Literary Football, Or The Big Words Of The World Cup

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It's often said that some sports yoink better literary efforts than others: football (and, on underappreciated occasions, basketball) pulled forth some of Hunter S. Thompson's best eyes and sharpest words; when he gives a damn, Bill Simmons can still evoke a basketball player brilliantly; and there is no truer truism than that baseball's lack of a clock affords the opportunity for great minds to produce great literature. With four years to prepare, it's not much of a surprise that a lot of pretty great writers have have geared up to address themselves to this year's World Cup, and now that we’re running out of games, we've got a little bit of extra time to read. Here is some of the stuff you should be passing your eyes over, many of which appeared in our non-sportingest journals.

Predictably, a competitive event between countries, occurring but once every four years, turns many a writer's mind to history, and nationalism. In the pages of Harper's, Simon Kuper argues that real nationalism, as indexed by the World Cup, is on the decline. For Kuper, since the first world cup, in 1930, teams were "the nation made flesh—more alive than the flag, less individual than the queen, more tangible than the gross domestic product." Since around 2006, though, he sees an increasing "carnival nationalism," based around displaying self-selected, more or less agreeable national stereotypes, and even an element of choice in who to root for. This "carnival nationalism" he says, appears to be replacing actual nationalism, which he suggests "may be nearing the end of its run." Israel and Palestine, he notes, both root for Brazil.

Speaking of Palestine, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Karl Sharro uses soccer to illustrate the Arab world and vice versa:

Rather than supporting the national team, the Lebanese pick strong teams like Brazil and Germany through which to channel their passion for football. This combines two of the favorite Lebanese pastimes: football and proxy wars.

In the London Review of Books, John Lanchester unveils a corrosive cynicism, and apotheosizes the English tendency toward being very, very angry at and disappointed with the team and its history:

The time England pissed away a one-goal lead and a one-man advantage over Brazil—which one was that? The one where Beckham got sent off—was that the same one or the one before? The one where England's overpaid, overhyped, chronically underperforming alleged 'golden generation' chronically underperformed—was that 2002, 2006 or 2010? Oh no, wait, that's easy: it was all of them.

For Lanchester, the pivotal year was 2002, when "the thing that started to kill it for me was the refereeing. [...] Suffice it to say that a lot of very fishy things happened on the field in 2002." He yokes this turn away from the sport to FIFA's stunningly well documented corruption (hi, Qatar) off the pitch, whether or not the refereeing is or is not crooked, and reminds us that the literal cost of hosting a World Cup in Qatar is, so far, 1,200 construction workers dead. He concludes: "Perhaps one day we'll get football back from its rulers." Perhaps.

Unless and until that happens, maybe we're better off focusing on the game, and those who play and watch it. Pro player Bobby Warshaw proves himself a gifted evoker of the technical aspects of the game, and teaches us that the USMNT’s Kyle Beckerman once "yelled at me for 90 minutes "Hey young cock. Who are you? I dont [sic] even know your name young cock."

On the Harper's blog, Chris Feliciano Arnold does a nice job of defusing the noxious nationalism that attends the games by closely observing the way the game is received in Brazil's third-largest city. Alma Guillermoprieto files from Bogotá, hailing this as "the best World Cup ever," and hopes that the unpredictability and brute possibilities manifested in these games will foreshadow other unexpected, heartening outcomes in Columbia's peace process. (Four years ago, she detailed her experiences with the 1986 World Cup, the one where Maradona singlehandedly beat England 2-1, including what Simon Kuper called "possibly the best goal ever scored in a World Cup."

Charles Simic spins a tale of obsession over the sixteen World Cups he's watched, and finds himself as incapable of escaping history as the rest of us: "Who named a talented young midfielder from Costa Rica after Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin, the ineffective and frequently drunk former Russian president?" At the Pacific Standard, Dave Zirin offers up a welcome bit of hagiography on the topic of Socrates, the player/activist who captained Brazil's side in 1982, the same year (West) Germany fucked Algeria out of the knockout round by lying down in a game against Austria. Pauls Toutonghi knits soccer and nation together to show how what we do and where we're from can fuck us up, in probably the only piece that crucially involved Latvia's 2012 attempt to qualify for the Cup. Maybe focusing on the game won't entirely free us from history.

But some will, of course, try. At the New Republic, Luke Dempsey tries to watch every game, and manages to do so only slightly encumbered by everyday life: after watching a pile of games, he returns to the world.

The dog seemed hungry so I fed him; there were two new cats in the barn, I don't know where they came from. Despite the promise I make to myself every day to not do so, I've aged. I imagine there's a mountain of dishes in the sink; the lawn is up to my knees; it's no longer spring but summer.

The best thing I've read so far was by Simon Critchley, in the New York Review of Books blog. There, he blends almost everything together: English rage, lightly observed national stereotypes, hope and joy and wincing acceptance of loss, firmly held tactical opinions, an assessment of the game's changes since around 1970, spiky observations of this tournament's games, picking teams to root for on the fly, and a lot of the other things that make spectating pleasing. One little chunk will suffice, but you should read the whole thing:

the writing was already on the wall for England: the lumbering style, the tactical cluelessness, the headless-chicken panic that sets in whenever the opposition gets the ball and dares to cross it into the penalty box, the porous, fragile defense, and the attempt to do the same thing in a kind of slow motion, over and over again and failing (Glen Johnson has two faults as a defender: one is that he can’t defend. His other fault is that he can’t attack either). But still, when I took the subway to watch the game with my pal Liam against Italy on June 14, my heart was full of hope.

Even if you don't like it, you can take a cue from Jorge Luis Borges, who was trapped in an office with soccer fans when he knew nothing about the game:

I said I knew absolutely nothing about football. They told me that as we worked in the Boedo and San Juan area, I should say that I supported San Lorenzo de Almagro. I learned that by heart...but I noticed that San Lorenzo de Almagro almost never won. So I talked with them and they said, no, the fact of winning or losing was secondary—and they were right—but San Lorenzo was the most 'scientific' team of all...they didn't know how to win, but lost methodically.

The games mean a lot right now, but there aren't so many of them. You've got plenty of time to read. Enjoy this, it will be another four years before we can read like this again.

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