As a quadrennial sporting event, the World Cup has a single rival: the Summer Olympics. But while the Olympics are bewilderingly diverse and often numbingly tedious (curling, triple jump, water polo . . .), the World Cup is a spectacle ferociously preoccupied with two things: soccer and national glory. For Americans, the event can seem as remote as an East Coast snowstorm to a sunbaked Californian, but in fact the U.S. is not only becoming a factor in the competition itself (we made the quarter finals in 2002 and are actually ranked fifth in the world now); we are also as a growing part of the audience. The question is: What to make of the spectacle if you didn’t grow up with the sport but don’t want to feel left out of a global obsession?
For those who don’t know much about the World Cup but feel they ought to, help is on the way — sort of. The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup is a collection of 32 essays on the 32 countries taking part in this year’s competition, the festival of soccer that runs from June 9 to July 9 and will be staged in various stadia across Germany. The book includes a preface, an introduction and an afterword, along with statistics covering everything from the results of past tournaments to Economist-style tables ranking the 32 participants on such social indicators as their literacy rate and (an oddly Soviet touch) the number of tractors per million people.
What all this has to do with soccer exactly is a bit of a mystery, but then this is a book pointed squarely at an unusually indifferent market, soccer-wise: the United States. For, as Dave Eggers notes in his piece on the U.S., until America actually wins the World Cup, the sport will receive only “the grudging acknowledgement of the general populace.” In any case, he adds, do we “really want — or can we conceive of — an America where soccer enjoys wide popularity or even respect? If you were soccer, the sport of kings, would you want the adulation of a people who elected Bush and Cheney, not once but twice? You would not. You would rather return to your roots, communist or otherwise, and fight fascism with your feet.”
Oh, dear. I thought polo was the sport of kings — or archery, or cricket, or something. Soccer, historically, is a working-class game that despite rising ticket prices and creeping gentrification continues to thrive on working-class fanaticism and support the world over. But since Americans generally prefer to watch baseball, basketball, football, golf and, er, poker, the American liberal intellectual has rushed in to fill the breach. Hence this learned tome aimed at “thinking” fans for whom soccer is apparently akin to an obscure branch of foreign cinema. Something not only to enjoy but to pride yourself on enjoying. And if a majority of Americans enjoyed it (or even paid attention to it), where would be the pride? It’s a status thing, you see.
Fortunately, the anti-American put-downs that stretch from the opening paragraph of co-editor Sean Wilsey’s introduction to Eggers’ climactic call to arms, or rather, feet — the essays are arranged alphabetically, so the entry on the U.S. comes last — aren’t enough to spoil a good read. Still, you have to wonder about a co-editor who, as an illustration of “irritating fans,” cites the chant “USA! USA! USA!” Yes, of course this can be annoying if the patriotism of your own countrymen embarrasses you, but he might at least have cited the legions of fans in Europe and elsewhere who are thuggish, racist (they make monkey noises at black players) and even murderous. And you really have to wonder when he states that one can only watch live soccer in America on Spanish-language television stations. This massive blooper suggests that he not only failed to notice that every game of the last World Cup was broadcast in English (as well as Spanish) without commercial interruption, but that he is completely unaware of ESPN2, which shows UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) Champions League matches live, and Fox Sports World, which shows hundreds of top-flight English, French and Italian soccer matches year-round, not to mention our own MLS. Does Wilsey actually watch soccer, or just pen self-regarding essays about it?
But then, this is really a book about countries as much as it is about soccer, or football as it’s known in parts elsewhere. In this, it mirrors the American intellectual’s view of the competition, in which it is defined as a cultural event as much as a sporting one, which in a way it is. One certainly wouldn’t read the book to get a sense of which country might win this year’s Cup. For instance, Tom Vanderbilt’s essay about Holland has plenty to say about the Dutch but nothing about this year’s team. (They have never won the World Cup, but have made the final twice and fielded some of the greatest sides.) Eric Schlosser, writing on Sweden, offers thoughts on the nation’s prison system. (Admittedly, the Swedes play the most boring soccer on the planet, but still . . .) In his essay on Serbia and Montenegro, British novelist Geoff Dyer notes the number of traffic jams in Belgrade, concludes that “something in the Serb soul craves gridlock,” and then asks: “How does this translate into football? Packing the midfield?” Er, your guess is as good as mine, Geoff. All I know is that when England plays its opening match, Dyer’s countrymen aren’t going to be indulging in mental doodling, they’re going to be yelling and screaming and urging their team on in front of millions of television sets. The Serbs, too. It may seem like a cultural event now, but it certainly won’t then.
The most successful essays dwell on culture and soccer, or even just the latter. Novelist Robert Coover donates a loving essay on the 1982 competition, which was held in Spain, and the now legendary encounter (or tragedy) between Brazil and Italy, which Italy won 3-2. Naturally, though, it was Brazil that won Coover’s (and the world’s) heart. “The ball seemed to glide, whispering, between their feet like the marker on a Ouija board, as though it had a spirit of its own,” he writes. Having seen that magical but unsuccessful team, I can attest that, though he may be exaggerating — exaggeration is intrinsic to sports writing — his description is poetically accurate.
Tim Parks’ essay on Italy — specifically, the match between Italy and Nigeria in the ’94 World Cup — is a small masterpiece encompassing sex, football, family life, Italian life, summer life, beach life, nationalism, racism, the absurdity of sportscasters and the actual outcome of one particular game. (Italy scraped through, 2-1.) But then, as a novelist, travel writer and author of a book about the sport (A Season with Verona), Parks is ideally equipped for the task at hand. His essay alone is worth the price of admission, and other readers will doubtless discover their own favorites. In any case, you probably won’t want to read all of them, at least not straight through, any more than you’d want to watch every match of the competition itself. But the book’s menu, like the competition, is rich and varied.
THE THINKING FAN’S GUIDE TO THE WORLD CUP | Edited by MATT WEILAND and SEAN WILSEY | Harper Perennial | 416 pages | $15 hardcover