Book Review: “Fútbol!: Why Soccer Matters in Latin America” by Joshua Nadel

By | March 24, 2016

To think of football as just as a game is to ignore not only its relationship to national identities, but also its instrumental role in forging these identities. In his book Fútbol!: Why Soccer Matters in Latin America, Joshua Nadel sheds valuable light on this role by examining the impact of football in Argentina, Honduras, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile, and Mexico as these countries consolidated. Nadel’s work exemplifies soccer’s entanglement with history and politics alike. “Soccer….is a crucial element in the stories that Argentines and Brazilians, Hondurans and Chileans, tell themselves about who they are,” Nadel writes (Nadel 2).

Nadel’s episodic account is a series of seven snapshots that are deeply illustrative of the intersections between soccer and national narratives. One of the greatest merits of Nadel’s book is his inclusive notion of national narratives. Subsumed under national narratives are dominant narratives—the textbook histories of countries—and subnarratives, some of which act as counternarratives by challenging the national identities constructed by historians, politicians, journalists, and citizens. Nadel’s decision to place equal emphasis on the dominant and hidden histories of Latin America endows his book with greater historical credibility and gives much-needed attention to stories that are often left untold.

Tremendous thematic breadth exists across the episodes Nadel looks at. Nadel’s book profoundly explore themes including, but not limited to, nationalism, corruption, political resistance, race, and gender. Three interludes are interspersed between the seven snapshots, offering short reflections on the media’s relationship to football, the professionalization of the sport, and baseball in Venezuela. When I noticed Nadel’s inclusion of interludes in the Table of Contents, I immediately questioned their utility and wondered if they would detract from the flow of the book. To the contrary, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the interludes nicely break up the episodes and provide insight that can be appreciated by individuals interested in football and Latin American history, the target audience for Nadel’s work.

Nadel supports the thesis of his book—that soccer has written and rewritten national narratives over the course of Latin American history—with remarkable success. His account leaves me with one question, however, to which I wish he devoted some ink: would soccer still be Latin America’s most popular sport if its rise did not coincide with sweeping political, economic, and cultural changes throughout the region? Nadel’s thesis is premised on the simultaneous evolution of football and Latin American nations. A brief analysis of what football in Latin America might look like if the ascent of football did not overlap with the consolidation of Latin American countries would have been a worthy addition to his book.

Nadel makes clear that he does not know what the future of ever-changing modern Latin American nations will hold. He convincingly tells us, though, that no matter what direction Latin America goes in, soccer will be part of the journey. And if history is any guide, the journey will be a tumultuous and fascinating one.


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