“Baseball and boxing are tailor-made for narrative,” Bécquer Seguín writes in a recent post, “Soccer for Intellectuals,” on the Public Books blog. “Soccer, on the other hand, isn’t wedded to the fate of individuals.”
Hegel’s master-slave dialectic and Eduardo Galeano’s classic “Soccer in Sun and Shadow” (previous Sports Biblio post here) are quickly invoked in the same gargantuan paragraph in one of many interesting, if meandering points in an essay clearly aimed at the academic mind.
Seguín, soon to become a professor of Iberian studies at Johns Hopkins University, does delve into the literary treatment of soccer, after openly wondering why the sport doesn’t have a figure of the magnitude of Roger Angell or A.J. Liebling. I argue later on that it does.
News, Views and Reviews About Sports Books, History and Culture
Also In This Issue: ‘Dubz Against The World;’ The Architecture of Yankee Stadium; Ira Berkow’s New Baseball Collection; So Long, Sports Heroes; Remembering Jimmy Piersall and Jack O’Neill
In pushing through Seguín’s references to “postcolonialism” and “intellectual endoscopy” and whatnot, I noticed little in here about the ample non-fiction treatment of soccer and culture, a bibliography so vast as to be inexhaustible.
While I’m clearly not as well-read as the professor about soccer and the intellectual arts, the best books I’ve read about the sport are devoted to what it means to a culture—a broad, generic, protean and authentically human sense.
This is not what “culture” typically means to academics and critical theorists, but how the world’s most popular sport has been shaped in its many manifestations to fit the peculiarities of a nation, a region, a collection of people who can’t, and won’t, be fully assimilated into the vision of globalists.
Yet the rise of contemporary globalism has helped bring those faraway people and lands closer to us, and to a greater understanding of the appeal of soccer.
Simon Kuper’s “Soccer Against the Enemy” was one of the first of these travelogues, as he rambled through 22 countries exploring how people use the sport to resist political oppression. What he found, including in whitebread, suburban America, was how the same sport is played, and regarded, so differently, in nearly every place he went.
The key revelation here is how the global game is localized, tailored to suit the immutable forces of culture, and not the other way around.
Kuper’s book was published in 1994, the year the World Cup came to the United States, which triggered a wave of soccer books by young Americans eager to break out into the wider world, and away from their own sports traditions.
Franklin Foer was one of them, and a decade later he published “How Soccer Explains the World,” as he embarked on a similar worldwide journey: “It was easy to be wildly enthusiastic about the new order.”
Yet he also found that the globalism of the turn-of-the-millennium world often had the effects of reviving tribalism. The English Premier League became gentrified and Major League Soccer was becoming established in North America. However, ethnic warfare in the Balkans and the ghosts of an all-Jewish soccer club in pre-World War II Vienna were haunting reminders of deep cultural wounds that may never heal.
Foer, a former editor of The New Republic, is giddy at his pilgrimage to the Camp Nou and Barcelona, his adopted favorite team for reasons going far beyond soccer:
“If you have liberal politics and yuppie tastes, it isn’t easy to find a corner of the soccer firmament that feels like home. The continent has too many clubs that have freaky fascist pasts bleeding into a xenophobic present. And this is only the first obstacle to finding a team.”
First world problems, eh? This is where soccer tourism goes off the rails for me. While I generally enjoyed Foer’s breezy pace, enthusiasm and perspective from a non-soccer nation, most fans don’t get to “choose” their sporting allegiances this way. Especially in places with xenophobic, fascist elements. The need to sanitize culture to make a club acceptable for a well-heeled American to root for is rather unseemly, but it persists today.
That’s why I trust authors writing about their own places, or writers embedded deeply in another nation, to get a better grasp of soccer and culture.
David Winner’s “Brilliant Orange” employs the boundaries of geometry to describe how the Dutch yearning for elbow room resulted in an innovative style of soccer, “Total Football,” in which all players are moving in unison, in an elusive quest for space.
Alex Bellos lived in Brazil for years as a correspondent for The Guardian, and his “Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life” was mixed with admiration of and empathy for a people proud of a rich soccer heritage but heartbroken by its corruption and struggles to become a democratic nation.
The late American writer Dave Wangerin wrote beautifully in “Soccer in a Football World” of his native land’s indifference to the sport and its obscure history, and earned quite a bit of respect in the U.K., where he lived much of his adult life, for expressing his passions.
For those of us who don’t get to travel to these places, these books, these writings, the middlebrow tales of what sports means to everyday people, are invaluable.
Finally, a literary figure that Seguín mentions only briefly wrote one of the most lyrical tributes to soccer at a time right before it became globalized and commercialized and televised the way it is today.
Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, a Peruvian, lived in Spain for many years and has written frequently for El País, including a splendid essay he penned during the World Cup there in 1982.
I read this in his marvelous essay collection, “Making Waves,” which I found at a used bookstore in an outlet mall near the Raleigh-Durham airport (how about that for middlebrow?). It remains one of the best $5 I ever spent.
In a tournament marked by brutal play (Toni Schumacher’s sucker punch of a French player) and the redemption of Paolo Rossi, Vargas Llosa cast his literary eye in much the same way as Angell and Liebling, and wrote a few scrumptious passages that only Galeano can match:
“Sport, for those who enjoy it, is the love of form, a spectacle which does not transcend the physical, the sensory, the instant emotion; which, unlike a book or a play, scarcely leaves a trace in the memory and does not enrich or impoverish knowledge. And this is its appeal: that it is exciting and empty.”
