Tricks of the trade
The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup
Edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey
Few people now remember All Played Out, but the book unleashed the global wave of football writing. Its author, Pete Davies, had contrived to spend the World Cup of 1990 in Italy, hanging out with England's players. He interviewed them with such sensitivity as to make them sound intelligent. In between he travelled around Italy, meeting fans in trains, bars and stadiums. All Played Out persuaded British publishers that there was such a thing as a literate football book which sold. Davies has been described as John the Baptist to Nick Hornby's Jesus. (Hornby's Fever Pitch, which appeared in 1992, far outsold Davies's book.)
It is probable that thousands of football books have appeared in Britain since - more here, by one estimate, than in the rest of the world combined (more books than readers, it sometimes seems). Intelligent football books and films soon crossed to the Netherlands, reached Italy later, and are now booming in Germany (the French have yet to get involved). We now know enough about what makes a good football book to see why one of the titles under review is disappointing, and the other excellent.
The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup was conceived by two American editors in "an old pub on the Thames on a midsummer's afternoon". Matt Weiland of Granta magazine and Sean Wilsey of Dave Eggers's literary journal McSweeney's "confessed our mutual love for the World Cup's sunny internationalism". Using their networks, they rounded up 32 writers to contribute essays about the countries going to the World Cup. The cast includes Hornby, Eggers, Caryl Phillips, Henning Mankell, Isabel Hilton and the New Yorker's marvellous James Surowiecki. So it is surprising that this book seldom works.
The lure of the Granta and McSweeney's brands was strong enough to draw big names, but not to coax first-rate new work out of them. Eggers tosses off a fluent piece in which he informs us, more or less, that Americans play soccer as kids but then quit. Surowiecki, Hilton and Eric Schlosser, the author of Fast Food Nation, have turned in excellent essays that have little to do with football. All three pieces are obviously recycled from earlier research, with a few paragraphs on the World Cup tacked on - or, in Hilton's case, four lines. Surowiecki knows about Polish society, Hilton about Paraguayan contraband, and Schlosser has toured a Swedish prison. Wonderful as all this is, it's hardly a "thinking fan's guide to the World Cup". One has to admire the ingenuity of the editors. The World Cup is being used to sell soft drinks and mortgages, but nobody had thought of using it to reheat general-purpose journalism before.
Mankell's fine account of Angola falls down only when he stretches it to include football. He says Angola's presence at the World Cup may help the country, because "if people play together on a soccer team they can hardly leave the game and wage war against each other". Well, the former Yugoslavs managed.
It is probably unsophisticated to expect a "thinking fan's guide to the World Cup" to contain much football. However, the pieces that are about football are often the worst. The problem is that the editors commissioned their mates, mostly Americans or Britons, to opine about faraway countries of which they know little. In several cases it becomes apparent that the writer has not been to the country in question and knows no more than the unthinking fan about its football. The usual technique is that of a diligent undergraduate writing an essay: scan a few books, go online, and cook something up.
Thus poor Cressida Leyshon, the New Yorker's deputy fic- tion editor, tasked with writing about Trinidad, opens with a judgement of the team's chances by the Associated Press: "Anything other than three straight defeats will be a surprise." This "one-line dismissal" (easily found online) so outrages Leyshon that "with that sentence, with that relegation, came my support". Really? Or did she have to write about Trinidad to be in the book? Her elegant paper relies heavily on V S Naipaul, who also features in Paul Laity's piece on Ivory Coast. Naipaul, of course, used the pre-internet technique of actually going to the places he wrote about.
Leyshon is not alone. Several writers claim an unlikely emotional kinship with a distant country. Weiland, for instance, tells us that, at the 1982 World Cup, "England were my favourites: they looked sharp in their black shorts and white shirts". Presumably the colour control on his television was malfunctioning, because England's shorts were blue.
Most disappointing is John Lanchester's chapter on Brazil. Lanchester was "eight in 1970 and had just fallen in love with football" - the phrase a cliché of the post-Hornby wave a decade ago - when he saw Brazil at the World Cup. Lanchester considers that team the best ever. "This is not an original view, but it is one I hold deeply." That is a relief. Lanchester believes Brazil might win the World Cup again this summer. "Will it? Maybe. You never know how a team will react to the pressure - the mind-bending, inconceivable pressure - until they arrive at the World Cup." This could be Graeme Le Saux on the BBC. Was there really no decent Brazilian author willing to write something? Or at least an Anglophone who really knows about Brazilian football?
Equally irritating is Wilsey's introduction, which serves as a compendium of the main sins of football writing. First come the overblown claims for football's hold on the writer's emotions: "I mark the passage of time in World Cups" (echoing Hornby's "I have measured out my life in Arsenal fixtures" in Fever Pitch). Then there is the ritual comparison of football with religion. Next comes the image of children kicking around a ball made of rags, as we learn that "soccer's universality is its simplicity". Perhaps this has some value for American readers encountering their first soccer book. Certainly that seems to be the intended audience of Hornby's piece on England, which contains little that will surprise a British reader.
There are a few strong pieces about a nation and its football. These usually materialise when the author knows about the game and lives in the country he is writing about, or at least leaves his apartment to visit it: Tim Parks on Italy, Alexander Osang on Germany, Ben Rice on Australia and Wendell Steavenson on Tunisia (a productive week spent rushing around Tunis). Rice's attempt to stand "in the cheesy Nikes" of the American Samoan teenager who has just lost 31-0 to Australia is as funny as Saïd Sayrafiezadeh's attempt to get an Iranian visa.
To write well about football, it's not enough to love the game. I love chocolate cake, but I'd struggle to come up with 4,000 words on the subject. You need to understand the time and place in which the game is played, and you need distance from it. The relevant dictum here is from Phil Ball, who writes about Spanish football: "The essential absurdity of football - that it has become so important - is nine-tenths of the poetry."
John Foot sees that. The author of Calcio: a history of Italian football loves Italian football, is an academic historian of Italy, lives part-time in Milan, and has dug up every forgotten Italian scandal and legend, but his book is written with a smile. He tells us about the defender Comunardo Niccolai, named by left-wing parents after the Paris Commune, who "became celebrated for his ability to score bizarre own goals"; the illegal bookmakers with desks inside state betting shops; and the 25 per cent of boys born in one Neapolitan parish who were named Diego after Maradona.
Calcio appeared before we learned that Juventus, Italy's supreme team, habitually choose their referees, but the news can't have surprised Foot. He writes: "Sometimes, during the work on this book, I have felt like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. I have been forced to watch things that, in the end, have made me sick. I did not think it would be possible but, by the end, I had almost fallen out of love with football." You wouldn't catch Lanchester saying that. Calcio is written with clear-eyed love. Anyone interested in Italian football (or in Italian society, which is much the same thing) should read this book, alongside Simon Martin's excellent, scholarly Football and Fascism: the national game under Mussolini. Sometimes the books are better than the football deserves.
Simon Kuper is the author of Football Against the Enemy (Orion)