Book Culture Spotlight: Books for the World Cup
As the World Cup begins, it is hard not to see in its popularity certain narratives about how the world is changing. In America, soccer is no longer just something we remember playing as kids — MLS attendance rates now surpass those of the NHL and NBA, European club soccer is exported to the States in lucrative cable deals, and seemingly every male under the age of 25 has played a game of FIFA. In the U.K., Saudi Arabian oil barons body check their way into the upper echelons of club soccer with record-setting transfer fees for players. Across leagues, the very best talent is increasingly concentrated on superstar teams. Globally, it seems fans are watching less out of parochial loyalty and more out of a thirst for quality entertainment. What are these trends if not the evidence of how we are losing hold on our imagined communities? Of inequality, pluralism, and globalization?
The World Cup works as a sort of historicizing punctuation: every four years it prompts us to reevaluate our international relationships. When West Germany dominated the stage in the 60s and 70s, it felt like a moral point was being made about the Cold War. When the United States languishes internationally, it feels revolutionary. Of course, these storylines are often effaced by the thoroughly visceral action of the game. (Who cares about the British Commonwealth when Tim Cahill scores a volley off the crossbar?) But it’s clear that soccer invites and fulfills these narratives about peoples, nations, and the world.
It comes as no surprise, then, that there are so many fantastic books about it. Literature, international studies, politics, economics — these are a few of the many lenses through which authors have approached the game. To help you find more stories for your World Cup experience, Book Culture has come up with the following spotlight.
Before the Aztecs were conquered by the Spanish, they played Ōllamaliztli, bumping rubber balls off their knees and hips into stone hoops. Though often played for sport, the game was also used as a proxy for warfare and sometimes preceded human sacrifice. This is where Andreas Campomar begins his history of fútbol in Latin America — and it is quite appropriate, because it seems that, at least in its relationship to ball games, not much has changed in Latin America since the 15th century, where bitter sporting rivalries have fueled political developments and roaming bands of hooligans have been known to attack one each other after matches. Interweaving the history of club soccer with that of international play, and setting it to the backdrop of colonial influence and political upheaval, Campomar’s history will certainly be relevant as the World Cup opens in Brazil and other Latin American powerhouses like Uruguay and Argentina vie for the cup.
Argentinian writer Eduardo Sacheri is already quite famous in his country of origin for his four earlier collections of short stories. In the States, he is best known for The Secret in Their Eyes, his first novel, which was adapted for the screen and won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009. His new book tells of a hapless ex-investor, Alejandro “Mono” Raguzzi, who spent his severance package on the transfer fee for Mario Pittilanga, an up-and-coming forward in the lower club leagues. Pittilanga inevitably performs poorly, and as he languishes Mono is diagnosed with cancer. After Mono passes away, it is up to his brother and two best friends — all equally hapless — to dump off the forward’s contract on another ill-fated investor. Part comedy-of-errors in the vein of The Big Lebowski, part mystery-of-personality in the vein of The Savage Detectives, Papers in the Wind is a book that should be welcome to literary soccer fans tired of all the commercial hoo-ha surrounding the World Cup and more interested in the emotional bonds that tie fans together.
What list of soccer books could be complete without David Peace, the author best-known for his controversial book The Damned UTD, a fictionalized account of Brian Clough’s 44-day stint as manager of Leeds football club in 1974. In this story of a troubled anti-hero struggling with alcoholism and the lingering effects of his predecessor, Peace weaves together fiction and rumor with documented facts to produce “a fiction based on fact.” A minor classic in the U.K., where it was published by Faber & Faber in 2006, the book has just been released in the States by Melville House, which also picked up Peace’s new, equally World-Cup-relevant novel, Red or Dead. In Red or Dead, Peace turns his attention to another U.K. club manager of 1974, Bill Shankly, who over 15 years transformed Liverpool from perpetual Second Division underachievers into one of the biggest powerhouse clubs in the U.K. — winners of two F.A. cups and one UEFA during his tenure. In these two books about tough-minded Brits dealing with the injustices of upper level sporting management, it is hard not to recognize the similarities to the American incarnations in books like Moneyball — and, perhaps, to find a salve for England’s poor international results.
And some backlist Extras:
Kuper, who wrote a lengthy piece in the most recent Harper’s about the globalization of soccer, explores in this book how economics influence the performance of club and international teams. Why do the English perform so poorly internationally? Why are the Italians so poor at relocating their players? The answers lie in this book, just re-released this April.
Also focused on the intersections of economics and soccer, Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World looks at the increasing globalization of the game and how it parallels the “flattening” of the global economy.
A poetic history of the game and its political undercurrents, Soccer in Sun and Shadow is Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano’s lyrical masterpiece about his cherished childhood sport. Written in 1995, it was just translated into English this past August.
Entry filed under: New Release Spotlight, What are you reading?. Tags: "football", Andreas Campomar, Damned UTD, David Peace, Eduardo Galeano, Eduardo Sacheri, Franklin Foer, Red or Dead, Simon Kuper, soccer, Stefan Szymanski, World Cup.