GUIDE TO THEWORLD CUP
Edited by MattWeiland and Sean Wilsey Harper Perennial, $14.95
Credit NickHornby with making a book like The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cuppossible. Soccer, once scorned by "serious" writers as at bestmiddle-brow and at worst violent and destructive, became fashionable with the1992 publication of Hornby's Fever Pitch, a smart, funny and unapologeticdiscourse on the author's obsession with the London club Arsenal. Literarysalons worldwide began to buzz with debate over how soccer--football to therest of the planet--could serve as a lens through which to examine personal andnational character.
June 4, 2006
That's the ideabehind The Thinking Fan's Guide, a collection of 32 essays, one on each nationcompeting in the world's most important sporting event, which will consume theglobe for a month beginning on June 9. But be forewarned: This is not yourtypical tournament preview. Readers looking for insight into the rosterselections of England's manager, Sven-Goran Eriksson, Germany's coaching crisisof faith or the U.S.'s strategy for breaking down Italy's defense must lookelsewhere. This book aims higher.
A few entriesmake the fan think too much. An essay on Ecuador's sparse sporting triumphscomes across like a Borges short story and is just as baffling. Other piecesmight better fit in The Thinking Fan's Guide to Third-World Income Disparityand Political Despotism. The connections with sport, and particularly with thisWorld Cup, are tangential or cursory.
But there arenumerous gems. Tim Parks, a native of Manchester, England, who has lived inItaly for a quarter century, paints a vivid picture of life on the sun-splashedAdriatic coast during the 1994 World Cup. Mornings are spent lounging underbeach umbrellas and lolling in the tepid sea. But the tranquillity masks anunspoken urgency. All is prelude to game night. "A powerful tide isrunning," Parks writes. "The moment approaches like a first date with apretty woman." Not a fan of the Italian team, Parks experiences theemotional ebb and flow of Italy's match with Nigeria vicariously, watching inthe cramped living room of a cinder-block house as his father-in-law agonizesover every free kick and foul. When a late goal ties the match and the Azzuriwin in extra time on a penalty kick, Parks is won over too. "What can Ido," he writes, "but choose to be happy."
In otherinsightful pieces Alexander Osang writes about Germany from the conflictedperspective of an East Berliner--an outsider in his own country--and JimFrederick, Time magazine's Tokyo bureau chief, gives an engaging account ofsoccer's emergence in the new Japan, where the players are throwing off theshackles of conformity and developing a more joyous style of play. ElsewhereCourtney Angela Brkic describes how Croatia's stunning third-place finish inthe 1998 World Cup buoyed that country's self-image in the years following theBalkan war.
Hornby is alsohere, trying to come to terms with his English fandom in the era of thehooligan. "Those drunk, racist thugs draped in the national colors ... theywere, it turned out, my people," he writes. Hornby looks back wistfully atthe players who embodied the old English virtues. Once, the nation looked tothe ethos of its captain, Terry Butcher, who famously emerged from a World Cupqualifier with Sweden soaked in his own blood. "Off the pitch I was alwaysan ordinary, mild-mannered bloke," Butcher said. "But put me in afootball shirt, and it was tin hats and fixed bayonets." Now England'scaptain is the stylish androgyne David Beckham, who, fans suspect, "willwear a tin hat and bandages only when tin hats and bandages become de rigueurin some ludicrously fashionable European nightclub." While Hornby acceptsthat Beckham is "brilliantly illustrative of a new kind of Englishsportsman: professional, media-aware, occasionally petulant and very, veryrich," the unsettling notion dawns on him that the fate of his team, hisnation and his passion now lies in the hands of "sarong-wearingmultimillionaire pretty boys." Unlike Parks, Hornby's lasting feeling isambivalence. "We're not happy about it," he writes, "but what canwe do?"
World Cup Reading List
Here are five more books that search for the soul ofsoccer.
1. Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of DutchFootball, by David Winner
The revolutionary Dutch concept of Total Football, and the national characteras a whole, Winner argues, are products of Netherlanders' complex relation tophysical space.
2. Those Feet: A Sensual History of English Football,by David Winner
The author discovers the roots of England's brutish football style--embodied bythe worship of the "hard man"--in the repressive sexual attitudes ofthe Victorian era.
3. Futebol: Soccer, the Brazilian Way, by AlexBellos
While corruption and organizational chaos threaten Brazilian soccer at itsupper reaches, Bellos finds the Beautiful Game thriving at the grass roots,from the favelas of Rio to the deepest Amazon.
4. A Season with Verona, by Tim Parks
Traveling the country with Hellas, Verona's crazed and conflicted fan brigade,Parks revels in the passions and pressures of Italian footy during a year spentfollowing his adopted Serie A side.
5. Offside: Soccer & American Exceptionalism, byAndrei S. Markovits and Steven L. Hellerman
Is soccer inherently un-American? No, the authors say. The sport's failure tocatch on in the States resulted from chance decisions and poor management earlyon.