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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.”