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.