Soccer for Intellectuals

Baseball has Roger Angell. Boxing has A. J. Liebling. Yet soccer, puzzlingly, has no writer of such caliber, no one who has managed to find in the sport a comparably inexhaustible source of literary ...

Baseball has Roger Angell. Boxing has A. J. Liebling. Yet soccer, puzzlingly, has no writer of such caliber, no one who has managed to find in the sport a comparably inexhaustible source of literary writing and intellectual inquiry. And it’s not for lack of suitors. Rafael Alberti, Günter Grass, Charles Simic, Nelson Rodrigues, and Ted Hughes all wrote about the beautiful game. In the oeuvres of these writers, however, their momentary musings on soccer—football to most of the world—are a curiosity more than anything else. Others have tried their hand, but few have managed more than the occasional essay or short opinion piece. The difference may have something to do with the sports themselves.

Baseball and boxing are tailor-made for narrative. They rely heavily on protagonists and concentrated moments of action. Any baseball or boxing narrative can be easily embodied, like Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, in the momentary struggle between two individuals. Soccer, on the other hand, isn’t wedded to the fate of individuals. Its beauty is most often in the battle between two ideas, two philosophies, two tactical approaches to how to play the game. Hence the difficulty in narrating soccer in a way that is at once compelling and steers clear of clichés. The Spanish-language world of literary soccer writing, the one I know best, has produced admittedly mixed results. The Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano is one of the more intellectually creative and emotionally insightful of literary soccer writers. In Soccer in Sun and Shadow, he dedicates one- and two-page-long chapters with titles like “Cruyff” or “The 1966 World Cup” to a single metaphorical moment. His writing is often playful and chock-full of biting irony. He opens his chapter on Diego Maradona, for instance, with a reference to Julius Caesar: “He played, he won, he peed, he lost.”1 (Having single-handedly won the competition with Argentina eight years earlier, Maradona failed a drug test and was kicked out of the 1994 World Cup.) But not all literary soccer writers have the humility to not take themselves—and their fandom—too seriously.

Consider Javier Marías, a Spanish novelist perennially shortlisted for the Nobel Prize and a die-hard Real Madrid fan. In an essay titled “Fallen from the Sky,” collected in the indispensable volume The Global Game: Writers on Soccer, Marías recounts a goal by Zinédine Zidane, the Algerian-born French midfielder who ruled the sport from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s. “Supernatural goals have an air of gratuity, of the unthinkable, of gift,” Marías tells us. “Not in the common sense in which one talks about a gift from the rival team, of a mistake or blunder in one’s favor, but in another more noble sense of the word: they seem like gifts fallen from the sky.”2 His descriptive language seems borrowed from the New Age shelf at the bookstore. Zidane’s goal, in Marías’s hands, isn’t a metaphor for postcolonialism. It isn’t the rhyme of the game’s poem. It isn’t the conclusion of a career-long narrative arc. It is, instead, a godsend, the stuff of divine intervention. Marías recoils from comparing Zidane’s goal to anything involving mortal life, as if turning it into a metaphor would somehow cheapen its beauty. We witness his otherwise rhythmic prose become, like a soccer ball on a cold day, heavy and slightly painful to maneuver.

Great writing is essential to a novel; consistent intellectual intensity is not. The same is true for soccer.

Juan Villoro, one of the most celebrated Mexican writers today and a one-time Pumas youth player, is, on the spectrum from Galeano to Marías, mercifully closer to the former. His essay collection God Is Round, deftly translated by Thomas Bunstead, showcases another less sentimental way of writing about soccer. The collection synthesizes two of Villoro’s books on soccer, Dios es redondo, from which the title is taken, and Balón dividido (“Fifty-Fifty Ball”), and adds a previously unpublished essay reflecting on the impact of FIFA’s corruption on the sport and fandom. Despite sporadic inaccuracies,3 the essays in the book range widely across soccer history and essentially cover the sport’s entire lifespan, from Pablo Dorado’s “cursed” opening goal in the 1930 World Cup Final to Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi’s dominance of the sport today. Some essays are profiles of players; others, exercises in free association. But all are textured with references to literature, philosophy, and art. He opens his collection, for instance, with a story about Juan Carlos Onetti, the elder statesman of Uruguay’s distinguished generation of midcentury writers, who was once offered a job as a ticket salesman at the Estadio Centenario in Montevideo. Onetti was a soccer fan, but he never wrote about soccer. “What kind of football fan was Onetti?” Villoro asks. He leaves the answer up to our imagination and proceeds to turn the question on himself. What kind of football fan is the writer and intellectual Juan Villoro? Providing an answer to this question then becomes the project of the entire book.

