And so, the madness is almost upon us. In a matter of weeks, the entire world will have its eyes turned to the southern end of the African continent. Wars will stop. Businesses will shutter. Divisions will momentarily heal as people from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe suddenly recall their oneness as they watch the best soccer players in the world vie for the crown of World Cup Champions. In celebration, I’d like to offer my list of the best books on the sport, the phenomenon, and the lives that revolve around that ball almost as surely as the earth goes around the sun. For anyone who needs to be reminded why we love this game, here a few titles:
Yes, there are thugs, and yes this is not so much a book about soccer as about its fans—and British ones in particular. But Bill Buford’s frontline report on British hooliganism in the 1980s paints a humorous, insightful and sometimes painful look at the world of football supporters whose passion is transformed into something else. At times both hilarious and terrifying, Among the Thugs is ultimately an exploration of the “raw terrible power” that exists within each crowd, such as those that will be gathering to watch their teams play in South Africa
In 1996, Joe McGinniss was bitten by the soccer bug, and flew to Italy where he planned to follow a team from the hardscrabble mountain town of Castel di Sangro, which had just been bumped into Serie B. McGinniss is a brilliant writer and he somehow captures the thrill and tension of that season, in which all the team’s and the town’s hopes are pinned on its unlikely charge for the top.
Before he was a household name as the wry and tender chronicler of our aimless angst and our love of mix-tapes, Nick Hornby was an Arsenal fan. In this memoir, he tells a lifetime worth of stories about the games he’s been to and what they meant to him. At times, this can feel a bit exhaustive, but for serious fans of Hornby or soccer there are many rewards therein.
If soccer really is the world’s game, then this is the world’s book on it, with contributions in translation from Günter Grass, Antonia Skármeta, Mario Vargas Lhosa alongside English offerings by Ted Hughes, Charles Simic, Gay Talese and others. Together the pieces create a rich picture of how soccer is woven into the lives of people across the globe.
For more in that vein, Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano’s wonderful book is a poetic meditation on the history of the sport and his love of it, somewhat easier to digest that the 1,000 pages of the semi-official history, The Ball is Round. Galeano covers everything from soccer’s Chinese roots, to the colorful characters who have paraded across the field in so many World Cups, to how Nike beat Adidas.
This is the story of a team of refugee kids who came from all over the world–Congo, Kosovo, Libera, Afghanistan–to a little town outside Atlanta, Georgia where they found each other on a soccer field. Based on Warren St. John’s brilliant story in the New York Times about “the Fugees” it goes much more deeply into their attempt to find a place (and a life) in America, and how their coach and the sport helped them do that.
Obviously, many of these books are about soccer, but their true subject is the world, and Franklin Foer’s book is no exception. Perhaps the most ambitious and wide-ranging of all, Foer travels across (mostly) Europe, and uses the sport as a way to explain everything from the rise of the new oligarchs to the implications of migration to how we construct the identities at the core of our lives and our teams.