While I don’t quite agree with his conclusion, here’s one more paragraph, written in the aftermath of the author’s first sighting of Diego Maradona, then a 21-year-old playing in his first World Cup:
“People need contemporary heroes, beings that they can turn into gods. No country escapes this rule. Cultured or uncultured, rich or poor, capitalist or socialist, every society feels this irrational need to enthrone idols of flesh and blood and burn incense to them. Politicians, military men, film stars, sportsmen, crooks, playboys, saints and ferocious bandits have been elevated to the altars of popularity and turned into a collective cult, for which the French have a good image: they call them ‘sacred monsters.’ Well, footballers are the most inoffensive people on which one can infer this idolatrous function.”
Seguín writes without judgment that “the sizeable gap between the soccer fan and the intellectual doesn’t appear to be dwindling,” which is fine with me. With the rise of Western populism in our current times, further explorations into soccer and the intellect along these lines might serve to reinforce the nonsense of an utterly enjoyable takedown of the Monty Python variety.
A Few More Soccer Reads
- British investigative sports reporter David Conn is the latest to publish a book about the global soccer corruption scandal. “The Fall of the House of FIFA” was released in the U.K. this week, and will be out June 20 in the United States;
- The Economist reviews two new books about the state of soccer in Britain and on the European continent, and how national and regional differences linger despite increased globalization of talent and competition over the last few decades;
- The odyssey of FC Union Berlin, more than 100 years old but which fell into obscurity during the East German era, continues. The club known as “Die Eiserman,” or “the iron ones,” fell just short in its bid for promotion to the Bundesliga this season. As the stretch run was in progress, Daniel Rossbach penned this splendid club history at The Set Pieces;
- The Brazilian club Chapecoense was virtually wiped out in a November 2016 air disaster that killed 19 players and the entire coaching staff. Sam Borden writes at ESPN FC about those left behind struggling to cope with the loss and rebuild the team on the field. They’re set to play mighty Barcelona in a friendly at the Camp Nou in August.
A Few Good Reads
- A former sneaker store in Oakland has been converted into a shop displaying art featuring the Golden State Warriors, who can clinch the NBA championship Monday night. The works are drawn from 300 basketball-themed paintings displayed in an April exhibit “Dubz Against The World,” at the SOMArts Cultural Center in San Francisco;
- It’s been dubbed “The House That Ruth Built” (and the subject of a 2011 book with the same title by Robert Weintraub), but Yankee Stadium’s metal-and-concrete architectural history has a distinctive back story. National Geographic has the details about blueprints from early renovations of Yankee Stadium that are considered works of art, and the handiwork of an engineering firm that designed Fenway Park, Comiskey Park and Notre Dame’s football stadium;
- Voting continues in Ballpark Digest’s fan poll of the best minor league ballparks, and the reigning winner has a watery vista that’s just as eye-catching as AT & T Park in San Francisco.
- Bill Lucas was the first black general manager in Major League Baseball, but only for a short time with the Atlanta Braves in the late 1970s. At The Atlantic, Alex Putterman examines his legacy and the paucity of African-American baseball team front office executives who’ve followed;
- The longball is back! And how! Is there something with the balls that’s resulting in what could be a record year for home runs?
- Veteran sports marketing ace Joe Favorito has an eclectic sports bookshelf going these days, and the selections include “It Happens Every Spring,” Ira Berkow’s new baseball collection collection;
- Store a bunch of sports cards in your aunt’s attic for years, have it discovered and appraised, with a possible fetching price of $1 million at auction. Why oh why did I not retrieve my old baseball cards out of my mother’s attic before she moved to Florida?
- Baseball writer extraordinaire Jayson Stark, recently let go by ESPN, remains optimistic as he ponders what’s next;
- Ditto for Seth Davis, longtime college basketball writer at Sports Illustrated, also the victim of continued media layoffs. He’s started a blog, Seth’s Draft House, leading up to the NBA draft, and that features legendary basketball bylines Dick Weiss and John Feinstein;
- Mohammad Isam, Bangladeshi correspondent for ESPN Cricinfo, on the history of Dhaka’s oldest cricket tournament, which hasn’t been televised recently but still is revered and fondly remembered in the national capital;
- Paul Daugherty of the Cincinnati Enquirer muses on the recent arrest of Tiger Woods and his sad mug shot seen everywhere on the Internet, and declares the Age of the Sports Heroes officially dead. I think that’s a bit much, but I also cringed at the glee with which Woods’ photo made the rounds, and how his life has come apart. “It was necessary to detain Woods,” Daugherty writes. “Not to humiliate him.” Indeed.
- Jimmy Piersall, 87, lived a long life after his Major League Baseball career, spending many memorable years in the broadcast booth. But it was his 1955 memoir, “Fear Strikes Out,” published at the peak of his playing days, that sent shock waves through the sport for his frank acknowledgement of mental illness. To say that Piersall was a “colorful” figure, as many of the tributes have mentioned this week, is to politely describe an individual whose unflinching admission helped bring awareness to an issue that is more openly embraced today. Even sports media members these days readily mention mental health problems that affect their own families. Anthony Hopkins’ acclaimed role portraying Piersall in the 1957 movie based on the book didn’t immediately resonate during a time when such troubles were best left unsaid, but is getting a fresh reappraisal today;
- Jack O’Neill, 94, was a one-eyed surfing icon whose shop in Santa Cruz, Calif., became the place where he sold more than boards and spread his love of year-round cold-water surfing. It’s also where he invented and refined what became known as the wetsuit. Said Drew Kampion, who first met O’Neill in the 1950s and is the author of “Jack O’Neill: It’s Always Summer on the Inside,” a 2011 biography: “I don’t know what kind of wetsuit you wear in heaven, but I’m sure he’s comfortable.”
The Sports Biblio Digest is an e-mail newsletter delivered each Sunday. It contains commentary and links about sports books and history. You can subscribe here and search the archives. This is Digest issue No. 85, published June 11, 2017. The Digest is a companion to the Sports Biblio website.
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