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Soc­cer Inspires Lit­er­a­ture Lite

With the World Cup upon us, where is the great writ­ing about the world’s most pop­u­lar sport?

—The Globe and Mail, June 1, 2002

In the spring of 1998, near the mid­dle of his five-year stay in Paris, the New Yorker’s Adam Gop­nik threw him­self into soc­cer. The World Cup had come to France and the one-time Mon­trealer — hardly a neo­phyte when it came to base­ball, bas­ket­ball or hockey — was deter­mined to fol­low the month-long tour­na­ment from start to fin­ish. He wanted, he explained, “to fig­ure out what exactly it is that the world loves in a game that so many Amer­i­can sports fans will sit through only under compulsion.”

Ambiva­lence, how­ever, soon set in. There was the dearth of goals, to be sure (“odd, hal­lu­ci­na­tory matchups out of some frac­tured game of Risk”) or the hyper­bole that passed for wis­dom (“soc­cer writ­ers seemed as starved for enter­tain­ment as art crit­ics — any­thing vaguely enjoy­able gets pro­moted to the level of genius”). “I had a hard time,” he explained, “mak­ing a case for soc­cer as spec­ta­cle.” Only as the tour­na­ment moved into its final stages, as the matches became increas­ingly tense, did he finally under­stand an Eng­lish friend’s advice: To expect enter­tain­ment is to miss the point entirely.

Soc­cer,” Gop­nik con­cluded, “was not meant to be enjoyed. It was meant to be expe­ri­enced. The World Cup is a fes­ti­val of fate — man accept­ing his hard cir­cum­stances, the near-certainty of fail­ure. There is, after all, some­thing famil­iar about a con­test in which nobody wins and nobody pots a goal. Nil-nil is the score of life.”

Four years on, as the World Cup begins this week­end in Japan and South Korea, I’ve returned to Gopnik’s Paris Jour­nal. As the sports pages rein­tro­duce us to soc­cer once again — to its stars and tac­tics, its ancient rival­ries and arcane sta­tis­tics — I’m reminded how opaque the game is to most North Amer­i­cans, how for­eign its nuances. Most of us just don’t get it.
So where, then, should we look for guid­ance? How might we pierce through the 90 min­utes of, what Gop­nik called, the tedium and injus­tice, to work up some­thing even remotely resem­bling the pas­sion bil­lions around the world have for the game they call football?

To put it sim­ply: Who should we read?

If, say, base­ball has Ring Lard­ner or Bernard Mala­mud or W. P. Kin­sella, shouldn’t it fol­low that soc­cer has its own body of lit­er­a­ture, too? Writ­ers who get under soccer’s skin, who weave the game into their art, who tell us about some­thing more than merely fix­tures and results.

In my local library there are as many books about bridge, coarse fish­ing, and bad­minton as there are about foot­ball,” the Eng­lish writer and edi­tor Ian Hamil­ton once wrote. “Soc­cer is noto­ri­ously a sport with­out much of a lit­er­a­ture: unlike cricket or rugby, it has few links with higher edu­ca­tion. The soccer-intellectual tends to treat soc­cer as an off-duty self-indulgence, like old movies or detec­tive nov­els — it’s strictly triv­ial pursuit.”

Strange as it may seem, soc­cer has only appeared in snip­pets in Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture over the past 100 years — in Arnold Bennett’s Five Towns nov­els, for exam­ple, with their descrip­tions of work­ing class life in the Pot­ter­ies (the towns sur­round­ing Stoke-on-Trent) before the First World War; or in George Orwell’s essays, where the game is often men­tioned with dis­dain, mainly for its destruc­tive role in inter­na­tional affairs, rein­forc­ing as it did the bit­ter hatreds bred by nationalism.

In Vladimir Nabokov’s auto­bi­og­ra­phy, Speak, Mem­ory, soc­cer enters only briefly. But these few pages still con­tain some of the finest images of the game ever writ­ten. Here, while describ­ing his days as a stu­dent at Cam­bridge, Nabokov recalls his affec­tion for goalkeepers:

In Rus­sia and the Latin coun­tries, that gal­lant art had been always sur­rounded with a halo of sin­gu­lar glam­our. Aloof, soli­tary, impas­sive, the crack goalie is fol­lowed in the streets by entranced small boys. He vies with the mata­dor and the fly­ing ace as an object of thrilled adu­la­tion. His sweater, his peaked cap, his knee­guards, the gloves pro­trud­ing from the hip pocket of his shorts, set him apart from the rest of the team. He is the lone eagle, the man of mys­tery, the last defender.”

Albert Camus might just have been this crack goalie — he played, to much acclaim, for the Uni­ver­sity of Algiers — but even he only referred to soc­cer occa­sion­ally in his fiction.

Really, it wasn’t until the 20th century’s end that the British literati took a long look at the game. Then in the 1990s, soc­cer became legit­i­mate: a novel sub­ject, some­thing daring.

