Soccer and the Literary Imagination

(Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)

The point when I knew soccer had me for good came late in 2012. I was watching a playoff game between the New York Red Bulls, the MLS team that I support, and their rivals, DC United. This was how it went: DC goalkeeper Bill Hamid clipped Red Bulls striker Kenny Cooper, and was immediately red-carded. His substitute, Joe Willis, had the unenviable task of having to defend against a penalty kick immediately after entering the game. Cooper ran towards the ball, took a stutter-step, and knocked the ball in. The Red Bulls seemed to be setting themselves up to advance. And then the goal was called back: several of Cooper’s teammates had crossed the goal line before he had made contact with the ball. Cooper readied himself again. Again, he made with the stutter-step. This time, the ball was saved. Shortly thereafter, Red Bulls defender Rafa Marquez incurred a red card. Shortly thereafter, DC United’s Nick DeLeon scored. During one of these plays–I’m pretty sure it was Marquez’s red card–I wanted nothing more than to throw my head back and let lose with a primal scream of denial.

This would have been perfectly acceptable had I been at the stadium, or even at a soccer bar. Unfortunately, I was in a plane in the midst of a cross-country flight, where cries of existential despair are generally associated with emergencies and horrific actions, as opposed to sports-related frustration. That I had to restrain myself was a prime indicator that this was a sport that had left its mark on me, and was unlikely to relent. A friend of mine did contend, however, that had I been subdued by air marshals due to my reaction to the game, the aftermath would have been amazing press for Major League Soccer. This may be true, but I have no desire to find out for sure.

Part of what I love about soccer is the unceasing flow of it. The best soccer games can be read like compelling fiction: things accelerate slowly; momentum builds; a rhythm becomes hypnotic. Sometimes that accumulated tension pays off and the result is a feeling of elation, a heroic last-second play that shifts fortunes and creates heroes. And sometimes there is only existential despair. Or, perhaps, its cruder form: realizing you’ve been shouting profanely and incoherently as your team of choice tries valiantly to draw things even, and fails. Last year, when I interviewed the great Israeli writer Etgar Keret, I felt compelled to bring up soccer in a few questions. “With soccer, it’s very much like life,” he told me. “It’s not always that the good guys win.”

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Translating soccer onto the page can take many forms. Eduardo Galeano’s acclaimed Soccer in Sun and Shadow turns the sport’s history into evocative prose poetry. David Peace’s stunning novel Red or Dead, about longtime Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, uses the book’s sprawling length to do stunning things with the cumulative effect of repetition–it made me feel any number of positive feelings about Liverpool, and I’m a Tottenham supporter with a lingering fondness for Everton. In his introduction to Martin King and Martin Knight’s memoir of soccer violence, Hoolifan: 30 Years of Hurt, novelist John King likens their work to “the better crime books.”

Juan Villoro’s God is Round takes an all-encompassing approach, finding a welcome overlap between writing as soccer as metaphor and writing about soccer for the sake of writing about soccer. “This book combines a passion for literature and a passion for football,” he writes in its opening pages. It also acts as a kind of syllabus, with references throughout to notable works about soccer. (And notable literary works, period–there’s also a reference to Álvaro Enrigue’s historically sprawling, experimentally structured novel about tennis and colonialism, Sudden Death to be found in these pages.) Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization, Nelson Rodrigues’s A Sombra Das Chuteiras Imortais, and Pete Davies’s All Played Out are all mentioned, along with quotes and observations from the likes of Javier Mariás and Adolfo Bioy Casares, and at times the effect of Villoro’s book can feel like the distillation of several decades’ worth of great soccer writing, filtered through a broader literary lens. And that hearkens to a kind of tradition, too: the effect that books as disparate as Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch and John King’s The Football Factory have had in drawing people to the sport.

Villoro occasionally takes in soccer in explicitly literary terms: what begins as musing on why soccer players spit gradually turns into a meditation on the way that games are paced, and on the ways in which certain players are able to manipulate this to their advantage. It’s an observation that will resonate most with anyone with an equal passion for the written word and the beautiful game.

Certain geniuses of the game, like Butragueño and Valderrama, are able to slow the ball down, putting the clock in parenthesis; others, like Xavi and Andrés Iniesta, pile up comma after comma to create serial subordinate clauses.

There’s also a structural wit afoot here: the final section of God is Round consists of short essays on notable players throughout history. Villoro closes one such piece, on a giant of Brazilian soccer, with the sentence “No one will call themselves Ronaldo again.” It’s followed by the next piece in the section, titled “A Diatribe Against Cristiano Ronaldo,” which lands with an echo and a wink. Very early, Villoro cites a moment from Ken Loach’s film Looking for Eric in which Eric Cantona deems an assist to be the highlight of his playing career. “What an eloquent way of making the point that football is nothing without one’s teammates,” Villoro writes–and for all that he zeroes in on individual achievement here, he also regularly places it in the larger context of how specific teams have performed. Which in turn is echoed by the way Villoro invokes others who have written about soccer: just like the game they follow, the process of turning it into art is a team effort.

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There’s a bitter sweet echo of Keret’s thoughts on soccer to be found when Villoro writes about his own experiences watching the Mexican men’s national soccer team. “Though I shouldn’t shout about it,” he writes, “defeat suits me.” As a supporter of the USMNT, described accurately in one recent article as “an okay-to-good international team,” this is something that I can relate to very, very much. Attempting to comprehend global soccer as someone who grew up watching league sports where the United States was the pre-eminent world league threw me off for many years: with soccer, you have a host of eminent club leagues, and even more with a host of notable teams and an abundance of more mediocre ones. Throw in the fact that a player might be fantastic in one league and less imposing in another–Roberto Soldado’s stints in the Premier League and La Liga come to mind, but then, I’m a Tottenham Hotspur supporter–and you have even more bewilderment.

Villoro ends his book on a decidedly contemporary note, invoking the title of Henry Miller’s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare to describe the prospect of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. He also notes that “[i]n 2015, for the first time in history the U.S. did something exemplary in the world of football.” He is, of course, talking about the FBI’s investigation and prosecution of assorted CONCACAF officials. (As this observation might indicate, Villoro focuses entirely on men’s soccer in his book.) It’s an understandable point of conclusion, though it’s also one that tethers a fairly timeless set of observations about the sport to a very particular moment in that sport’s history. Or perhaps it’s evidence of something cyclical about it: the idea that, just as particular moments in the game can haunt us and make us cheer or cry out, so can the triumphs and moral failings of those who govern it. Regardless, in making this book that invokes so much noteworthy writing on the subject, Villoro has created something that can sit well beside all of it.

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Tobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn. His short story collection Transitory will be published by Civil Coping Mechanisms in August.