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.
Contrary to popular belief, books are meant for multi-tasking. You can eat with a book, drink with a book, even sleep with a book; it’s all a question of the right book for the right occasion. For some people, that occasion will be at a bar where you’ll hear the zizzing of vuvuzelas, the shouting of national anthems, the thumping of a jabulani. It’s hard to justify spending hours in front of the screen, drinking beer no less, unless, of course, you bring a book. Then you are reading, drinking, watching.
After trying a few others and getting bored (or drunk) I thought that Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs was the perfect book for bars during the World Cup, despite the fact that it’s not about international soccer. It is, however, a famous book, which is to say, it seems that most people have read it; I hadn’t read it, but when I began to read it, I realized why most people have read it: once you start it’s impossible to stop. It’s a sanguine, rowdy, raucous account of an American journalist that braves it with Manchester United hooligans. But the book is more than just brash violence and ballsy reporting, it’s hopping borders, skipping fare on planes, pissing onto people’s plates.
Although much of what Buford narrates is about England of a certain era — lagers, crisps, skinheads, oi music — hooligans and their fanaticism can be found all over the world. This is life in the cheap seats: “There was a narrow human alley, and I joined the mob pushing its way through for a place from which to watch the match. Except there was no place. There was a moveable crush. It was impossible once inside to change my mind.”
Buford writes with impeccable rhythm and clarity. You can read Among the Thugs as book of brilliant soccer grotesques: “a tall very sunburnt man wearing very little clothing”; “He was short, dumpy, and balding, and wearing a white linen suit that would have flattered a man many times thinner… his forehead was damp and clammy, and his skin had the quality of wet synthetic underpants.” I could go on, but I don’t want you to vomit like so many of Buford’s subjects do after a few too many warm lagers.
Published in 1991, the book precedes the more recent craze for immersive non-fiction, and as a work of plain old journalism, it is written with amazing intelligence. Buford is cognizant of the many ways he might fall into journalistic clichés. He names them, contemplates them, then moves on. The one you’d most expect, as does Buford, is that he’ll go native, start throwing back the lagers, and wolfing down the crisps, but he doesn’t. Instead he observes that there’s something exhilarating about being with and yelling with other people, whether it be scoring a goal, or breaking a window.
Simon Kuper’s Soccer Against The Enemy is good for half-assed reading for different reasons. It’s a series of articles written over the span of nine years that describe football: its history, its people, its fans around the world in fifteen to twenty-minute reads. The commentary can sound a little outdated, but the story is probably as entertaining as it was a decade ago. Kuper is interested in examining football’s role in culture and politics, why it means so much to so many people, so he spends nine years traveling all over the world as a journalist to figure it out. Most of what Kuper discovers applies to this year’s World Cup.
Kuper’s account of soccer in the former Soviet Union will be familiar to those who followed the North Korean national team this year, their fearful faces and their puppet fan base (that literally had a conductor). In the USSR, soccer coaches are sent to Siberia. Secret Police run their own teams. Kuper arrives just after the fall of the Wall, and immerses himself in the great changes on the former Soviet soccer field. In what was once the only arena in life where fans could yell things like, “Go urinate in front of Lenin’s Mausoleum” to the game’s referees, now Kuper finds fans bored with much greater freedom. The players, rather than priding themselves on this foul-mouthed fan-base as they once did, hardly run after the ball; they’re too busy daydreaming about signing a contract in the West.
Football Against the Enemy also explains the draw game in soccer. Many of those low-scoring games were examples of catenaccio, a tactical style, that is often attributed to the Italians (it means “padlock” in Italian, but it is now a word in English according to the OED). Kuper actually hangs out with the star coach of various Spanish and Italian sides, Helenio Herrera, who some credit with having invented this defensive style of play. In catenaccio, the most of the team defends, thanks to an extra defensive player called the sweeper, waiting for an error; when it gets one, it sends the ball to the front lines, where the strikers can sneak a shot without taking a major risk. According to Coach Herrera, it’s French, not Italian and it’s a libero, not a sweeper. It doesn’t really matter now that nearly everyone uses it when they have to, hence the abundance of low scoring ties at the beginning of this World Cup.
One of my favorite chapters in the book, “Africa (In Brief)” examines the continent’s historically underprivileged position in FIFA, as well as the press’ attitude towards African teams, much of which has been repeated this year in various languages. The age-old criticism? The Africans are disorganized and they don’t train. As Kuper is quick to point out, aside from North Africa, most of the African nations couldn’t even play to qualify in 1994 due to poverty or war. Indeed, we do not know the real conditions behind these teams and their pristine Nike uniforms (in one case “the coach of Ghana has to beg petrol from the Minister of Sport before he can drive into the bush to look at players.”).
Then we get to South Africa, 1992. As captured in Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, as well as J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime, everything, even sports come color-coded in South Africa. Just take a look at the Bafana Bafana (Zulu for the Boys explains Kuper): there are hardly any white players. Then look at South Africa’s rugby or cricket team: the opposite is true. Kuper, born in Uganda of Dutch heritage and upbringing, heads to South Africa for the first multiracial election, and to witness Nelson Mandela’s first visit to the South African national football team.
When Mandela comes, just like in the Clint Eastwood movie, he says, “I support all sports.” The story Kuper recounts with testimony from government ministers, players, coaches is surprising. Despite many setbacks, as Kuper writes, “On a day when they are feeling optimistic South Africans say that their country has everything: gold, sunshine, and an ideal mix of white and black. They tell you that the new South Africa will be as rich as Switzerland, have no crime, and that it will win the 1998 World Cup.” Sure, fifteen years later not much of that is true, but not even Kuper for all of his soccer savvy could foresee South Africa as the host of the World Cup. I guess there is something to be said for that: cheers.