It was Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, a splen­did lit­tle mem­oir about his life­long affair with London’s Arse­nal soc­cer club, that prob­a­bly got this sub­genre off the ground. “I fell in love with foot­ball as I was later to fall in love with women: sud­denly, inex­plic­a­bly, uncrit­i­cally, giv­ing no thought to the pain and dis­rup­tion it would bring with it.”

And so begins the arche­typal soc­cer mem­oir. Part con­fes­sional, part coming-of-age story, we’re taken full throt­tle into the rhythms of a Euro­pean soc­cer fan’s life: the minu­tiae of a cul­ture that invades its narrator’s every wak­ing moment.

With prose that ram­bles and clenches, Hornby’s story is some­times base and often truly exhil­a­rat­ing. But Fever Pitch isn’t just about the game: As one critic sug­gested, it’s about every­thing from obses­sion and fam­ily to mas­culin­ity and class.
And it’s also about nos­tal­gia. Hornby sets a laser beam to the trap­pings of his gen­er­a­tion, Brits who came of age in the late 1970s and ’80s. (It isn’t a coin­ci­dence that his first three books, Fever Pitch, High Fidelity and About a Boy, were made into hugely suc­cess­ful films.)

So, sud­denly, soc­cer writ­ing was fash­ion­able. Mar­tin Amis, who had once fol­lowed Elton John’s team, Wat­ford, to China, peri­od­i­cally took on assign­ments for the Sun­day papers. Paddy Doyle wrote a long essay on the Repub­lic of Ireland’s run to the 1990 World Cup. Even the New Yorker wanted its own authen­tic soc­cer jour­nal­ist, com­mis­sion­ing Salman Rushdie to write “The People’s Game”, an aston­ish­ingly over-the-top paean to his favorite Eng­lish club, Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur. (Lit­tered with errors, the piece was exco­ri­ated in the soc­cer press.)

Soccer’s new­found respectabil­ity opened the way for more seri­ous work, as well. Bill Buford, an Amer­i­can liv­ing in Eng­land, the for­mer edi­tor of Granta and now the lit­er­ary edi­tor of the New Yorker, wrote Among the Thugs, an extra­or­di­nary and deeply dis­turb­ing account of soccer’s hooli­gan culture.

No one had ever doc­u­mented this world from the inside. And his first-hand descrip­tions of life on the ter­races (the standing-room only sec­tions that are now almost entirely abol­ished through­out Europe) are riv­et­ing: the fero­cious racism, the inter­minable police escorts to and from games, the con­stant fear of violence.

Tim Parks, an Eng­lish­man liv­ing in Italy, who might be best known for his trans­la­tion of Roberto Calasso’s Mar­riage of Cad­mus and Har­mony, put soc­cer front and cen­tre in a series of essays on rela­tion­ships. While he, too, wrote his own Fever Pitch–styled mem­oir — the recently pub­lished A Sea­son with Verona: Trav­els Around Italy in Search of Illu­sion, National Char­ac­ter, and Goals — in Analo­gies, from Adul­tery and Other Diver­sions, he tried some­thing very different.

I want to estab­lish the dif­fer­ence between fidelity and faith, in foot­ball and in love,” Parks declares, before using a series of episodes in a sin­gle sea­son of his local team, Hel­las Verona, as a metaphor for his friend Giorgio’s affair.

It’s insult­ing,” Parks’s wife even­tu­ally told him, “the way you keep com­par­ing Marina and Giorgio’s trou­bles to the foot­ball sea­son. It’s ridiculous.”

I only do that,” he explained, “because it’s the only way you’ll let me talk about football.”

While Parks and Buford may finally give soc­cer a place among grown-ups, the lit­er­a­ture still veers away from any­thing majes­tic or overly ambi­tious. (Noth­ing, for instance, com­pares to Don DeLillo’s Under­world — where a base­ball game between the Brook­lyn Dodgers and New York Giants is the start­ing point for an 800-page epic.)

In the end, how­ever, the plea­sures are rather sim­ple, and often quite endear­ing: the exu­ber­ance, the wit, the uncom­pli­cated emo­tion. Just try Fever Pitch: You’ll not only be drawn into the game, you might even want to pick sides.

Then again, the images that stick are more likely to con­jure up a dim, damp Novem­ber after­noon than an early sum­mer evening in Pasadena or Mex­ico City of World Cups past. But who can resist the thought of Vladimir Nabokov mind­ing a mud­died net in the mid­dle of an Eng­lish winter.

As with folded arms I leant back against the left goal­post, I enjoyed the lux­ury of clos­ing my eyes, and thus I would lis­ten to my heart knock­ing and feel the blind driz­zle on my face and hear, in the dis­tance, the bro­ken sounds of the game, and think of myself as an exotic being in an Eng­lish footballer’s dis­guise, com­pos­ing verse in a tongue nobody under­stood about a remote coun­try nobody knew. Small won­der I was not very pop­u­lar with my teammates.”