In 2004, Franklin Foer, then a writer for The New Republic and Slate, published a book called How Soccer Explains the World. It was a good book, essentially nine or 10 travel pieces that explored not so much how the game explains the world, but how it reflects the world. It had some holes, some generalizations and a hint of American imperiousness, but soccer fans in this country—starved for any serious consideration of the sport they love, even if they’d read Simon Kuper’s similar book, Soccer Against the Enemy, 10 years earlier—devoured it. There are only so many times you can reread Nick Hornby’s brilliant memoir of the North London club Arsenal, Fever Pitch (1992), or Bill Buford’s hooligan chronicle Among the Thugs (1990).
The critics received Mr. Foer’s book politely, perhaps caught off-guard (or embarrassed) by all of the ferment—neo-Nazis, racism, sectarian violence, nationalism—going on under their Malbec-sniffing, globalized noses, often in places where they’d spent delightful vacations. The book gained momentum, cited here, talked about there, the intelligentsia fascinated by all the geopolitical subtexts. This was better water-cooler talk, suddenly, than endless debates about the double switch or the precious Red Sox.
They’d discovered something new (though it had been around since the 1860’s). Despite the holes and the generalizations, How Soccer Explains the World gave the sport intellectual ballast, the kind only baseball, boxing and, to a lesser degree, the ponies had known. Once the province of ignored immigrants on the one end and pushy suburbanites on the other, with a passionate band of misfits marooned in between, soccer was now in the hands, or at the feet, of the literati and media elite. It’s “their thing” now—the great egalitarian game hijacked.
And right on cue, further evidence of this shift: The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup, edited by Matt Weiland, an editor at Granta and before that at The Baffler, and Sean Wilsey, author of the memoir Oh the Glory of It All. (An afterword is provided by Mr. Foer, the movement’s “number 10.”) The idea is straightforward enough: have 32 writers each contribute an essay on one of the 32 teams that have qualified for the World Cup. The editors have added to the package vital statistics on each country—population, capital city, G.D.P. per capita, median age—sourced (here we detect the influence of McSweeney’s, where Mr. Wilsey is an editor at large) from the C.I.A.’s World Factbook.
Among the contributors are Geoff Dyer, Dave Eggers, Nick Hornby, Tim Parks, John Lanchester, Eric Schlosser and James Surowiecki—a talented crew. But how were they chosen—and why? Well, it’s easy to second-guess any lineup (for a starting 11 or a literary anthology), but some of the choices here would make Sócrates—the lanky, chain-smoking Brazilian midfield legend of the 1982 and 1986 World Cups, lovingly cited a couple of times in the book—reach for the Marlboro Reds.
Most of the contributors seem to have only a passing interest in soccer, or none at all. Several of them have a connection to Granta or McSweeney’s or The New Yorker, where Mr. Wilsey once worked. The editors would no doubt argue that love or knowledge of the sport doesn’t matter. Maybe, but the best piece, almost predictably, is Nick Hornby’s (on England)—isn’t that because every sentence is informed by his life with the game?
Some of the non-soccer enthusiasts, like Peter Stamm (Switzerland), write perceptive essays. Mr. Stamm admits that he hasn’t watched a game in almost 20 years; but he knows the Swiss character, its ambivalence and provincialism. (He’s Swiss.) Having Eric Schlosser, certainly a bold journalist, write about Sweden—or rather, the Swedish prison system—is a wasted opportunity. (I’d rather have read Björn Ulvaeus’ take.) So is having a Swede, Henning Mankell, who lives in Mozambique, write on Angola (like Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony).
Geoff Dyer, author of a wonderful book on jazz, But Beautiful (1991), writes about Serbia and Montenegro, but he barely mentions soccer, preferring instead to talk about the traffic in Belgrade. “How does this translate into football?” he asks. “Packing the midfield? Playing for a draw and hoping to sneak through in injury time—as the amber turns to red, so to speak—or on penalties?” Why not Peter Maass, author of Love Thy Neighbor? Or why not be daring and go with Peter Handke, the Austrian playwright and novelist, author of The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1970), whose fascination, and sympathy, for Serbia got his work banned by a prominent French theater company last month?
Even though The Thinking Fan’s Guide has an Anglo bent, conspicuously absent are David Winner and Alex Bellos, two British writers, both of whom have explored the inextricable links between soccer and Dutch and Brazilian society. (Their books, filled with wit and rich with history, are cited by other contributors.) Where’s Rob Hughes of the London Times? Cranky old Brian Glanville? And Paul Gardner, the British expat now living in America?
Of course it’s easy to come up with a dream team, harder to make it happen.
In How Soccer Explains the World, Mr. Foer, now the editor of The New Republic, shrewdly talks about his frustration with America’s “yuppie soccer fans”—the “soccer cognoscenti”—and how they’re “inveterate snobs.” It’s almost as if he wanted to preempt similar criticism—after all, this is a writer who cites Abbas Kiarostami, Isaiah Berlin and Antonio Gramsci. I loved A Taste of Cherry, but who, you wonder, is calling whom a snob?
The Thinking Fan’s Guide suggests this same kind of shielded elitism. It doesn’t feel like a sincere quest to share an appreciation of the game and all that surrounds it; it feels more like showing off to impress really smart friends. It feels clubby, not inclusive.
Parts of the book are what they should be: surprising, informed, erudite, funny. Here’s Mr. Eggers, writing about the U.S. team: “When I was thirteen—this was 1983, long before glasnost, let alone the fall of the wall—I had a gym teacher, whom for now we’ll call Moron McCheeby, who made a very compelling link between soccer and the architects of the Iron Curtain.” And Mr. Foer’s afterword—on political regimes and World Cup winners—is more original and rollicking than anything in his own book. But too many of the essays either think too hard or wander helplessly into irrelevance, or both.
Is it schoolmarmish to point out—contrary to Mr. Weiland’s assertion in the preface to The Thinking Fan’s Guide—that no, England did not wear black shorts in 1982 (or ever); that Argentina did not get eliminated in the first round of the 1994 World Cup; that the famous Northern Irish keeper was Pat Jennings, not Pat Jenkins; that the Frenchman who missed the penalty in the epic 1982 semifinal was Maxime Bossis (a veteran of three World Cups), not Diego Bosis?
Soccer is known by the poetic, though now shopworn, moniker “the beautiful game.” But it’s also, to borrow the title of Paul Gardner’s knowing history, the simplest game. As Pelé explained in the beloved movie Victory, “I do dis, dis, dis, dis, dis … goal.”
Michael J. Agovino, a writer and editor living in New York and Zurich, is at work on his first book.
Follow Michael J. Agovino via RSS.