Writing a good game

Observations on the world cup

The World Cup is the occasion for many contests besides those of a footballing nature. There's the battle of the broadcasters: will the Beeb's Lineker-Hansen-Wright combo defeat ITV's Logan, Venables and McCoist? There's the wives' and girlfriends' contest: can Posh hold off the challenge from Coleen and Cheryl to remain first lady of soccer? There's even the grumpy old man's battle: which former England player or manager can do most to rubbish the current team's chances?

Meanwhile, away from the flashbulbs and studios, a contest of a more ruminative kind is unfolding. This World Cup is proving irresistible to writers. Using weapons such as allusion, digression and metaphor, scribes from all over the world are competing to map the contours of the beautiful game.

The competition's literary flavour was established by the publication last month of The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup, a collection of 32 essays (one for each country taking part) by the likes of Dave Eggers, Nick Hornby and Geoff Dyer. Edited by two Americans, Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey, it seems representative of a new trend in soccer fandom: the realisation by cerebral types that lack of athletic prowess needn't be a barrier to involvement. Such people may not be setting the five-a-side pitches alight or living it up with the barmy army in Hamburg, but they have found a way of taking part. For them, the sofa and the laptop are tools no less valid than the beer can and the flag.

It is largely in the blogosphere that this war of words is being waged. In front in the early stages was Alastair Campbell, who got loads of attention for his blog on new Labour's website. But notoriety is no substitute for linguistic dexterity, and Campbell's shortcomings were exposed in such remarks as "Aaron Lennon made a difference" (in the Trinidad and Tobago game) and "They were awesome" (of Argentina's 6-0 defeat of Serbia-Montenegro).

Much more illuminating is John Lanchester's blog for the London Review of Books, in which the novelist and critic has propounded a theory of "Footynomics" ("the richest country will always win, except when the most populous one does") and imagined the media frenzy had Wayne Rooney lost a testicle in the build-up to the competition (a fate that befell the Ivory Coast goalkeeper Jean-Jacques Tizié last year).

Currently taking the plaudits, however, is a contender from an unlikely quarter: at the left-leaning American magazine the New Republic, the soccer-mad editor Frank Foer has launched a "Goal Post" blog that is so posh it even has its own "contributors" section, attracting writing from such figures as Serbian novelist Aleksander Hemon and Zachary Roth of the Washington Monthly. With daily despatches from around the world, Goal Post is unrivalled both in coverage and flair. We may lead the Americans on the pitch, but they are threatening to usurp us off it.

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