The Literature of Futbol: 11 Great Books About Soccer
From Pele on the beautiful game to Bill Buford on the sport’s dark side, check out a complete team of terrific books that give you all the prep you need for the World Cup.
There are plenty of examples that can be used to challenge George Plimpton’s Law of Inverse Proportionality (the smaller the ball, the more books have been written about the sport). How about marbles? Or billiards? But alas, not soccer. The world’s favorite sport has not produced a huge library.
Nonetheless there are some readable and useful tomes that fans of men running around in shorts on a big field will find valuable.
Soccer in Sun and Shadowby Eduardo Galeano.
Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, author of the classics Open Veins of Latin America and the Memory of Fire trilogy, contributes an impassioned personal appreciation with Soccer in Sun and Shadow. He traces the sport back to ancient China, then up through its codification in 19th century England to its present state of worldwide creolization. Charismatic superstars from the great Pelé to Beckenbauer to Maradona make illuminating anecdotal appearances. Himself a failed player, Galeano explains that “from that need for expiation, this book was born. Homage to soccer, celebration of its lights, denunciation of its shadows. I don’t know if it has turned out the way soccer would have liked, but I know it grew within me and has reached the final page, and now that it is born it is yours. And I feel that irreparable melancholy we all feel after making love and at the end of the match.”
The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccerby David Goldblatt.
Originally published six years ago, Goldblatt’s comprehensive history traces the sport’s rise to big money global enterprise, and also spotlights stars such as Pele and Maradona, Puskas and George Best, as well as recounting the history of stadium architecture. Most interesting, Goldblatt explicates the role of soccer in various divergent cultures. Nearly 1,000 pages, this history provides everything you might want to know about futball.
Uruguayan-raised writer Companor quotes his countryman Eduardo Galeano: "Every time the national team plays, no matter against whom, the country holds its breath. Politicians, singers and street vendors shut their mouths, lovers suspend their caresses." Camponar skillfully focuses on Latin American soccer (making a nice bookend with Goldblatt’s history). He concludes, "'The beautiful game has achieved what a succession of third-rate dictators and craven presidents have never been able to do: to instill the continent with a sense of self-belief and historical narrative of which it can be proud, and thereby cast off those heavy shackles of colonialism." By the way, “Golazo!” means amazing goal!
Futebol Nation: The Story of Brazil through Soccerby David Goldblatt.
The World Cup returns to Brazil for the first time in 60 years and historian Goldblatt provides context for that nation’s singular contribution to the sport now known the world over as O Jogo Bonito—the Beautiful Game.
Why Soccer Mattersby Pelé.
The Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, and Joe DiMaggio of soccer, Brazilian Edson Arantes do Nascimento, aka Pelé, is certainly the one to represent the sport—three World Cup championships and the all-time scoring record, with 1,283 goals in his 20 year career. The book is organized by five World Cups beginning with 1950 (which Brazil lost) and continuing through to the current competition. It’s a singular and deft account of international football in the World Cup era. Pele, by the way, is often given credit for coining the phrase O Jogo Bonito—the Beautiful Game.
Yankees vs. Red Sox? Lakers vs. Celtics? Cubs vs. Cardinals? If you think these are the greatest sports rivalries, guess again. Apparently, two Spanish soccer teams claim that distinction. Spanish soccer expert and historian Lowe covers 100 years of that rivalry and, as seems to obtain in most intense competitions, it is never just about the game.
The Country of Football: Soccer and the Making of Modern Brazil by Roger Kittleson.
Jacques Barzun might have transposed his observation about the United States and baseball—”Whomever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball”—to apply to Brazil and soccer. Roger Kittleson details the inextricable link between the sport and Brazil’s historical development in this well researched account. It remains to be addressed why all the sports news about soccer is about the big money franchises in Britain (Arsenal et al) and Spain (Real Madrid).
Dave Zirin (People’s History of Sports in the United States, Welcome to the Terrordome) is an astute sports observer who dependably provides an incisive critique of the blather and cliché obscuring the financial underpinnings of almost all organized sports. In his new opus, Zirin travels throughout Brazil shedding light on why ordinary Brazilians are holding the country’s biggest protest marches in decades about the supposed benefits of hosting the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.
Given its broad international popularity, soccer is a natural prism with which to view and theorize about contemporary social and political developments. Foer expiates: “Compare European soccer with American sporting teams. Our teams represent such broad geographic areas, and don't really represent anything local. What truly differentiates a Yankees from a Mets fan? I'm not sure. But in Buenos Aires, everyone knows what separates a Boca Juniors fan from a River Plate fan—there's a stark difference in class. Buenos Aires has something like eight different teams, so each team represents a distinct neighborhood, and when you represent something that local, you're representing very particular identities—class, ethnicity.”
Among the Thugsby Bill Buford.
There is a truism bandied about that more people like to read about baseball than watch it. Perhaps that’s true of soccer as well, especially as there are long stretches during matches when men in shorts are running willy-nilly around a field. In addition to the above-mentioned classic by Eduardo Galeano, Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs rates mention as Buford gives a smart account of the sociopathic underclass that afflicts soccer (at least in England). Here are some excerpts (PDF).
4-2by David Thomson
Cineaste and cultural observer David Thomson (A Biographical Dictionary of Film) wrote this minor classic about the 1966 World Cup football final between England and West Germany and in his inimitable style chronicles two hours of that event all the while weaving in digressions, jokes, personal history, and the historical context of the mid ’60s. Thomson is one of those gifted writers who make any subject that they choose to pick up lively and instructive.