Intelligent, theory-driven book about the role of football in contemporary society

Mattias Melkersson
Dept of Sport Sciences, Malmö University

Tamir Bar-On
Beyond Soccer: International Relations and Politics as Seen through the Beautiful Game
319 pages, paperback.
Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield 2017
ISBN 978-1-4422-7543-0

As a lecturer and researcher in the sport science field, I often find myself telling my first-year students the simplified aphorism that sport is a mirror of society and that sports therefore also embody and reenact societal structures. This is the first thing that hits me as I engage myself in Tamir Bar-On’s book, Beyond Soccer: International relations and politics as seen through the beautiful game. I view Beyond Soccer as a clever and interesting take on explaining and highlighting how sport sciences researchers and lecturers can teach and engage our students in understanding sports as a social phenomenon and the need for using theoretical implementation in doing so. Tamir Bar-On makes an early statement, that Beyond Soccer is to be seen as a learning and educational tool for both students and scholars for understanding society (here soccer) through theory.

Beyond Soccer is undoubtedly theoretically driven which elevates and discusses a lot of various theories and perspectives, with its central focus towards international relations (IR) theories. All theories are carefully and thoroughly explained and communicated in a strong, clear and informative manner, without simplifying beyond its complexity, which makes for a clever strategy that captivates the reader. Another captivating aspect of Beyond Soccer is its overall structure where theoretical concepts and perspectives are brought to life with well-painted and elaborated stories of soccer individuals, clubs, cases, and more. The examples provided give clear (and sometimes funny) illustrations of the relationship between a theoretical realm and a practical implementation. It is these kinds of elaborations and examples that sometimes can be hard to communicate to students within sport studies: how we can understand sport as a social entity and how we can make sense of theory whilst applying it to real live events, issues and situations. In this sense, Beyond Soccer provides different perspectives explaining common issues from various views. The reader is encouraged to expand their understanding of IR, society and soccer by engaging in the different theories presented and discussed. The book’s structure, aim and elaborated examples will give the reader (specifically students) a solid point of departure for learning and stimulating critical thinking and to embrace notions that there exist multiple perspectives and theories in order to understand our complex society.

Beyond Soccer takes its overall theoretical point of departure in three overarching theoretical perspectives: Realism, Liberalism and Marxism. These three perspectives guide the reader throughout the book as they are meant to provide intertwined understandings of society as a whole. Each chapter in the book has a central “issue” or “outlook” such as overall IR theories, identity construction, postcolonialism, gender, governance, geopolitics, sovereignty, etc. Every chapter also follows a similar structure, where first the “issue” is presented, then theories are explained, and subsequently empirical examples are discussed and analyzed in relations to the “issue” and theories. The discussion in each chapter is carried out by having a main soccer character/entity that in some way exemplifies that chapter’s “issue”. Although this is a common structure and practice in research, Beyond Soccer does this in a smooth, interesting and captivating manner. In addition, the book’s usage of “chapter characters” becomes a very clever, informative and fun way to show how theory and practice interplay.

Here soccer is seen as an outstanding example for understanding both colonialism and post-colonialism (and aspects of decolonization) as soccer has embodied (and still embodies) many of these perspectives.

One interesting and important aspect (among several) is when Beyond Soccer discusses how different perspectives can be used to explain and analyze one specific issue from various perspectives. This is particularly significant in elevating that there exist multiple understandings and explanations of our society. Such approach stimulates a critical perspective which also permeate all of Beyond Soccer and pinpoints the significance for the reader to embrace and consider a critical and curious research outlook. Another interesting example is when the book uses constructivism to examine multiple identities and formations among soccer fans, especially how fans create, negotiate and re-negotiate their realities based on their own and others (opponent fans) perspectives through the embodiment of norms and values. The identity concept is further developed when the author continues to investigate how identities, nationalities and “a common” are constructed and understood through soccer and IR theories.

My absolute favorite chapter of Beyond Soccer is called “Learning about Postcolonialism through Soccer”, which cleverly highlights and discusses how colonialism have shaped and affected the world of today. Here soccer is seen as an outstanding example for understanding both colonialism and post-colonialism (and aspects of decolonization) as soccer has embodied (and still embodies) many of these perspectives. This can be exemplified by considering which countries that may be represented in FIFA and take part in the World Cup (the number of European countries heavily superseding African and Asian countries), to voting mandate in important matters, electing and selecting board members and other important positions, gender inequality issues, etc. A fundamental point of departure is that British soccer very early became an institutionalized part of the shaping, education and control of the “man” of its time. Soccer hence became a powerful instrument for indoctrinating and controlling people. This is something that also can be seen to heavily affect the structures of soccer governance today.

Tamir Bar-On shows how significant the role of soccer is in contemporary society, but also how important IR theories are for understanding the world we live in. As Bill Shankly famously put it, “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that”, thus highlighting the role sports have in our society. Anyone feeling like contradicting this should definitely read Beyond Soccer as Bar-On elevates and discusses contemporary societal structures, aspects and issues through the soccer lens. Because, as society reflects itself in sports, sport becomes a reflection of society.

Tamir Bar-On’s book, Beyond Soccer: International relations and politics as seen through the beautiful game is an intelligent, well-written and interesting book which I certainly will incorporate and promote in future educational settings. Beyond Soccer should be seen as a great educational tool, which is making sense of soccer and society through a theoretically driven excursion. Instead of only letting theory explain and help us understand society, Tamir Bar-On and Beyond Soccer explain theory through soccer and society.

Copyright © Mattias Melkersson 2020

Table of Content

Chapter 1: Theory and International Relations Theories in Brief
Chapter 2: Realism, Liberalism, and Marxism
Chapter 3: Constructing Identities: Straddling the Local, National, and Global
Chapter 4: Learning about Postcolonialism through Soccer
Chapter 5: “You Just Don’t Understand”: A Feminist Reading of the “Beautiful Game”
Chapter 6: FIFA, Realism, and Emancipatory IR Theory
Chapter 7: Three Competing Soccer Discourses
Chapter 8: The Geopolitics of Soccer
Chapter 9: Soccer, Sovereignty, and the State of Exception

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