Soccer is much more than a game, or even a way of life. It is a perfect window into the cross–currents of today's world, with all its joys and its sorrows. In this remarkably insightful, wide–ranging work of reportage, Franklin Foer takes us on a surprising tour through the world of soccer, shining a spotlight on the clash of civilizations, the international economy, and just about everything in between. How Soccer Explains the World is an utterly original book that makes sense of our troubled times.
How Soccer Explains
the Gangster's Paradise
Red Star Belgrade is the most beloved, most successful
soccer team in Serbia. Like nearly every club in
Europe and Latin America, it has a following of unruly
fans capable of terrific violence. But at Red Star the violent
fans occupy a place of honor, and more than that.
They meet with club officials to streamline the organizational
flow chart of their gangs. Their leaders receive
stipends. And as part of this package, they have access
to office space in the team's headquarters in the uppermiddle-
class neighborhood of Topcider.
The gangs have influence, in large measure,
because they've won it with intimidation. A few months
before I arrived in Belgrade to learn about the club's
complicity in the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, Red Star
fan clubs had burst into the team's training session.
With bats, bars, and other bludgeons, they beat three of their own players. After their havoc, they aren't typically
shy about advertising their accomplishments. In this
instance, the hooligans told reporters bluntly that they
could "no longer tolerate lack of commitment on the
pitch." It took only one phone call to organize an interview
with a handful of them in their first-floor meeting
room at the Red Star headquarters.
The Belgrade neighborhood around Red Star is cartoonishly
ominous. An enormous gaggle of crows
resides on the stadium's roof. When goals are scored
and the crowd erupts, the birds flee -- across town, it's
possible to gauge the results of a game based on presence
or absence of an ornithological cloud above the
skyline. On the other side of the street from the stadium,
the family of Arkan, the most notorious warlord
and gangster in Serb history, lives in a castle he constructed,
a nouveau riche monstrosity with tiers of towers
and turrets. When I loiter near the house for too
long, a large man in a leather jacket emerges and
inquires about my business. Because of the atrocities
committed by Arkan's men, I describe myself as a lost
tourist, nervously ask him for directions, and walk away
briskly. On the evening of my visit, the sky is gunmetal.
My translator had arranged for me to meet with
Draza, a leader of a Red Star fan club that calls itself the
Ultra Bad Boys. He had persuaded him with the
overblown promise that an interview would bring glory
unto the club and world renown unto the achievements
of the Red Star fans. Six of Draza's loquacious colleagues
join him. At first glance, the Bad Boys look
entirely unworthy of the first part of their name and too
worthy of the second. Aside from the big red tattoos of their gang name on their calves, they seem like relatively
upstanding young men. Draza wears a fleece
jacket and chinos. His head of overgrown yet obviously
manicured hair has the aura of a freshman philosophy
student. As it turns out, he is a college student,
swamped with preparations for exams. His comrades
aren't any more menacing. One of them has a bowl
haircut, a pudgy face, and an oversized ski parka that
he never removes -- he looks like the kind of guy who's
been shoved into his fair share of lockers.
Perhaps to increase their credibility, the Bad Boys
have brought along a gray-haired man called Krle, who
wears a ratty black San Antonio Spurs jacket. Krle's
sinewy frame gives the impression that he fills his
leisure time with pull-ups on a door frame in his flat.
Many years of living a hooligan life have aged him prematurely.
(When I ask his age and occupation, he changes
the subject.) Unlike the naïve enthusiasm exhibited by
the teens, who greet me warmly, Krle blares indifference.
He tells my translator that he has only joined our interview
because Draza insisted. His one gesture of bonhomie
is to continually pour me warm Serbian beer
from a plastic bottle. After I taste the beer, it hardly
seems like such a friendly gesture. But because of his
angry gray eyes, I find myself drinking glass after glass.
Krle serves as senior advisor to the group, a mentor
to the aspiring hooligans. Putting aside his intense
glare and unfriendly demeanor, I was actually glad for
his presence. My interest in Red Star centers on the
1990s, his heyday as thug, when the fan clubs played a
pivotal role in the revival of Serbian nationalism -- the
idea that the Serbs are eternal victims of history who must fight to preserve a shred of their dignity. With little
prodding, Draza speaks openly about the connections.
Unfortunately, his monologue doesn't last long.
Exerting his authority with volatile glances and brusque
interruptions, Krle seizes control of the conversation.
He answers questions curtly.
"Who do you hate most?"
A pause for a few seconds' worth of consideration.
"A Croatian, a cop: it doesn't make a difference. I'd kill
"What's your preferred method for beating a guy?"
"Metal bars, a special kick that breaks a leg, when a
guy's not noticing." He sharply stomps down a leg, an
obviously well-practiced move.
Because the beer has kicked in, I try to get closer to
the reason for my visit. "I noticed that you call Arkan
'commandant.' Could you tell me a little more about
how he organized the fans?"
His look is one of deep offense and then unmitigated
fury. Even before the translation comes, his
meaning is clear. "I shouldn't be answering your questions.
You're an American. And your country bombed
us. You killed good Serb men."
As good a reason as any to redirect the conversation
to another topic. In an aside to my translator, which he
didn't tell me about until after our interview, Krle
announces, "If I met this American asshole on the
street, I'd beat the shit out of him." Krle then drops out
of the conversation. At first, he stands impatiently on
the far side of the room ...