Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Soccer for the American Novice : An Occasional Feature

I've specified American up there because I figure if you've grown up almost anywhere else in the whole world, you have absorbed football into your very pores, kind of the way every American kid probably knows what a home run is. If you 've grown up somewhere else and don't love football, it's not out of ignorance, and presumably you don't need our guidance.

So, this is addressed to my fellow Americans. Maybe you've stumbled in here by accident. Maybe you are a friend of ours, whom we've strong-armed over to this blog and you have no idea what we're talking about. Or maybe you're someone who's actually gotten the news that the biggest sporting event in the world is happening in less than two months (yes, bigger than the Superbowl, and unlike the Olympics, selling tickets is not a problem) and you are wondering if there might be something worth getting into about this soccer thing, but it's all a bit confusing to you, and anyway, don't people who go to soccer matches usually end up getting beaten up by gangs of roaming hooligans?

Fear not. a pretty move is here to help you make the transition from novice to fanatic.

First of all, this is an amazing time to jump in and fall in love. There's nothing quite like the World Cup for getting a sense of the sheer universality and passion of the game. As we draw closer to the big tournament itself, we'll be writing about some of the players and squads to watch. Did you know it's only 45 days away?

But today I'm going to recommend some great soccer books. These are great ways to begin understanding the passion of supporters and the place football occupies in peoples' lives around the world. Begin with the Hornby or the McGinniss; I am slightly partial to the McGinniss myself, because it was the first one I read.

The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, by Joe McGinniss
Part travel narrative, part sports book, McGinniss's story chronicles a year spent with a barely-professional soccer team from an Italian village that unexpectedly finds themselves in Serie B, the second-highest league in the country. McGinniss's tale ranges from the hilarious to the tragic, alternately exhilirating and depressing, romantic and cynical, and you'll never, ever forget the coach, Jaconi, who encourages his players to drink and smoke and frets over any match which does not end in a draw--preferably nil-nil. Anything else causes him great anxiety: It is not normal. The book is infused with both McGinniss's passion for the game and the love Italians have for their calcio. I read this when I didn't know a damn thing about soccer, and even then I thought it was one of the best books I'd ever read.

Fever Pitch, by Nick Hornby
This is an affable and funny book about the author's life (and repeated heartbreak) as an Arsenal fan (a club he actually had to commute to as a child in order to see). Hornby wears his heart on his sleeve and you may well find yourself falling in love with Arsenal right along with him. He's unafraid to reveal the depths of his obsessiveness: anxiety, for example, that chances are, someday, he will die midseason--thereby never finding out who will win. Another fantastic read for beginners--or if you are already a fan, to press on unsuspecting friends, relatives, and significant others, starting the conversion process.

Soccer in Sun and Shadow, by Eduardo Galeano
This is the best book ever written about soccer. It is the best book that will ever be written about soccer. It is the Bible of soccer books; like those devoted religious folk who declare the only book they need is the Good Book, this is the only soccer book that ever needs to be. Why, then, isn't it first on my list? I think it is a book better appreciated once you have a little familiarity with the beautiful game. I think, to a certain, extent, it is written for those of us who are already fans. The Hornby and the McGinniss books are tricky: they draw you in with narrative and humor and then they hook you and you come out on the other side without realizing you were being indoctrinated. Galeano starts with the assumption that, like all right-minded people, you understand that there is nothing, nothing in the world more beautiful than soccer: that at its best, what you may see on the pitch is nothing less than "the carnal delight of embracing the forbidden adventure of freedom." Lyrical, melancholy, rhapsodic, this is an unabashed love letter to the greatest sport of all.

How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization, by Franklin Foer
I put this book last, not because it is not a good book, but because it is more journalistic in tone than the others and thus less likely to sweep up the unsuspecting reader in a frenzy of footie passion. However, this is a very good book for understanding the role soccer plays in people's lives around the world, and how it truly does become more than a game, from Red Star Belgrade's involvement in the dreadful ethnic Balkan conflicts of the 1990s to the ways in which Barca became a symbol of dissent against the Franco dictatorship. Foer's ambitious book takes us from the neighborhoods of upper-middle-class "soccer moms" in suburban America to rebellious women in oppressive Islamic societies daring to take in the forbidden spectacle of their local squad on the pitch. A great look at the simmering tensions, economics, politics, and more behind the sport.


drgogol said...

Now we're talking!


"Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football" -- David Winner

"Barca: A People's Passion" -- Jimmy Burns

"The Half-Decent Football Book" -- the editors of the great monthly magazine When Saturday Comes

"Gazza Agonistes" -- Ian Hamilton (yes, THAT Ian Hamilton)

"Futebol: Soccer the Brazilian Way" -- Alex Bellos

"Among the Thugs" -- Bill Bruford

it's worth making one splurge once a year at Amazon.UK to score goodies like these!

Shawn (Bickle)

Derek said...

I'm reading "Barca: A People's Passion" right now. Superb stuff. And I'll add another thumbs up for "Brilliant Orange" and "Among the Thugs" as well. I'll also add the anthology "My Favourite Year--A Collection of Football Writing" edited by Nick Hornby and it's also from the When Saturday Comes guys. Although all of the pieces contain some great writing or observations, the Roddy Doyle opener is truly unforgettable.

Ghost Dog said...

I'm going to have to read Hornby's book, then. I fell in love with Arsenal this season, just by watching (and a little nudge from a co-worker, who got me into watching the EPL on Fox Soccer Channel). Go Gunners!

Lynda said...

Ah, the Hornby is definitely required reading for you, then. It's a lot of fun, even more so, I imagine, if you're a new Gunners fan.