Soccer’s missed encounters with intellectuals like Onetti motivate one part of Villoro’s distinct approach. But Onetti isn’t the only intellectual that appears in the book. Another is the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, to whom Villoro turns to explain a famous quote by the England striker Gary Lineker: “Soccer is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for ninety minutes, and at the end, the Germans always win.” Heidegger’s fascination with Franz Beckenbauer, the captain of the 1974 World Cup-winning German side, is, for Villoro, a sign of Germany’s belief in its own destiny. Villoro, at one point, claims that Heidegger “knew nothing about the sport.” But, in fact, the opposite seems to be true. During one felicitous train ride, Heidegger, explaining his admiration for Beckenbauer to a friend, reportedly stepped into the aisle and attempted to demonstrate his idol’s finesse with the ball. It appears the German philosopher was speaking from experience: in his hometown of Messkirch, rumor has it that he was a serviceable left wing.4

Villoro’s intellectuals include personal friends, not just historical figures. One anecdote in the book comes from the kitchen of the Mexican writer Juan José Arreola, known, alongside Jorge Luis Borges, as one of Latin America’s foremost short-story writers. Arreola had installed a professional ping-pong table in his kitchen and many aspiring athletes went there to practice, Villoro among them. Arreola’s apartment, he writes, “resembled a cross between a barrio social club and a salon for intellectuals”: some came to practice table tennis, others came to play chess. But the distinction between the two, for Arreola, was minimal. He thought racket sports, unlike soccer, were intellectual activities. Soccer’s “actions are grosser, in that they do not pass through a civilized instrument, and furthermore bypass the hands, a fundament of human culture,” Villoro recalls. “Though he was born in Jalisco, the cradle of Mexican footballing culture, the beautiful game struck him as regressive, a backward step to the days of mankind before tools.”

Villoro finds the need, years later, to rebut his former mentor, to give his own answer to the question of soccer’s intellectual value. “Football offers one of the most propitious situations for intellectual life,” he writes, “in that the majority of the game is spent doing nothing.” This is the other way Villoro writes about being an intellectual and writerly soccer fan: not with a strong dose of lawyerly seriousness, but with humor, and lots of it. Villoro isn’t afraid to poke fun at fans, players, and the game itself, pointing out just how ridiculous soccer can be at the same time that he fully admits his own unconditional love for it. “Football is like fiber in your diet,” he writes in one of the book’s many memorable metaphors, “you don’t want it to be all you have, but a certain amount is good for clearing you out.” His preoccupation is with turning the sport into a thoughtful yet entertaining looking glass on the world’s problems—from social structures to individual psychology. Without it, the book would be just another hagiography of soccer.

Part of that humor involves making references and drawing comparisons that are as creative as they are outlandish. At one point, Villoro uses a Borges short story, for example, to explain the beauty of one of Lionel Messi’s goals. In “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” the title protagonist makes an exact copy of Don Quixote, but in the 20th century—a lesson in the historical situated-ness of literary writing. “In the story,” Villoro writes, “Borges makes fun of critics’ tendency to overinterpret, but at the same time puts forward the possibility that someone will be original as the second author of a work.” The Messi goal is a relatively unimportant one he scored against Getafe in 2007. But, for Villoro, it is not just similar to, but a veritable “carbon copy” of Diego Maradona’s famous slalom through England’s entire team in the semifinals of the 1986 World Cup. “Messi’s goal expresses—simply and conclusively—just how creative an imitator can be,” he writes. “It was a marvel, which, at the same time, no one even considered calling original … Messi, à la Pierre Menard, was the scorer of a masterpiece that already existed.”

