The Book about the Beautiful Game

July 11, 2010 § Leave a comment

The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup (Matt Weiland & Sean Wilsey, ed.)

My obsession with soccer comes into bloom only once every four years, but when it does blossom, for a brief period – in the months of June and July of even-numbered non-leap years, like clockwork – it overshadows everything else in my life. And then, one day,  it ends, and always as anticlimax, leaving me with a vast, empty hopelessness, irrespective of who has won. Immediately thereafter, my mania begins to flag, and gradually, over the next few days, it wilts and withers away into nothingness, but it doesn’t die; it merely waits with a sly, subterranean patience for four long years to pass, and then, when the time is ripe, and there is that familiar expectant buzz in the air, the buds of excitement poke out overground again.

It was during the last great flowering, during Germany 2006, that I had acquired this book, because it looked interesting and unconventional, but mainly because The Season was in full swing. Reading lists being what they are, the book then lay unread and half-buried on my “Miscellaneous” shelf, being hard to categorize into a genre, until I remembered its existence during South Africa 2010, started reading it just after Spain beat Paraguay to clinch the last semifinal slot, and finished it last night, hours before Spain meets Netherlands to decide the champion.

The Thinking Fan’s Guide is a set of 32 essays, one on each of the countries that made it to the finals of World Cup 2006, plus an epilogue that tries to analyze past data to predict what it takes to win the World Cup. Pretty standard fare, you’d think, for a book published with the specific intent of cashing in on World Cup fever – but here’s where this book distances itself from its more mundane competition.

The copious data provided does not focus on the performance of the soccer team in question, the star quality of its players, or the tactical nous of its coach (although it does touch upon some of that). There are no photographs, of players or WAGs,  for teenagers to gaze adoringly at. Instead, the book dwells on demographic, economic and political data of each country – infant mortality rates, internet connections per 1000 people, GDP per capita, military budget, main religions, and suchlike. The analysis in the epilogue attempts to comment, tongue only partially in cheek, on the kind of government – social democratic, communist, fascist, military junta, or neo-liberal – under which a country is most likely to do well at the World Cup.

The essays themselves are a dozen pages each or shorter, written by journalists and authors with an easy and breezy familiarity with the country they are introducing to us. They write with authority and love about the central political issues confronting the national identity of each country, whether it is mass emigration  (Mexico), immigration (Switzerland, Sweden), a recent split (Croatia, Serbia, Ukraine, Czech Republic), recent reunification (Germany), or other national preoccupations: civil war (Cote d’Ivoire, Angola), external war (Argentina), corruption, misgovernance and poverty (Tunisia, Paraguay, Ecuador), too much money (Saudi Arabia), and sex (France). There are a few essays where soccer is hardly mentioned (Togo, Portugal), one where the writer is more preoccupied with his own identity than that of the country (Iran), and my favourite one, about Spain, which, in large parts, is actually a detailed report of a Brazil/Italy game in Barcelona in 1982.

For all their tangentiality to soccer, some of the essays offer remarkable, almost philosophical, insights into the love of the sport. Henning Mankell says this, while writing about Angola:

“I am not speaking of soccer as political propaganda. It is simpler than that: if people play together on a soccer team they can hardly leave the game and wage war against each other. “

Paul Laity‘s meditations on Cote d’Ivoire include the following vignette:

“By itself soccer will never bring about national reconciliation (think of France’s World Cup winning team – so very immigré, so much the symbol of a trans-racial unity that has never come good). But it can lift spirits – and offer moments of truce and sociability”.

Robert Coover reminds us of Mario Vargas Llosa‘s splendidly evocative comment likening a goal to ‘an orgasm by which a player, a team, a stadium, a country, all of humanity suddenly discharges its vital energy.’ And here’s Coover again in the same essay, perceptively describing that extraordinary creature, the hardcore soccer fan,

 “…falling out of historical time and geographical space into a kind of ceremonial trance, timeless and centripetal, he does not seem a spectator so much as a participant in a sacramental rite…He has come, not to reflect or spectate or be entertained, but to participate, to surrender, to suffer.”

The final sentiment in that quote is note-worthy. There are millions to whom the passionate support of their national team at the World Cup means nothing more than the masochistic disappointment of defeat. Group identity is a tribal sentiment, a primeval craving for a sense of belonging, and a group is never more united than when devastated by complete defeat, and in collective mourning.  “Good soccer depends upon cooperation,” Mankell says. “In the same way, a country is rebuilt after a catastrophe.”  Misery loves company; conversely, a shared sense of misery leads to companionship, and it is only they who refuse to change sides purely for the sake of being on the winning one, who can call themselves true patriots, and true soccer fans.

As I read this book, I couldn’t help feeling wistful. Every World Cup since 1990, I have rooted noisily for Italy, and they have only once since (in 2006) failed to break my heart. It is better than not participating, I suppose, but I long to see an Indian team make it to the finals one day. What on earth will that take? I scanned the book for answers, but didn’t get too many. There are countries ruled by corrupt dictators, nations with tiny populations and miniscule GDPs, lands devastated by internecine war and places where a newborn child cannot expect to live beyond 40, countries that do not care much for soccer and consider it unmanly, or un-American, or un-Islamic – and they have all made it through the qualification stages successfully, and more than once. I cannot think of a single parameter – economic, demographic, social or political – that conclusively separates a traditional successful soccer nation, like Brazil, from one that has been disastrously unsuccessful, like India.

And so on to the key lesson of the World Cup, the main reason for its utter necessity and vital importance to mankind, is of course a tired old cliché, which is nevertheless worth repeating once in four years only because we forget it so often, delivered in this book by Geoff Dyer in his piece about Serbia & Montenegro:

“…the old lesson of travel and of the World Cup: people are pretty much the same the world over.”


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