The poet laureate of football, Uruguay’s Eduardo Galeano, put up this sign on his door every four years: ‘Closed for Soccer’. He then spent a month watching the World Cup and writing about it. His Soccer in Sun and Shadow is the greatest book on football. Only Mexican writer Juan Villoro’s God is Round challenges that.
Among the Nobel Laureates who loved football and occasionally wrote about it, are Gabriel Marquez, Vargas Llosa, Albert Camus, Gunter Grass and Orhan Pamuk. Yet, football writing wasn’t considered literary. Simon Kuper — who has written some of the best — once said books about football ranked “even below self-help books sold in airports.”
The 1990s changed that. Galeano’s masterpiece appeared in 1995. “I wanted fans of reading to lose their fear of soccer, and fans of soccer to lose their fear of books,” he explained. The best of football writers, Hugh McIlvanney and Brian Glanville, published collections, and football began to attract writers whose livelihood didn’t depend on the game.
Pete Davies’s All Played Out (re-released as One Night in Turin) and Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch set the trend. Davies, a novelist, was invited by England’s manager at the 1990 World Cup to travel with the team and given access to the players. The result, the finest behind-the-scenes record of a tournament, made football writing sexy. As did Fever Pitch.
Here are 11 of the best for both fan and casual reader.
The writer’s latest book isWhy Don’t You Write Something I Might Read?
Soccer in Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano – A book of passion and intelligence, of insights and thrills, written by a self-confessed “beggar for good soccer,” and presented in a series of vignettes. “The history of soccer,” Galeano says, “is a sad voyage from beauty to duty. When the sport became an industry, the beauty that blossoms from the joy of play got torn out by its roots. Professional soccer condemns all that is useless, and useless means not profitable…”
God is Round: Tackling the Giants, Villains, Triumphs, and Scandals of the World’s Favourite Game by Juan Villoro – This is a collection of Villoro’s essays on football. He calls Maradona the only ‘slave-cum-liberator’ in sporting history: a player driven by early misery and later insults. Beauty in the beautiful game is crucial. Here’s what he says: “In this game, which allows for so much magic and wonder, Cristiano Ronaldo merely plays a sport.”
Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football by David Winner – A flavour, from the introduction, “If this is a book about Dutch football, you’ll probably wonder why it contains pages and pages about art and architects, cows and canals, anarchists, church painters, rabbis and airports but barely a word, for example, about (the clubs) PSV and Feyenoord… And the reason, I suppose, is that this is not so much a book about Dutch football as a book about the idea of Dutch football…”
Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby – A funny, touching story of the novelist’s obsession with Arsenal and the manner in which his life and the progress of his football club are entwined. Hornby explains, he “fell in love with football as I was later to fall in love with women: suddenly, inexplicably, uncritically, giving no thought to the pain or disruption it would bring with it.”
McIlvanney on Football by Hugh McIlvanney – If journalism is literature in a hurry, it is also the first draft of history. McIlvanney was gifted enough to make what was written to daily deadlines read like the measured prose of the historian.
Soccer Against the Enemy by Simon Kuper – How football shapes national identity. The author travelled to 22 countries to understand why surprises seen in the right perspective are inevitable given our geopolitics.
One Night in Turin by Pete Davies – Davies never wrote another book on football, but this one is enough to install him in the Hall of Fame.
The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football by David Goldblatt – At nearly 1,000 pages, this is comprehensive. On Indian football: “In a nation that remained riven by hierarchies of the caste system, cricket proved more accommodating of distinctions than the universalism of football…”
Foul! The Secret World of FIFA: Bribes, Vote Rigging and Ticket Scandals by Andrew Jennings – The ugliness behind the beauty.
Golazo! A History of Latin American Football by Andreas Campomar –
A Game of Two Halves edited by Stephen F. Kelly – We meet soccer buffs A.J. Ayer, Camus, Harold Pinter, George Orwell, J.B. Priestley, John Arlott, Hugh McIlvanney, Alan Ross and others, who have lit up the game with their prose and poetry. To dip into throughout the World Cup.