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.
If, according to the Grey Lady, soccer is now “the go-to sport of the thinking class,” you’ll want to brush up on your footy knowledge before the World Cup begins on June 12. Fortunately, there are a number of books that examine politics and culture through the optic of the beautiful game. David Winner’s Brilliant Orange traces the Dutch soccer team’s penchant for self-destruction to the country’s Calvinist culture, while Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World describes the successes and failures of globalization by looking at soccer clubs and their communities, both local and global. Most recently, Soccernomics, by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, uses data judiciously (ahem, FiveThirtyEight) to challenge our conventional beliefs about both club and national sides. And the most literary of the bunch, Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow, waxes poetic about the history of soccer, starting in China five thousand years ago. Lucky for the true footy intellectual, a new addition to this repertoire of soccer nonfiction has arrived just in time for the World Cup.
Dave Zirin’s Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: the World Cup, the Olympics, and the Struggle for Democracy is a formidable, if flawed, entry into this canon. To be sure, this book is more about Brazilian economic, social, and political history than soccer. In particular, Zirin’s book attempts to capture in nonfiction what its counterparts in the novel (Roberto Bolaño’s 2666) and cinema (Amores Perros) have already dramatized, that is, the matrix of structural violence, political corruption, and income inequality that, according to some, has attended the rise of neoliberalism in Latin America around the turn of this century. These networks of violence are often difficult to discern and distill for the average reader precisely because these are processes and systems at work — in fact, such a task is probably better suited to fiction than nonfiction — but Zirin makes a valiant effort to connect the dots. In Brazil’s Dance with the Devil, he explains the unrest in Brazil in advance of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics with the anger, erudition, and clarity we have come to expect from his sports columns for The Nation. On occasion, however, Zirin is blinded by his own zeal for the subject and fails to consider opposing viewpoints or other causal factors.
Central to the book’s thesis is Zirin’s idea of the “neoliberal trojan horse.” But before we get to that, we should unpack what neoliberalism — a term often bandied about without much explanation — actually means. Generally attributed to Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, the term has evolved over time and today is deployed primarily as a pejorative by critics of laissez-faire economics. Neoliberalism prizes individual freedom over government interference, regulation, and labor unions. “The assumption that individual freedoms are guaranteed by freedom of the market and of trade is a cardinal feature of neoliberal thinking,” writes David Harvey in his A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Somewhat dubiously to the Left, this philosophy holds that economic benefits will “trickle down” to the poor, though according to Harvey, “the process of neoliberalism has, however, entailed much ‘creative destruction’, not only of prior institutional frameworks and powers…but also of divisions of labor, social relations…ways of life.” In his account of neoliberalism’s origins, Zirin attempts to explain how an economic philosophy whose “top priorities include crushing unions, privatizing health care and education, abolishing worker protections like safety rules and the minimum wage, and removing environmental protections” became ubiquitous today.
This section on neoliberalism should be one of the book’s most important and elucidating, and yet it leaves something to be desired. Readers are left wondering — at the very least — what those in favor of neoliberal policy found attractive about it in the first place (i.e. promoting economic growth). In fact, neoliberalism in a different context has also described a more moderate form of liberalization; for example, the Third Way under Tony Blair and Bill Clinton aspired to deregulate and rely on the market — instead of the government — to solve problems. Zirin’s critiques may very well be on point, but if he more explicitly linked neoliberal policy to the points he makes on surveillance, inequality, and education in Brazil, he would have created a more textured portrait of the structures responsible for shaping the country as it is today.
That said, let’s consider his basic argument. Leaning on Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine,” Zirin asserts that large-scale events like the Olympics and the World Cup — the “neoliberal trojan horses” — offer countries like Brazil the perfect opportunity to install neoliberal economic policies that their publics would otherwise never authorize. “Nobody wins elections by promising to turn the country into a sweatshop zone,” says Zirin. “So in order to get neoliberal policies in place, the world’s elite need a strategy — some clever sleight of hand.”
This legerdemain lies in what former soccer player turned academic Jules Boykoff has called “celebration capitalism.” Quoting Boykoff, Zirin argues that massive, international sporting events like the World Cup offer the state a “‘once-in-a-generation opportunity [for police and military forces] to multiply and militarize their weapons stocks, laminating another layer on to the surveillance state. The Games justify a security architecture to prevent terrorism, but that architecture can double to suppress or intimidate acts of political dissent.’” And what happens after the Games are over? What are those drones that hovered over the 2012 Olympics in Great Britain doing now?
More disturbingly for Zirin, events like World Cup and the Olympics also allow governments to justify the eviction of their cities’ poorest residents. Zirin describes how Brazilian authorities have used the World Cup as a pretext to clear out the favelas in Rio de Janeiro that occupy prime real estate. He isn’t merely pontificating from his armchair, either: Zirin takes us into the cities, and while taking care not to romanticize their poverty, he humanizes the struggle for resistance by speaking with both residents and scholars. These are among the strongest moments of the book.
These favela evictions take on a more sinister dimension when one realizes that most of those being kicked out are Brazilians of African descent. “In 2014, when the official line is that race is ‘not an issue,’” writes Zirin, “it is the descendants of slaves who…live shorter lives, make less money, have more difficulty finding employment, and are more likely to be among the ten thousand people killed by police over the course of the last decade.” For Zirin, neoliberalism systemically attempts to efface poor, dark-skinned Brazilians who live in favelas.
In the book’s last chapter, Zirin reminds us of Brazil’s failure to deliver new schools and hospitals of the same “FIFA-quality” as the stadiums being built in a country already filled with them. More infuriatingly, most of these stadiums will be empty or severely underused after the World Cup. “One idea,” Zirin notes regarding the post-World Cup function of a $325 million stadium constructed in the middle of the Amazon Rainforest, “is to turn the entire stadium into a massive, open-air prison — a use with a notoriously bloody echo in Latin American history, one not lost on those protesting the priorities of both FIFA and the Brazilian government.”
Zirin’s points on heightened surveillance, favela evictions, and inadequate schools in the run up to the World Cup are valid on their own; however, he lumps them together under the banner of general neoliberal evil, and this is somewhat misleading. A surveillance state in a World Cup or Olympic city, for example, could have emerged just as easily under a different type of economy or government — more drones and greater security at the World Cup are not necessarily unique or attributable to neoliberal policy. It is also arguable that the excesses of state capitalism — not neoliberalism — are responsible for the chaos in Brazil, but Zirin seldom entertains alternative theories. Throughout the book, Zirin takes shots at The Economist and the Financial Times for their stances on neoliberal policy, but in the future he might consider their arguments with greater intellectual empathy in order to provide a more objective analysis of views other than his — if only so that he can offer a more comprehensive and compelling refutation of them.
Describing structural violence and complex economic theory in accessible, stylish, and substantive prose — while simultaneously weaving in Brazil’s social and sporting history — is an extremely difficult enterprise. Few books can pull off such a feat, and for this Brazil’s Dance with the Devil deserves commendation. Its yellow card on the issue of neoliberalism notwithstanding, this book will be an essential companion for any member of the “thinking class” who wants to approach the World Cup protests with a critical gaze.