Wait a second. No, seriously hold on. Just a few more minutes.
Oh. Sorry. It’s you.
I apologize for being late. Well, I only partially apologize. It is to be expected, really, with the Fourth of July striking and the World Cup ending.
Yes. The World Cup. Sorry about my rudeness a little earlier – I’ve been busy for the past few weeks attempting to will my adopted club (England) to win (they didn’t) and commit my arch-enemies (Brazil, Argentina) to lose (they did).
With all of these distractions, both footy-wise and not, it was difficult to get any books read this past month. Yet (you’ll be happy to know) I did complete a few. And while the most noteworthy book might have been Towards the End of the Morning by Michael Frayn, I found that my favorite – my book of the month – was Sean Wilsey and Matt Weiland’s The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup. By far.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not some crazed soccer fan. Once every four years, I rediscover international soccer – primarily, the World Cup. And every four years, once the tournament is over, I promptly lose the love I had displayed just months before. I always mean to stay in touch once the World Cup is over, but I never do. I don’t know enough about European clubs and can’t find coverage of United States soccer, so I just lose it all together. But for a month and a half, I’m an expert.
That’s what led me to buying The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup.
Wait. What exactly does this “guide” entail? That’s easy. It’s 32 essays by 32 different writers about the 32 countries that participated in the 2006 World Cup Finals. And of the heavyweights showed up: the essays range from David Eggers’ gym teachers (who call soccer a communistic cesspool) to Aleksandar Hemon’s unfortunate mix of sex and soccer. Nick Hornby struggles with the choice between club team (London’s Arsenal, which employs a vast number of the French national team) and country (England, of course). Does he root for England? Or does he root for his Arsenal players? Sukhdev Sandhu thinks Saudi Arabia’s too soft, while William Finnegan laments the loss of Portugal’s best surfing spot – thanks to modern culture and, in part, soccer.
But wait – there’s more! On top of 32 great essays, Franklin Foer (Jonathan Safran’s brother – any regular reader of this column knows of my fascination with the entire family) describes the government most likely to win a World Cup ala his book How Soccer Explains the World. And it’s got all the numbers – useful demographic information on each country, past World Cup winners and the records of current World Cup participants, and the likelihood of each team to win. It’s great for everyday soccer fans, and invaluable for the every-four-years fan, like myself.
Amazingly, there’s a common theme outside of the typical “Go Team Go!” narrative. At the World Cup, everyone, regardless of country, has a chance. Once the ball is kicked off, all teams are on equal footing. No monetary means will secure your team a victory. Rich soccer teams can buy all the talent they want – AC Milan, Barcelona, Manchester United, Chelsea – but only citizenship will get you a World Cup championship. Just the allegiance to your country. And every country can build a team. All you need is a soccer ball and a flat pitch.
It’s called the beautiful game because it’s the joining of athletics and the pure will to win. Sure, there will be 0-0 ties. But the defensive stops, the fight to get to the goal, the sheer determination that leads to a cross pass that is beautifully set up by some guy that wasn’t even there ten seconds before and then kicked into the back of the goal – that’s sport.
And that’s why this book will continue to be a valuable addition to my library years after France (hopefully) beats Italy (boo!) tomorrow. It’s not just a guide to this World Cup, but it’s a guide to the desire of winning. The passion of being a fan. The ramifications of a single goal, of a clean sheet, or of a beautiful penalty kick. (Where are you now, David Beckham?) Most of all, it’s a beautiful synopsis of the game itself, of its strange gravity and powerful importance.
Because this is more than just a game.
“The joy of being one of the couple of billion people watching thirty-two nations abide by seventeen rules fills me with the conviction, perhaps ignorant, but like many ignorant convictions, fiercely held, that soccer can unite the world.”