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Monday, March 29, 2010
Word Cup: Best soccer books

By Roger Bennett
Special to

Frank Lampard's biography didn't quite make our list of best soccer books.

Occasional jailbird and reckless Newcastle United midfielder Joey Barton famously ridiculed England soccer stars Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard for rushing to release competing autobiographies in the wake of the 2006 World Cup. "England did nothing in that World Cup, so why were they bringing books out? 'We got beat in the quarterfinals. I played like s---. Here's my book.'"

Whatever one thinks of Barton as a soccer player and human being, his instincts as a literary critic were right on. These books were so poorly crafted, it was as if they were intended for the remainder bin, or in Cole's case, the shredder. To be fair, soccer is a tough sport to capture with the written word. There are only so many times one can herald a goal as "sublime" or attach the adjective "flair" to describe the Brazilians.

Frank Foer, editor of The New Republic and author of the admirable "How Soccer Explains the World," captured the essence of the soccer-writing challenge in a recent interview. "It's not such a simple game," he said. "Those who understand tactics can't often write. And those who can write don't usually grasp tactics. Language struggles to capture the complicated happenings on the pitch. So we should demand that the game's writers be, well, good writers."

Foer has met the challenge by coaxing novelist and National Book Awards finalist Aleksandar Hemon to be the magazine's soccer columnist. (You can check out his maiden effort here.) Yet Hemon is not alone. Since Nick Hornby bravely fused soccer writing and intelligence with "Fever Pitch" in 1992, an ocean of remarkable soccer writing has materialized, the best of which stretches the sport beyond the boundaries of the field to tell tales that are provocative and human.

Below is a list of the best soccer writing I have encountered during the past four years spent researching my own World Cup tome, the "ESPN World Cup Companion." I had intended to list just 10, but in truth, there is enough brilliant stuff out there to sink a Kindle, so I have presented 10 categories instead. The authors may not play left back like Cole, but they thankfully can put a pen to better use than the England star. If you immerse yourself in a couple of these volumes, the next 70-something days until kickoff are guaranteed to fly by.

1. The bible

"The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer" (2008) by David Goldblatt is more a monumental achievement than a book. A precisely written, 992-page cultural history of soccer, a little bit like Bill Simmons' colossus "The Book of Basketball" but without the sense of humor. Reading it is like running a marathon -- a test of human stamina and endurance that is uniquely rewarding at the finish.

2. The English language

"The Glory Game" (1972) by Hunter Davies is the "Ball Four" of soccer. A classic fly-on-the-dressing-room-wall piece of reportage in which the English journalist was granted all-areas access to a season with Tottenham Hotspur. Radical in its day, the book is savagely dated, yet that is its delight. It offers an opportunity to appreciate just how fast the sport has changed in a relatively short time. A series of appendices revel in the minutiae of the players' humble social backgrounds, economic realities (most earn 200 pounds a week and live in 20,000-pound houses) and superstitions (England striker Martin Chivers: "I don't have any lucky signs except my teeth. Sometimes I play with them in and sometimes out, but I can't decide which brings best luck.")

Reading this book back-to-back with "Broken Dreams: Vanity, Greed and the Souring of British Football" (2003) by Tom Bower is akin to leaving a sauna and leaping straight into a freezing plunge pool. "Broken Dreams" is an investigative masterpiece of forensic accounting that details the siphoning of cash at the heart of today's English Premier League. The portrait of current Spurs manager Harry Redknapp is particularly unflattering. Read it and weep.

3. Brazilians waxing lyrical

Brazilian soccer great Garrincha during the 1981 Carnival parade in Rio de Janeiro, one of his last public appearances.

"Garrincha: The Triumph & Tragedy of Brazil's Forgotten Footballing Hero" (2005) by Ruy Castro is an emotionally laden retelling of the glory days of 1950s and 1960s Brazilian soccer through the life of its sad star, Garrincha. The tiny forward who won the World Cup twice was a maestro on the field yet a human wreck off it. He lost his virginity to a goat, sired at least 14 children with a handful of women and died drunken and destitute at age 49 -- a tabloid life lived long before tabloids had been invented. If that sounds too depressing, "Futebol: Soccer, the Brazilian Way" (2002) by Alex Bellos is a broader journey through the passion and corruption that stems from Brazil's unique obsession with the game.

