Canadians have books about their national sporting obsession, from kids’ classics (The Hockey Sweater) to the scholarly (The Game), while Americans write elegant stories about baseball (The Natural). But for most of the world, great sport books means books about soccer. The writing follows the same familiar pattern: the game (whatever game it is) as a metaphor for life, or, for true devotees, life as a metaphor for the game. But what the world outside North America calls football also has deep historical roots in every kind of ancient pride and animosity, from ethnicity to class to religion, and its literature resonates with those themes. But sometimes writing on the Beautiful Game is just that, a tribute to its beauty. Some modern classics:
|Soccer in Sun and Shadow (1998) by Eduardo Galeano: The famous leftist Uruguayan novelist believes that in the globalized world “many people find football the only area of identity in which they recognize themselves and in which they really believe—today collective dignity has a lot to do with the passage of a ball flying through the air.” But Galeano doesn’t stop at polemics. He’s a soccer purist, a “beggar for good football,” who doesn’t care what team provides it, and who offers a seemingly endless stream of lyrical little anecdotes about players and matches, drawn particularly from Latin American football history, that correct the Eurocentric take of most soccer commentary.|
|The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer (2006) by David Goldblatt: The book covers players, managers and fans, but dives into the close intersection of sport and politics in soccer’s evolution from often violent folk ritual to world entertainment colossus. Goldblatt explores the cultural significance and political use of football in times and places as wide-ranging as Perón’s Argentina, postwar West Germany, the U.S.S.R., fascist Italy and post-colonial Africa. At almost 1,000 pages long, this is fandom’s modern bible of the sport.|
|Soccernomics by Simon Kuper (2009): Soccer isn’t all poetry, memories of great matches and class politics. There’s room for a lot of pure nerdiness too. For those who want to know why England keeps losing while Germany and Brazil keep winning, this is a breakthrough book for a stats-averse sport. Kuper’s bottom line is twofold. The long-predicted rise of Africa is not in the cards, despite the talent and creativity to be found there: money and population base talk, and most of the continent has neither. The U.S., Japan, and even Iraq, on the other hand, are destined to rule the future for the same reason. Or at least they will if they accept Kuper’s advice: look for help from today’s champions. “If you want to win, send all your best players to play in Europe and hire all your coaches from Europe.”|
Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby (1992): The novelist’s first book, a series of essays about himself and his besotted relationship with Arsenal Football Club, sold more than a million copies in the U.K. A brilliant and often funny description of a fan’s emotional stake in his team, its account of Arsenal’s highs and lows—and consequently, Hornby’s—has never been bested in English.
|Brilliant Orange by David Winner (2002): This is the tale of one little country’s influence on the world’s game. The Dutch invented Total Football—in which defenders and attackers shift roles as the flow of the game dictates—decades ago, creating a more fluid and hence more exciting game. According to Winner, who subtitled his book, ‘The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer,’ it’s because the limited space in their tiny nation has made the Dutch neurotic about innovations in the flexible use of space: a quality visible in their architecture and art, as well as their football. It’s as good a theory—in finely written prose—as any for the genesis of one of the more attractive varieties of football, now played around the globe.|