Soccer is a Den of ‘Marxist Iniquity’ in Hooper’s Revolution
In Dennie Wendt’s debut is a novel sports fans will be rooting for in the seasons to come
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During the 2015–16 Premier League season, more than £1 billion (or $1.24 billion) was spent by English soccer teams on buying new players. It was the first time the league had crossed this milestone, and if nothing else it marked the degree to which the UK’s national sport had become a big business like any other, with the league itself worth an annual £2.4 billion in tax alone. While such huge sums are no doubt an indication of the sheer popularity of soccer in Britain and elsewhere, they’re also an indication of how the injection of serious money has changed the game, now that football teams are owned by Russian oligarchs and oil-rich sheikhs, and now that even coaches who win the league one season are fired halfway through the next for an unprofitable spell of losses.
Such transformations — which have arguably mutated soccer into as much an advertisement for cold, hard capitalism as a testament to human excellence — are what Dennie Wendt spends a good portion of time dealing with in his debut novel, Hooper’s Revolution. Set in 1976, it charts middling footballer Danny Hooper as he makes a move from a no-hope team in the English Second Division to the American All-Star Soccer Association (AASSA), which is in the process of enticing ageing European and South American soccer stars in a bid to raise its profile. His transfer to Portland’s Rose City Revolution is a forced and grudging one, coming after a deliberate foul of his that leaves another player with a career-ending injury, yet it’s also of the highest importance. Because as he soon finds out — much to his shock — he was chosen not simply for his fearsome defensive prowess, but to foil a communist plot.
As he’s told by a British intelligence operative by the codename of “Three,” communists have taken advantage of the American indifference to soccer by infiltrating the AASSA and its roster of teams. “The whole league is a den of Marxist iniquity!” the agent informs him, adding that propagandists have furtively penetrated the league because, “if you want to send a message, and you want to reach the biggest audience possible, you send it through football.” Hence, Danny is sent by the Anglo-American intelligence community to join the league as a player and keep his eyes open for anything specific the communist infiltrators may be planning. In other words, his task is to ensure that the AASSA remains the preserve of capitalism and the ‘free world,’ and that its expansion by an assorted motley of moneyed expats isn’t hijacked by Soviets and various fellow travellers.
On the one hand, this mise en scène sets Hooper’s Revolution up as an allegory for how popular sports such as soccer can act as Trojan horses for politics and ideology, especially if — as in the case of the New York Giganticos — teams are “owned by a free-spending Manhattan media conglomerate.” On the other, Danny’s sudden transition to the less prestigious American league provides the novel with its meaning on a personal level, showing how success often depends on us adjusting to the fact that it rarely arrives in the form we expected.
This comes out in Danny’s initial unhappiness about being moved across the Pond, where he has little choice but to play for a team who, according to its overweight star player, was “Shite. Utter rubbish,” and who in a pre-season exhibition match “accomplished almost nothing, maintained almost no possession, and mounted no threats” on their opponents’ goal. As the above lines indicate, much of the novel’s character and humor stems from watching Danny come to terms with playing for an almost buffoonish team, and with playing a sport in a country that needs to localize it heavily to find it even remotely interesting. For example, he learns from his coach, Graham Broome, that if games are tied after the usual 90 minutes of play, instead of ending with the sharing of one point each, the teams engage in a “Super Soccer Showdown,” in which they take “Sniper Shots” against each other from the halfway line. Not only are such alterations amusingly ludicrous, but they reveal how the book is as much about ‘glocalization’ and the difficulties of translating one culture into another as it as about the politics of sport.
However, in true triumph-out-of-adversity fashion, Hooper’s Revolution witnesses Danny as he gradually acclimatizes to his new environment, and as his team slowly improve their performances. Watching them as they scrape together wins against all the odds is surprisingly entertaining, and quite apart from anything the novel does say about the commercialisation of soccer, its biggest draw is undoubtedly the sheer color of the footballing milieu Wendt paints. Teams have ridiculous names like the Chicago Butchers and the Seattle Smithereens, players occasionally stagger onto the pitch blind-drunk, and the league histories given at various points are often hilariously funny. Indeed, by making the AASSA and its teams so flamboyantly ridiculous, it’s clear that the book is less a straight-up sports novel, and more of a fantasy one, insofar as it captures the larger-the-life nature of so much professional sport.
This fantastical element is most vividly encapsulated by the New York Giganticos. By far the league’s best team, they boast as their prized possession “The Pearl,” a thinly disguised avatar for Pelé (who did actually play for the New York Cosmos between 1975 and 1977). As great as Pelé undoubtedly was, he’s represented more as an outright magician or deity in the novel, performing such feats as being “credited with an assist on his own third goal after playing the ball off the crossbar and back to himself for a volley into the upper corner.” Given his status as “a benevolent being sent by even more benevolent gods for the betterment of football, and therefore for the betterment of the planet”, it will prove unsurprising to more astute readers that he becomes the target of the communists’ scheming, and that it winds up being Danny’s task to save him.
Ultimately, that communists think they can somehow further their interests by targeting the miracle-working Pearl is a manifestation of how the novel is less a realistic depiction of the soccer world and more a magically realist depiction of its power to captivate. Added to this, the implausibility of their machinations also reinforces the novel’s status as a metaphor for how football was very much a site on which certain politico-economic orders and value systems vied for cultural ascendency, at least in the sense that the pumping of money into football served to normalize big business and conspicuous consumption in the eyes of millions of fans. Of course, it would have been nice if Wendt had delved into this facet of his story a little deeper, yet nonetheless, in focusing on the wonders of soccer and on the personal struggles to adapt to the strange detours of fate, he’s written a novel that sports fans will be rooting for in the seasons to come.