4. Better than Dante ...

Italian soccer cries out for a singular volume, though a couple of books make for entertaining reading. Joe McGinniss' "The Miracle of Castel di Sangro" (1999), a ripping yarn spun from the point of view of a gratingly ignorant American journalist, provides a rare glimpse into the rituals and rhythms of the lower Italian leagues. "Winning at All Costs: A Scandalous History of Italian Soccer" (2007) by John Foot (also published as "Calcio: A History of Italian Football") is a comprehensive recounting of the emotional history of the sport in Italy. The book arguably needs a good editor but is worth reading for its synopsis of scandals alone.

5. The Cruyff (page) turn

Because Dutch soccer is creative and self-destructive in equal measure, it is the perfect muse for great writing. David Winner handles it magnificently in "Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football" (2000), an articulate investigation into the dazzling, political and sophisticated culture of Dutch soccer. Simon Kuper's "Ajax, the Dutch, the War: Football in Europe During the Second World War" (2003) is a piercing read and the finest act of soccer storytelling I have encountered.

6. The bard

Maybe Maradona will update his book if he coaches Argentina to the 2010 World Cup title.

Soccer autobiographies are a notoriously haphazard genre, typically fudging the big issues or favoring the synthetic voice of the ghost writer over that of the "author." "El Diego: The Autobiography of the World's Greatest Footballer" (2005) by Diego Maradona may be fuzzy on some of the controversial issues, but the translation (by the Guardian's underused ace, Marcela Mora y Araujo) captures his snappy vernacular and makes it a buzz to read.

7. A bout of Africa

Ian Hawkey's "Feet of the Chameleon" (2009) is a textured examination of African soccer culture, celebrating the continent's rise while detailing the dark side of superstition and corruption. The obsession the various ruling authorities have with non-African coaches makes for illuminating reading in the wake of Sven-Goran Eriksson's hire by Ivory Coast, but the standout chapter relives the organization of a clandestine Algerian team by independence fighters ahead of the 1958 World Cup. The National Liberation Front of Algeria was able to persuade a slew of Algerian-born soccer stars to abandon their French careers, salaries and, in some cases, families to barnstorm the world in the name of Algerian freedom. If the 2010 Algerian squad can summon half of the passion of their predecessors, the U.S. and England may find themselves in trouble.

8. Total football

Frank Foer's orgy of soccer narrative, "How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization" (2004) was rightfully lauded in the United States, but its poorly named predecessor, "Soccer Against the Enemy" (1994) by Simon Kuper, was a genre-groundbreaking tome upon its release a decade earlier. Kuper, now of the Financial Times, delighted in exploring the global manifestations of the sport long before the Internet and cable made it easily accessible. His terse writing still reads well, and the chapter on the machinations of the Argentine military junta ahead of the 1978 World Cup is masterly.

9. For black belts only

"Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics" (2008) by the Guardian's resident "brain in a bottle" Jonathan Wilson is an enlightening analysis of the evolution of the X's and O's of the game from its origins of all-out attack to the modern emphasis on suffocating space and counterattack. The book is no dry coaching manual, yet the content is rich and challenging, not unlike Joyce's "Ulysses." It's a volume best appreciated by those who have more than a casual familiarity with the game, unless you need a tome to tuck under your arm and intimidate all those around the office water cooler.

10. Novel, though not novels

"How to Score, Science and the Beautiful Game" (2006) by Ken Bray is a creative attempt to marry scientific analysis and soccer. The author, a sport scientist, methodologically deconstructs a number of classic pub debates: How can teams win penalty shootouts? What do statistics really teach us about the game? Or, which position plays under the most stress? The chapter "All in a Spin: the Unstoppable Freekick" is a tour de force analysis of the aerodynamics of drag and swerve, revealing the Jedi-like physics calculations set-piece-meisters like Ronaldo must execute in the bat of an well-plucked eyelid.

"On Penalties" (2000) by Andrew Anthony is a sweet confection in which the author plunges headfirst into the cultural history and psychology of the penalty kick, England's bÍte noire. The slim, 155-page volume culminates in a showdown between the writer and a Premier League goalkeeper from the penalty spot.

Bonus: For those who like their books with few words and plenty of pictures:

"European Fields: The Landscape of Lower League Football" (2006). Dutch photographer Hans van der Meer spent a decade shooting amateur football in 22 countries across Europe in an attempt to capture the game in its simplest formulation: 22 players; two goals; one field. He shoots from a voyeuristic distance in remote urban fringes from Biharia in Romania to Torp in Norway, and the effect is mesmerizing. Although not a face can be seen close up, it is perhaps the most human book of all.

Roger Bennett is the co-author of the forthcoming "ESPN World Cup Companion," your guide to everything you need to know to enjoy the 2010 World Cup. E-mail him at