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7 May 2016

Football promises to be a book no-one will like – and delivers

Football by Jean-Philippe Toussaint is a strange mix of heightened prose and stilted banality.

By Simon Kuper

“This is a book that no one will like,” are Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s opening words, “not intellectuals, who aren’t interested in football, or football-lovers, who will find it too intellectual.” This is a bad start – the fans v intellectuals divide was a false stereotype even in the 1980s – and the essay then goes quickly downhill. Jointly with Ashley Cole’s memoir, My Defence, Football is the worst book on the sport I have ever read – a demonstration of how not to write about it.

Toussaint, an admired Belgian novelist, comes from a francophone intellectual tradition that still generally dismisses football as beneath contempt. However, many clever people outside this milieu are football fans. In fact, quite a few of them have written cleverly about the game since Nick Hornby and Bill Buford started a new literary wave 25 years ago.

Toussaint seems unaware of all this. Instead, he starts from the premise that he is the first “intellectual” to notice the topic. Most European football fans, he explains, “are male, violent, racist, full of beer or wine”. Images of football on television are “trivial” and “profane”. It is therefore intrinsically interesting and terribly amusing that a brilliant novelist such as himself should be a fan, too.

Toussaint tells us that he is even capable of being as stupid as ordinary fans: “During a match I am in a state of simple-minded comfort, the more flavoursome for being accompanied by a temporarily acceptable intellectual regression. I become biased, aggressive, vehement, combative, I insult the referee, I curse and castigate him. I vilify the other team.” This could have come straight from what is arguably the worst piece of would-be highbrow football writing in English, Salman Rushdie’s 1999 essay for the New Yorker, in which he casts himself as an average, unthinking fan who has “lost his heart” to Tottenham Hotspur.

Loving football doesn’t justify writing a book. I love chocolate cake but I would struggle to work up a thousand words on it. Most good books about football are about more than just football. They are about a place, a time, a society and personal relationships. Hornby’s memoir, Fever Pitch, for instance, is a social history of Britain from the 1960s through to the early 1990s. It’s also a funny yet serious psychological investigation – Hornby delves into his life to explain how supporting Arsenal helped him cope with difficulties with girls, his parents’ divorce, and so on.

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But Toussaint’s book is set in a vacuum, with the author as the only developed character. Sometimes he goes on press junkets to World Cups in Germany or Japan; sometimes he watches matches on TV, alone at home. He does make a few worthwhile points. “The nature of the wonder that football provokes derives from the fantasies of triumph and omnipotence that it generates in our minds,” he writes. “With my eyes closed, whatever my age and my physical condition, I am the star striker who scores the winning goal [et cetera].” (For an 85-page book, Football is surprisingly wordy.)

He observes that the sport needs to be watched live, because when you do so, “football time” merges with real time and seems to become life itself. And, like other writers before him, he notes that football can serve as a kind of madeleine that returns us to childhood.

But beneath the heightened prose and Shaun Whiteside’s stilted translation, there is a lot of banality. Here, in a single passage of reheated journalism, Toussaint repeats pretty much every single cliché about Brazilian football:

[I]t’s always Brazil that I carry in my heart when it comes to football – what would football be if it weren’t for Brazil? – with its artistic play, its technique and its grace, its lightness and speed, with its immemorial yellow and green and its colourful supporters, its carnival queens in bikinis with gold tiaras in their hair, their bare bellies and their skin tanned and palpitating in the summer evening . . . the carnival got going, drums at the front, and started to come down the stands . . . to go and dance an endless samba beside the pitch . . .

Other passages are plain weird:

Nothing can happen to us while we are watching a football match: as in the advantageous frontal proximity of a woman’s sexual parts in certain positions of the act of love, which instantly disperses the dread of death, which anaesthetises it and melts it away into the moisture and sweetness of the embrace, football, while we are watching it, holds us radically at a distance from death. I am pretending to write about football, but I am writing, as always, about the passing of time.

There’s also a rambling skate over the surface of Japan (humidity, some rain), a meeting with Jeff Koons (who turns out to be a good guy), some reflections on Zinedine Zidane (a melancholy artist) and many welcome blank pages. The opening words nailed it: this is a book that no one will like.

Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski is published by HarperSport

Football by Jean-Philippe Toussaint and translated by Shaun Whiteside is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions (85pp, £12.99)

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This article appears in the 04 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred