Seven Great Reads for the 2018 FIFA World Cup

- | 3

One hot night in the summer of 2002, I hosted a weird sleepover party in Brooklyn Heights. A dozen men and a wife with a saint’s patience and my alert newborn son crammed into our apartment to watch the nimble men of Brazil play a strong English side led by David Beckham in an elimination match in the soccer World Cup in South Korea. The game’s 3 or 4 a.m. start time required creative sleeping measures.

But we didn’t mind. Like thousands of New Yorkers and billions—yes, billions—of people around the world, we were nuts about soccer’s World Cup, a quadrennial playoff of 32 national soccer teams that play with an intensity that makes the Olympics feel quaint. From June 14 to July 15, many eyes and sleeping patterns will be focused on the 2018 edition, which will be held across Russia.

Organized since 1930 and relaunched with fanfare after World War II, passion for World Cup football has driven many countries around the planet mad, mostly with the agony of defeat. Only a handful of countries have won the trophies. The cup of their self-esteem runneth over.

And many writers have tried to come to terms with soccer passion. In this selection of the best books about soccer, authors stand in awe and terror of what soccer does to them, their communities, and entire continents. There are zany grand treatises, and there are miniature portraits of lonely, raging fandom or, you could say, manhood.

From Cameroon to England to sprawling Brazil and tiny Uruguay, soccer often manages to play an operatic role in how countries and boys and girls, not to mention women and men, see themselves. To put global football passion in perspective, I lived outside of the U.S. for nearly 15 years in the middle of sports-mad Europe. I could never convince more than one neighbor to come over to watch my beloved New York Giants play in the Super Bowl—even though kickoff was at the relatively reasonable midnight hour.

Soccer in Sun and Shadow (2013) by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, translated by Mark Fried
Behind the seeming tedium of a scoreless soccer game lurks tragedies. In Galeano’s magisterial survey of murderous soccer passions, we learn of Abdón Porte of the Uruguayan club Nacional who was found dead in the middle of the stadium; the gun in his hand was the only remedy he could find to a string of bad news. Andres Escobar, a defender on the Colombian national team, scored against his own team in a common accidental play—but it was in a World Cup game in 1994, so he was subsequently murdered on the streets of Medellin. In 1942, the occupying Nazis warned Dynamo Kiev against playing well against a team of Germans. Dynamo crushed them. All their players were summarily executed before leaving the stadium or even changing out of their uniforms! As Galeano shows from examples grand and small, soccer is many things—but not really a game.

Soccer Against the Enemy: How the World’s Most Popular Sport Starts and Fuels Revolutions and Keeps Dictators in Power (2006) by Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper
Simon Kuper is one of the finest writers in the world about most grave global issues. But over his long career, he has traveled far and wide to talk to soccer coaches and the irrational fans who employ them and reported the hair-raising consequences of their unholy union in games that can decide the fate of nations. The title of this book is a little overblown, but politics and soccer have indeed meshed in ways that should make us wary of the way Donald Trump busts the NFL’s chops over player protests against police brutality.

The Cameroonian novel Loin de Douala (2018) by Max Lobe (in French)
In this tender new novel that is still criminally only available in French, Lobe, a Cameroonian living in Switzerland, explores how the siren call of global soccer stardom disrupts a family in Douala after an older brother alights for Europe and his worshipful kid brother tries to track him down before getting lost in the hands of a trafficker network that siphons players from Africa to Europe in a trail that gives new meaning to term “black market.”

The Game of Their Lives (1996) by Geoffrey Douglas
The apex of American soccer in the World Cup happened all the way back in 1950 when team USA defeated the supposedly mighty England in the opening game of the first postwar World Cup in Brazil. To show that history is no precursor to destiny, in 2018, American soccer is enjoying a historical nadir, since it failed to qualify for the World Cup by losing to Trinidad when it only needed a draw. This slender account of that heroic 1950 team showcases the esprit de corps and immigrant-driven diversity that could someday lead the U.S. to the World Cup’s rarefied climes.

Fever Pitch (1998) by British novelist/screenwriter Nick Hornby
The most popular book about soccer passion in English history is almost winsome in its study of one young man’s agonies in work, love, and Arsenal fandom. Hornby’s lyrical paean to soccer fan frustrations was incredibly true in the ’90s, remains true today, and likely will be as long as the game is played.

The Hope That Kills Us: An Anthology of Scottish Football Fiction (2002), edited by Adrian Searle
This excellent short story collection, featuring some of the best stories about soccer written by women, has a Scottish soccer theme and is worth the price of admission for a gem of story about a woman who feels frozen out of her boyfriend’s soccer fandom on the eve of a big game. Soccer love is difficult. Being in love with a soccer fan can be hell—a quirky, funny, and heartbreaking place.

Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life (2002) by journalist Alex Bellos
Brazil is the poorest country to be excellent at soccer. In fact, it has five World Cup titles, and being the only country to participate in all 21 editions of the World Cup since it began in 1930 makes Brazil’s soccer the equivalent of blue chip brands like Germany’s Mercedes, France’s Louis Vuitton, or American Express. Bellos traces the odd, violent, and overwhelming coexistence of this consistent string of excellence, led often by black players like Pélé at that, with Brazil’s poverty and historically lousy governments and continent-sized passion, humor, and flair for delivering men and women, girls and boys, who can do magical things with a ball at their feet on the international stage.

A Year in Reading: Dimitry Elias Léger


Five minutes ago, I was in my car on my long drive home from work in Geneva, Switzerland, to the French side of Lake Geneva, and reflecting on my year in reading while listening to a literary podcast. In an interview between two of the best writers of the last 20 years, I heard the older writer, the interviewer, ask the novelist who had just published a new novel the question dreaded by most authors: What are you going to do now? Take a break? Or are you like Anthony Trollope who, legend has it, upon finishing writing a novel, would relax for an hour, and then write the first sentence of his next novel?

Then it hit me: I am so not Trollope. In 2015, I had the best year in my literary life. Actually, no need to front: It was the best year of my life. A novel I’d written lustily and fairly quickly, and then bitterly struggled to find a publisher for, was published to nice reviews from my favorite writers and media. And then the book took a life of its own and found new audiences and fans in communities of readers around the world. During the 11 months of touring 12 cities in six countries in two continents on a budget so small a shoe-string budget would find it insulting, I had lived out a dozen novelist fantasies and experienced some surprises that were so cool and weird they deserve novels of their own, or, prudently, should be taken to the grave.

I could die now, I said one night in bed, saturated with bliss.

No, you can’t, my wife, and mother of my two children, sharply reminded me.

Fair enough.

Yet there was one thing I had no interest in doing: writing. At first the lack of interest was mild, the result of extreme exhaustion, a mere reminder that, yep, I wasn’t 22 anymore. That dysfunction quickly dissipated. I had energy, a story, and the usual vampiric schedule and sleeping patterns to go for it again. The problem was I didn’t know what “it” was. Or what the point of it should be. Second novels are less linear a progression in one’s life than getting a bachelor’s degree after graduating high school or getting a master’s degree after seeing how far a bachelor’s will get you, which is not very far at all.

So for the first time in 45 years, I checked out life outside of a life in letters. I taught myself how to swim. I let my New Yorker subscription lapse. I took a non-teaching job. I worried about Hillary Clinton’s chances. And I enjoyed my children. I mean, really enjoyed them. The stories of their days were not stories to be heard for problems to be anticipated or solved, but for each child’s humor and pleasures. Our routines of meals and tickle-fests and movie-watching and chaperoning to practices and parties and dates (Yeah, dates. They really do grow up too fast.) were no longer duties to be carried out during pauses in between writing the next chapter or paragraph or email to my agent. They were the jazz, the stuff, the boom and the bap, life itself. I became so at ease with the modest pleasures of non-writer life in our bucolic corner of the world that I left town, like, only twice.

And get this: I barely read any books. Oh, I bought them as frequently as usual, and I read them too. But I didn’t read them read them. I didn’t read them as a novelist mining source material or looking for that turn of phrase that blazes my literary id like those third down Eli Manning passes that won the Giants Super Bowls. The books I read weren’t foreplay before an evening of writing, the main reason I’d read thousands of comic books, novels, magazines, and newspapers since childhood. I’m not one of those writers who discovered I would be a writer gradually as teachers, girlfriends, editors, and readers’ praise trickled in. I was a writer since sentience. Or better yet: I was a insatiable reader who had to write because the end of Farewell to Arms and the Death of Phoenix saga and Pulp Fiction were so amazing that I felt duty-bound to have a go at giving a reader a variation of those thrills. The rest of life were the things I did to pass time, to please my elders and neighbors in between curling up with a good book and firing up a fresh page on MS Word. My writing was where I hollered, and howled, at my ancestors.

Curiously, my Year of Not Reading ended not after I read a fantastic feat of literature. (Nice try, Colson.) But after I took the kids up to Paris to see “Color Line: African-American Artists and Segregation,” a retrospective of African-American political art at Quai Branly late in the fall. The show knocked me up with literary possibilities. Of the many disturbing and wondrous pictures, collages, and paintings in the small and pointed showcase of African-American artists’ responses to Trumpism’s historical antecedents since the “end” of slavery in the late-19th century, the painting that slayed me was a colorful canvas, “Rendezvous” by Wilmer A. Jennings. It show a guy casually lighting a cigarette with his back turned to a black preacher firing up the faithful while that preacher’s own back was turned to an advancing cavalry of Ku Klux Klansmen, carrying the flaming cross that signaled their promise of sadism.

My God, that painting, that moment, that wit, they deserve novels.

More from A Year in Reading 2016

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005