With the majority of international leagues ended for the season (#COYS #thirdplaceisanadmirablefinish #HarryKaneisStillaWizard) and both summer tournaments having come to somewhat surprising finishes (#SaveMessiFromPenaltyKicks #WeAreAllRonaldo’sMoth), we are forced to confront a somewhat terrifying fact: there are times, rare though they may be, when there are no soccer matches to watch.
I used to call these The Dark Times, and lived in dread of scouring the outer reaches of the television and internet channels only to find deep-sea bass fishing or the world championships of bowling. Until I realized that, in the absence of watching soccer, reading about soccer can prove equally as thrilling. And – if the book, and author, are good – words are able to reveal layers and aspects of the game, the players, and the world often hidden beneath television’s glossy, commercialized screen.
Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World is a sweeping exploration into such universally relevant topics as globalization, racism, political corruption, and even parenting choices. That he examines these topics, among others, using soccer as a medium proves his title’s point: the beautiful game really does provide insights into some of the world’s greatest questions. This is a book for nerds (I out myself here freely), as Foer travels the world to interview the only two black players in the Carpathian region of the Ukraine, falls in love with Barcelona (despite, or perhaps because, they were not the superpower they are today), and looks at his own entree to the sport as a child when the United States were just being introduced to this game they would call soccer.
In chapters that all begin with the words “How soccer explains” and end with such soundbite-ready phrases as “Islam’s Hope” and “the Gangster’s Paradise” (everyone humming along to Coolio?), Foer criss-crosses Western and Eastern Europe to reveal how soccer is more than a game; more, even, than a multi-billion dollar industry, it can be a tool through which those with power manipulate those without; an expression of community and communality; and a method through which the disenfranchised can channel their rage, hurt, beliefs, and ideals.
His own initiation into the game coincides with fútbol’s debut to the youth of America, which is a sharp contrast to how the game is played in most youth leagues today. Dick Wilson, executive director of the American Youth Soccer Organization, presented a speech that was sure to appeal to parents looking to enroll their child in a friendlier atmosphere than football’s turf or the baseball diamond: “Unlike the other sports, it would foster self-esteem, minimize the pain of competition while still teaching life lessons…We would like to provide the child a chance to participate in a less competitive, win-oriented atmosphere.”
Though it would be decades until “soccer” caught on to the American masses – some would argue that it still has work to do – the game snagged young Foer immediately and, eventually, enough of the United States that the country soon campaigned to host the World Cup. Foer describes a moment on the Congress floor when former American football player Jack Kemp argued passionately against bringing this relatively new sport to our shores: “‘I think it is important for all those young out there, who some day hope to play real football, where you throw it and kick it and run with it and put it in your hands, a distinction should be made that football is democratic, capitalism, whereas soccer is European, socialist.” The comedy is priceless; the reality that many people still consider anything “other,” including fútbol, to be suspect and therefore dangerous, sobering.
The love between a person and their club transcends politics, transcends religions, transcends country and, as clubs begin to sign players from around the world, Foer argues, soccer becomes the best argument for and proof of globalization. “Basque teams, under the stewardship of Welsh coaches, stocked up on Dutch and Turkish players; Moldovan squads imported Nigerians. Everywhere you looked, it suddenly seemed, national borders and national identities had been swept into the dustbin of soccer histories.” When someone pulls on the red jersey of England’s Liverpool, they are also rooting for Mignolet’s Belgium, Lovren’s Croatia, Sakho’s France, Can’s Germany, Allen’s Wales, and Coutinho’s Brazil. One team, many nations. And hope, perhaps, in a fractured time, that it is harder to hate a people or a nation when love for that country’s player runs so strong.
Another such revelatory tome is Latin American historian Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow, first published in 1998 and again in 2003 to include added commentary on the 2002 World Cup. Written in chapters so short some are less than a page long, Galeano turns soccer into history and history into poetry, musing on everything from the corrupt relationship between FIFA and the IOC (and this was before the inflammatory revelations of 2015), to the origins of the bicycle kick.
His love for the sport is clear from the dedication page, on which he bestows his masterpiece to a group of anonymous children Galeano remembers having seen kicking a ball in that universal game of street soccer played by children everywhere, singing “we lost, we won, either way we had fun.” This sentiment, in which nothing matters so much as the beauty of the game, is evident on every page of Galeano’s novel, in which “I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead, ‘A pretty move, for the love of God.’”
