The Global Game – Writers on Soccer. Edited by John Turnbull, Thom Satterlee & Alon Raab. Bison Books. 296 pp. $19.95.
Living in the States, you are about as likely to find a good book about soccer/football right off the shelf at your local bookstore as you are to get Anne Hathaway’s phone number after bumping into her at your local pub.
Odds are if you want to read up about the beautiful game in long form, the internet and/or special ordering will likely enter into your acquisition process.
If a friend hadn’t shoved a tattered copy of Fever Pitch into my hands some years ago, I might not have known that good football writing was ever compiled and bound into anything longer than a few pages of magazine or internet article.
But once I’d thoroughly ingested Hornby’s book, I optimistically kept scanning the sports sections of my local bookstores, figuring something equally good might pop up to slake my literary football thirst.
And the other day I found a fresh fountain of quality. No amazon.com needed.
Nestled in between Beckham’s “autobiography” and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Rock Climbing, I found a true gem: The Global Game – Writers on Soccer.
As the title suggests, it’s a compilation of short pieces from a variety of lovers of the sport. I quickly found the table of contents and scanned for recognizable names. Alas, I didn’t know any of the writers from the entire first part (1 of 5). The early pains of disheartenment took hold of my bookwormish enthusiasm. Was this worth getting? But as I flipped to the rundown of part 2, there were two entries that sealed my decision to buy the thing:
1.) A piece by one Elvis Costello entitled “Fretting while the Scarlet Tide Make History”… Was this one of my all-time favorite musicians commentating on my all-time favorite football club, Liverpool FC?? Costello is a famous Reds supporter. It had to be.
2.) A piece by one Charles Simic entitled “Dead Radio”… I was blessed with the great opportunity of studying poetry with Mr Simic when I was at university several years ago. I never realized we shared a love for the beautiful game until seeing his name in the table of contents of this book. I was understandably intrigued and eager to read my old mentor’s words on the subject.
Further perusal revealed pieces by Günter Grass, Ted Hughes, Gay Talese and Mario Vargas Llosa. And there were plenty of interesting titles from writers I’d never heard of as well, like: “Zidane and Me”.
Arranging myself in coffee shop with a cup of tea and my new find, I quickly flipped to Elvis Costello’s article. I’d never read his prose and I was interested to see if The Scarlet Tide referred to Liverpool FC. It did.
The piece is Costello’s description of trying to keep up with the eventful 2005 Istanbul Final while preparing for an immovable gig at the University of East Anglia. Like his best lyrics, his prose is crisp and poignant. We are there with him in a university common room as the anxiety of watching his beloved Liverpool go down 3-0 to Milan in the first half is too much and he almost starts the gig early, but Liverpool’s second half goals reinstated his belief. Still, by the time the penalty kicks began, he was into his set: “I tried my best to keep my eyes from the TV screen over the bar at the back of the room, but the words ‘Oh s***, he’s missed’ might have accidentally crept into the lyrics of ‘Good Year for the Roses.'”
He ends by mulling on the famous Bill Shankly quote (“Football isn’t a matter of life and death. It’s much more important than that”), and on the Heysel (“a shameful night in Belgium twenty years ago”) and Hillsborough disasters (“Some of those crimes were committed with words in newsprint, and they should never be forgotten or forgiven.”) Costello touches upon the tragedies briefly, yet the words are so measured and weighted, they sink deep despite (or perhaps because of) their brevity.
Speaking of brevity, Simic, a master of simple, beautiful prose, provides a short, satisfying recount of trying to listen to the 1950 World Cup match between his Yugoslavia and Brazil in his piece “Dead Radio”. Simic was 12 years old when Yugoslavia beat Mexico and Switzerland in the group stage before facing the host nation. But he had to sneak a listen:
“The games were broadcast past my bedtime, so officially I was supposed to be in bed and not huddled in our dark living room listening to the radio with the sound turned way down. My mother had absolutely no interest in football. When neighbors ran into the street shouting because of some great victory or threw their radios out of windows because their team had lost, she went around demanding what was wrong with everybody.”
Simic pretended to sleep and then sneaked to the radio for a listen. But it suddenly went dead. “I sat for a long, long time with my ear against a dead radio hoping for a miracle.” None came.
As with his poetry, Simic has the ability to pack almost the entire history of the world into any line about everyday life. The next day when he sees the newspaper headline of the match outcome: “What I saw shocked me as much as seeing a pile of rubble after a bombing raid where a building used to stand.” A refugee of the bombing of Belgrade from both sides in World War II, Simic knows this feeling well and how to use it to recreate the devastation a 12 year-old boy felt seeing that Brazil had beaten Yugoslavia 2-0.
These two are the gems of the heap for me. But the book is pregnant with fine writing throughout. “Zidane and Me” by Swiss author Phillipe Dubath, is written as a letter to the narrator’s wife, trying to explain the zest of football. It is full of brilliant, precise lines like: “They’re millionaires, but they pass the ball to each other just like the naked children of Africa’s bare fields.”
Günter Grass takes on the persona of Günter Guillaume who was jailed in 1974 (also the title of the piece) after being exposed as an East German spy. In prison, Grass’s Guillaume is allowed to watch Germany v Germany in the World Cup. But is tormented over who to root for and how to feel when the goal is scored.
There’s plenty more. But this piece has already burst well past its projected 500 words.
This wonderful book is testament to the beauty of our game. A world of aesthetically pleasing football has inspired a world of beautiful writing. Covering the simplest moments in everyday watching to the heavier political and social attachments that come with a sport which is so intrinsic to life in much of the world.
If you can find a copy of The Global Game at your local bookstore, scoop it up. Otherwise, it’s worth taking the other, electronic avenues in order to get a hold of it.
Meanwhile, I’m off to the pub to read some more and hope that Ms Hathaway wanders in. Hopefully before she wins her first Oscar. Then I feel she may be out of my league.