Villoro’s intellectual endoscopy of his soccer fandom also reveals his hobby horses. Puzzling over Cristiano Ronaldo is one of them. In a chapter alluringly and uncompromisingly titled “A Diatribe Against Cristiano Ronaldo,” Villoro sets out to recover the diatribe as a genre of moral instruction through public condemnation, not to perpetuate its current association with slander. From the bombastic Madrid tabloids Marca and As to the inimitably pink-colored Milan paper La Gazzetta dello Sport, soccer’s daily newspapers have turned character assassinations of one of the sport’s top players into a Continental pastime. After all, how great can a player who poses like Apollo, gives himself his own nickname, and appears to spend too much time in front of a mirror actually be? Villoro implicitly asks the reader. “Criticizing Cristiano’s looks, his personality, his team, or even the money he earns—all of this is the diatribe at its most vulgar,” Villoro explains. A diatribe, as practiced by the likes of Epictetus, Cicero, and Seneca, involves “a more complex form of condemnation. So here’s the crux: no teammate of Cristiano’s has ever improved by playing alongside him.” Few truer words about Cristiano have ever been written and this problem is made ever more glaring by the fact that his rival, Messi, is a Magic Johnson-style player, someone who values passing above all else when creating opportunities to score. Soccer, after all, is first and foremost a team sport.

Villoro’s book doesn’t provide a roadmap to becoming an intellectual soccer fan. But it certainly gives us a sense of the possibilities. In this it follows closely in the footsteps of the Catalan writer Manuel Vázquez Montalbán’s Fútbol: Una religión en busca de un Dios (“Soccer: A Religion in Search of a God”) and Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow, books that mobilized vignettes to provoke second-guessing about the history of soccer, questioning the forces that have shaped its inherited narratives and our own emotional commitment to them. The United States, too, has witnessed a flourishing of intellectual soccer culture in recent years. Soccer magazines with a strong literary bent, such as Howler, now exist; so do imaginative blogs that tell us, for instance, “How Art Tatum Explains the Genius of Tiki-Taka.”5 Still, the sizeable gap between the soccer fan and the intellectual doesn’t appear to be dwindling. There’s a Martin Amis quote, often repeated whenever writers and soccer happen to meet, that is said to explain why this gap exists at all: “Intellectual football-lovers are a beleaguered crew, despised by intellectuals and football-lovers alike.” It rings as true today as it did when it was written in 1981, when it appeared in a book review that made as much a mockery of the genre of book reviews as it did of the book it was reviewing.6 God Is Round is a worthy antidote to this kind of highbrow self-flagellation.

Like writer, like footballer: the only person capable of truly understanding the craft is a practitioner of it.

Unlike Villoro, Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Norwegian author of the acclaimed series of autobiographical novels My Struggle, and his friend Fredrik Ekelund, a Swedish novelist, have no anxiety about being intellectual soccer fans. In Home and Away: Writing the Beautiful Game, their book of correspondence inspired by the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, neither writer teases out why he has become both an intellectual and a soccer fan. These identities exist separately and to be inhabited independently. Of the two, Knausgaard comes closest to addressing the issue. “What is it about Maradona? Why does he merit our admiration? After all, he was only a footballer,” he asks, before digressing into an even less entertaining and more trying version of Marías’s attempt to glimpse the ineffable. Soccer, he concludes, “is a little like writing. Only the person who has written a lot, really tried to form words and sentences for many years, with total dedication, can actually understand.” Like writer, like footballer: the only person capable of truly understanding the craft is a practitioner of it. Despite their similarities, the relationship between intellectual life and soccer, for him, is clear: “It is a game. It is anti-seriousness. Anti-meaning. Anti-intellectual.”

Such categorical statements are in keeping with the nonconformist persona Knausgaard develops throughout the correspondence. He makes such statements about literature: “The novel is the only medium I know that shows that things are not as we believe.” About soccer: “I have never enjoyed the sight of Messi, however supernaturally talented he is, there is nothing in his style that appeals to me.” And about the ennui of bourgeois life: “Watching a film is one thing, playing Minecraft is another, but watching people playing [Minecraft], is there anything more passive or meaningless than that?” But his edgy iconoclasm proves to be neither edgy nor iconoclastic, at least when it comes to soccer. Toward the end of the book, he compares soccer to religion—the most conventional motif of soccer writing—as if it were heretical or novel. “Football matches are worthless,” he writes, “in the same way that pouring water onto a child’s head is actually worthless.” He then signs the letter “Karlos Blasfémios Días.”

