In reviewing two of his short novels last fall, TIME said of Wilfrid Sheed that "he is justly rated as one of the nation's most gifted writers." Anyone who reads his report on the strange rise of soccer-associated hooliganism in England (page 78) will find at least some reason to agree and to acknowledge that he is not only a most graceful writer but a meticulous reporter.
This is an article from the April 21, 1969 issue
Sheed was invited to make the trip to England for the assignment because he is also an Englishman by birth and education and because he has a deep love for sport, whether it be cricket, soccer or baseball.
He became a resident of the U.S. in 1947, when he was 16, then went back to Oxford for his B.A. in history and received his M.A. three years later. Now he lives in New York City with his wife and three children and has become one of the more prolific authors of the day, working on novels in between stints of free-lance writing and serving as book editor of Commonweal and movie critic of Esquire.
American interest in soccer is not ardent, except in spotty patches like St. Louis, as recent efforts to promote the professional game around the country have established. But in almost all the rest of the world it is universally loved, even in Mao Tsetung's China. At the same time, as Sheed reports, its fans have been moved to participate in the most violent riots known to sport. Except, that is, in England, where until recently soccer spectators have, by comparison with those of Italy or Brazil, been reasonably well-mannered—though never, of course, as sedate as the tennis gallery at Wimbledon.
Then, almost suddenly, came the change. On the old-fashioned newspaper theory that a dogfight on Main Street is of more interest to the reader than a political development in a far-off land, and taking into account that soccer means little to most Americans, we might well have ignored the decline of decency among some followers of the sport in England. But sport is a part of man's innermost nature and nothing that happens in it—wherever it happens—is completely foreign to us or lacking in interest. Many Americans are deeply concerned with just one sport—golf, let us say—and care little, they think, about baseball or boxing. Even so, they become fascinated readers when other sports are presented as Wilfrid Sheed presents his report on English soccer.
There is far more to sports reporting than telling the score and how it was made. Good sports reporting probes into the human condition whenever that seems appropriate, and Sheed's account tells us more about a phase of the English character than we might learn from a month's reading of the non-sports news in London's own papers.