Go about the world Galeano does, and, through it all, much like Foer, he finds the fútbol where most would not. He gives the readers a taste of Albert Camus’ short-lived career as a goalkeeper for the University of Algeria, where the burgeoning philosopher was no less profound about the sport he loved: “I learned that the ball never comes where you expect it to.” A continent and two decades later, another pre-famous revolutionary would claim the ball as his teacher. Ernesto, not yet Che, Guevara was traveling around South America in search of a purpose. Coaching a soccer team in Colombia, he boasted in a letter home about a penalty kick that he blocked. These stories, of extraordinary people captivated by the simple magic of the game, is what inspired Galeano to write with passion.
His love extended to players actually famous for playing, though not solely for those pretty moves he prayed for so fervently. An off-the-field gesture of humility served to arouse a particularly moving passage in Galeano’s work. Of the Uruguayan captain Obdulio Varela, who orchestrated a nervy and infamous win against a Brazilian side that was never supposed to lose, Galeano gives three sentences to the midfielder’s calm strength. Much of the little chapter, and the majority of its praise, is dedicated to Varela’s actions after the famed Maracanazo, during which he comforted distraught opposing fans in the bars of Rio. Obdulio Varela: Eduardo Galeano-style hero.
Where Foer and Galeano use soccer as a prism through which the entire world can be observed, Robert Andrew Powell’s This Love Is Not For Cowards: Salvation and Soccer in Ciudad Juárez zooms down to a microcosmic level, detailing with brutal, lovely, devastating clarity the maelstrom of violence that threatened every corner of the city Los Indios and their fans call home. When Powell moved to Juárez in late 2009, not only had the murder rate hit an all-time high of 2,700, but Los Indios had fallen to last place in the Clausura, after failing to win a single game of their previous season. Desolation was the hallmark on and off the pitch. And yet Powell finds beauty and hope in this ravaged border town, where both the team’s manager and their charismatic midfielder are American citizens, but elect to stay with their team and their adopted town.
Indios midfielder Marco Vidal becomes Powell’s close friend, introducing him to the team and to life in Juárez, which Powell finds both dangerous and delightful. After practices on the grounds of the desolate Benito Juárez stadium, Marco recounts his journey playing for Guadalajara’s youth squad, of being declared too short to play with Mexico’s Tigres, then on to FC Dallas where his height – or lack thereof – was again his downfall. The call from Los Indios, a minor league with a negligible shot at the Primera, was his chance to return to fútbol. The Indios had given Marco his shot, and he adopted both the Indios and Juárez with his whole heart. Marco “wants to stay in the big leagues. He wants to remain in the city that gave him his opportunity.”
Powell’s time with the team isn’t only spent with the players; he insinuates himself into El Kartel, the Indios’ barra brava, led by a cast of die-hard Indios fans who travel to every Indios game from their homes in Juárez, El Paso and other border towns in a battered bus. “We’re, like, you know the word ‘hooligan,’ don’t you?” Big Weecho, an El Kartel member who also fights as a masked luchador explains to Powell. It is fútbol’s lens through which we get to know this hard-partying lot, as they imbibe a staggering mixture of cocaine, Tecate beer, and Clamato on a road trip to Powell’s first away game, apply for United States visas but debate staying in their beloved Juárez, and change El Kartel’s name to the less obviously gang-sounding EK after one member is held up by gun-toting individuals intent on the drugs that a bemused El Kartel does not have.
More than anyone, Los Karteleros, these men and women devoted to their city and their team, bring Juárez to flickering, sputtering light. Saul, 25, is “majoring in bilingual education. He works nights at a Lowe’s. He’s growing out his hair so he can donate it to Locks of Love” in honor of his mother. And yet Saul knows that his friend and fellow Kartel member Oskar works as a sicario, a hired assassin, and manages to excuse this violence. “Oskar doesn’t kill people in Juárez. He only kills people in other towns…To us, he’s never been anything but a nice guy.” Perhaps it is his comrade Arson Loskush, grieving after the death of his brother in a nightclub shootout, who best explains it. “The city I love so much is the same city that took one of the people I love most…It’s the team that made me go back…They’re my therapy. They’re what made me get better.”
