kuper quotes an Al-Qaeda terrorist comparing an Egyptian family’s celebration of the 9/11 attacks to a football fan’s wild reaction after victory. The anecdote exemplifies the narrative as a whole: modern phenomena wedded to soccer’s defining ideals. Soccer reflecting society, society reflecting soccer.
After finishing Soccer Against the Enemy, Kuper decided to leave the frivolity of football journalism behind him and instead cover something that mattered: economics. A few years of boredom later, he was back. And lucky for us, too…