I'm not a huge soccer fan, but I enjoy reading about the sport. So I'll be following the World Cup after boning up by re-reading through these six soccer books, all of which I strongly recommend for both the sport's fans, and those mystified by its popularity.
"More Than Just a Game" by Chuck Korr and Marvin Close
Finally available in the United States, this is a must-read for this year's World Cup. It tells the inspiring story of how the political prisoners on South Africa's notorious Robben Island during apartheid honed their negotiating and leadership skills in demanding sports that had been banned in the prison. Soccer was the most noteworthy but other sports included tennis and a Robben Island Olympics, with Nelson Mandela and current South Africa president Jacob Zuma taking part. This is a book about sport's importance to South Africa's history, and to the human condition in general.
'"Africa United" by Steve Bloomfield.
Bloomfield, a correspondent in Africa for many years, uses soccer as a hook for a lively and engaging look at African politics and recent history. This is as much about Africa as it is about soccer (though there is certainly plenty soccer) and it's a great way to get an essential education on the continent.
"Among the Thugs" by Bill Buford.
Buford embedded himself with soccer hooligans for a fascinating, occasionally comic and often disturbing portrait of hooligans' violent culture. As Buford writes of life among these fans, "It was, I see now on reflection, not unlike alcohol or tobacco: disgusting, at first; pleasurable, with effort; addictive, over time. And perhaps, in the end, a little self-destroying.'' This is reporting and sportswriting at its absolute finest.
"The Miracle of Castel di Sangro" by Joe McGinniss.
In 1994, McGinnis (the author of "Fatal Vision'' and "The Last Brother'') moved to the small town of Castel di Sangro in one of Italy's poorest regions, where the local soccer team had improbably risen to the second highest league in Italy. McGinniss spends a season with the team and spins an incredible story of passion, death, local mafia and wild twists that I won't ruin by revealing here. This is one of my favorite sports books (and travel books) of all time.
"How Soccer Explains the World" by Franklin Foer.
I couldn't put this book down though, as I've written before, a more accurate title would be "How the World Explains Soccer.'' It's a tremendously entertaining, sometimes funny and always insightful trip through the world of soccer and just about everything it touches, including religion, capitalism, hooligans, pride, passion and identity.
"Soccer Against the Enemy" by Simon Kuper
Kuper wrote this book after touring the world for soccer stories in the early '90s. While he acknowledges in the foreword to this newly released edition that much of the soccer world has changed since then, the book is worth the cover price just for the insane chapter on the East German fan who was persecuted by the government and the secret police for rooting for a West Berlin team.