Calling soccer anti-intellectual is one way to think about it. It’s also a convenient way to avoid thinking about an entire subset of culture. For so many millions of people, soccer has meaning well beyond its entertainment value; for writers of the caliber of Mario Vargas Llosa, the sport has even been worthy of intellectual reflection. Yet Knausgaard thinks otherwise. Still, true to his novelistic profession, he cannot avoid intellectualizing soccer. Like Villoro, he invokes a Borges story, “Funes, His Memory,” to make a point about the kind of belief involved in soccer fandom. The Funes of the story, Knausgaard reminds us, does not have the ability to believe anything, because his mind records and catalogues every instant of his life as a separate moment. Belief, counterintuitively, requires being able to put two and two together. Without belief we lose our ability to comprehend the world around us. “What we believe protects us against the world. And that protection is necessary,” Knausgaard concludes. Beliefs—about oneself, about one’s place in the world, about the perceptions of others—are what sustain the feelings of shame, humiliation, and emotional distance strewn across the volumes of My Struggle. Given his use of his novels to describe, interrogate, and undermine many of the beliefs we hold about the world, it’s puzzling why Knausgaard seems so disinterested in subjecting the beliefs we have about soccer to a similar procedure.


Athlete Activists

By Jules Boykoff

While Knausgaard and Ekelund’s method is the free exchange of rambling emails, some of the best literary books about soccer curiously share the structure of short vignettes. Villoro’s does. So did Galeano’s and Vázquez Montalbán’s before his. This purely formal decision about how to structure a book reveals, to my mind, how difficult it is to write intellectually about soccer. Just as it is for players of the sport itself, it’s difficult for writers on the topic to maintain intensity for long stretches of time. Yet, at the same time, it doesn’t quite make sense. One would think that the rhythms of a novel, much more than the concentrated form of vignettes, would closely resemble those of a soccer match. In a novel, the plot often comes into and goes out of focus. But there exists some kind of assured consistency on a sentence by sentence level. Great writing is essential to a novel; consistent intellectual intensity is not. The same is true for a soccer match. As viewers of a soccer match, we can’t always tell what’s happening in the plot: “This possession isn’t leading to anything!” “Was that attempt on goal really that threatening?” “Why on earth is another defensive-midfielder being subbed on?!” But its sentence-level construction—short passes, long lobs, through balls, glancing headers—is mostly lucid and straightforward. Villoro is attuned to this, noting the different ways soccer players write their sentences. “Certain geniuses of the game, like Butragueño and Valderrama, are able to slow the ball down, putting the clock in parentheses,” he writes. “Others, like Xavi and Andrés Iniesta, pile up comma after comma to create serial subordinate clauses. Romário was one of the few equally able to deploy full stop and comma, with that wonderful shot of his and the ability to perfectly weight a pass.”

For a sport whose form so closely mirrors the novel’s, it’s odd that the best writing about it resembles the other kind of football, American football: formally constrained short bursts of action, often ending in a conclusive wrap-up. Maybe the answer, as the British writer David Peace has found in his two soccer novels, The Damned Utd and Red or Dead, is to write about coaches instead. icon

  1. Eduardo Galeano, Soccer in Sun and Shadow, translated from the Spanish by Mark Fried (Verso, 2003), p. 199.
  2. Javier Marías, “Fallen from the Sky,” translated from the Spanish by Miranda Stramel, in The Global Game: Writers on Soccer, edited by John Turnbull, Thom Satterlee, and Alon Raab (University of Nebraska Press, 2008), p. 72.
  3. See Michael J. Agovino, “A Fan’s Notes,” Los Angeles Review of Books, June 20, 2016.
  4. Rüdiger Safranski, Martin Heidegger: Between Good and Evil, translated from the German by Ewald Osers (Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 428; Heinrich Wiegand Petzet, Encounters and Dialogues with Martin Heidegger, 19291976, translated from the German by Parvis Emad and Kenneth Maly (University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 210. Thanks to Facundo Vega for these references.
  5. See, for example, Jeff Maysh, “The Half-Time Hero,” Howler, October 1, 2014. “How Art Tatum Explains the Genius of Tiki-Taka,” Stoopid American, August 20, 2013. “Tiki-taka” is a style of soccer associated with the Spanish national team and F. C. Barcelona, especially between 2008 and 2012.
  6. Martin Amis, “Football Mad,” London Review of Books, December 3, 1981.
Featured image: Argentina's Diego Maradona, after scoring the “Goal of the Century” in the 1986 World Cup finals. Photograph courtesy of Dani Yako / Clarín / Wikimedia Commons