Warren St. John’s Outcasts, United is a treatise on the power of fútbol as therapy. This time, the therapist is Luma Mufleh, a Jordanian immigrant who, upon completing her degree at Smith College in 1997, decided to stay in the United States, though it meant being cut off by her angry and concerned family. Lost one day in Clarkson, a suburb of Atlanta, Luma makes the U-turn that would change her life, and those of hundreds of young people, when she pulls into the dusty lot of a housing complex and sees a group of boys of all ethnicities speaking a universal language: fútbol. “It reminded me what I missed about my community at home. And at the time I felt like such an outsider.” The seeds of The Fugees Family had been planted.
It was Luma’s intention to organize and coach a fútbol team for the boys in the neighborhood. When she realized, though, that this housing complex was a resettlement neighborhood for refugees, most of whom had fled from war-torn nations in Africa and the Middle East, her team became a plethora of language barriers and tribal cliques, and Luma became a surrogate mother to children whose own parents were struggling to provide enough food, let alone the emotional support these traumatized boys so desperately required. Luma took it all on, quitting her job and fighting the town, the mayor, and anyone who got in the way of providing the best for her kids. The team became a family, and then a foundation and a school. Luma’s brand of tough-love, unequivocal support, and insistence on drills, teamwork, and rules, has a stunning, heartwarming impact on the Fugees and the community at large.
“Coach” brooks no disrespect, and absolutely no breaking of the rules – any rules. When two of her players refuse to cut their hair to the mandated extra-short length, they are not allowed back on the team. But Coach Luma does not exempt herself from her own mandates; her own hair is shorn rule-book short, and she is every bit the role model “her” kids need in their woefully precarious lives. She expects much of them – and they deliver, both on and off the field.
When Coach tells her boys that they need to raise the money to participate in a state tournament without asking their parents, none of whom can afford extras, it is some of the youngest boys who have seen the worst violence who put their heads together – perhaps from the teamwork they’ve learned on the pitch – and work extra chores to raise the cash.
In a scene that, in my copy of the book, is slightly tear-stained, two of the thirteen-year-old players gather their teammates for a pre-game prayer. There is a slight pause as they realize the heterogeneous nature of the team’s religious and ethnic makeup. Then, in the beautifully conflict-free way of children, one of the boys delivers his Muslim prayer in his native Albanian, and his friend proceeds with a Christian prayer in his own Swahili. Doubly blessed, the team runs on to play their game.
Outcasts, United is Luma’s story, but necessarily sheds light on some aspects of immigration and refugee resettlement. Those first boys Luma saw kicking the ball in Clarkson were the Ziatys, survivors of Liberia’s brutal civil war and the traumatic aftermath that, like many terrible world events, often plague children the most. The children had survived the murder of their father and a dangerous trek on foot to a squalid refugee camp in neighboring Ivory Coast. For five years, they lived in the camp in a hut they helped their mother Beatrice construct, while she tried to get them placed somewhere safe. When they finally make it to Clarkson, they are faced with an entirely new set of challenges. “Like all refugees accepted into the United States…[Beatrice] would have only three months of governmental financial assistance…to say nothing of the debt she owed on the plane tickets [$3,016 for four one-way plane tickets, which Beatrice repaid to the Office of Refugee Resettlement].”
St. John writes eloquently about soccer, but these short descriptions of Beatrice and her boys, of the reality of life as a refugee, are vital both to understanding the necessity of Luma’s program, and to the debates swirling around many of our frightened, exhausted countries today.
Still suffering the symptoms of fútbol withdrawal? Grab your library card and check out When Friday Comes, in which author James Montague travels throughout the Middle East chronicling the ways in which fútbol distinguishes cultural mores, and the myriad ways it forms commonalities between religions, countries, and peoples.
Longing for more? Don’t fret, my compatriots in deprivation. Head to your favorite independent bookstore for a cappuccino and a copy of Nick Hornby’s My Favourite Year, in which various authors write of their fanaticism for their clubs in rich, hilarious detail. In fact, have a second cappuccino and stock up on Hornby’s cannon; he’s an Arsenal fan, but his love for the game transcends his club. Finally, for my fellow Americans new to the sport and still wondering who to support come Premier League time (PUT DOWN THAT LEICESTER JERSEY, THIS IS A LIFELONG CHOICE YOU’RE ABOUT TO MAKE), fire up the internet and put a rush order on Bloody Confused, Chuck Culpepper’s hysterically accessible American-sportswriter-guide-to-the-English-Premier-League.
By the time you finish those, take a nap, and order a pizza (veggie for me, please), it should be time to turn on the TV to catch the opening match of your favorite league. We made it, sufferers; I knew we could do it!