The Season – On Football Books and Football

The referee blew the whistle, the ball went to our centre-back. He passed it out wide to me. Quicker than I expected. I took a quick step out toward the ball and twisted my ankle as I landed. I even thought I heard a snap as I fell down on to the turf. I limped to the sidelines and sat, looking uselessly for ice.

In my sleep, that night, I was still playing: turning with the ball, untouched, sending it forward along a beautiful, swooping arc into space. There’s beauty in movement, in the ball set down perfectly to slow for your player’s run. One of the reasons I love the game is that people who don’t think twice about beauty for a decade make beautiful things happen on the field, things that they wouldn’t call beauty. The ball leaving your foot, curling away into the top corner, when you’ve made perfect contact, how it just feels right. I did it too. That night, in my sleep. Though I woke up several times in pain. And in the morning, my ankle was swollen up like a tennis ball. I was out for two months. The only thing for it was to read some books about soccer.

When I was growing up there weren’t a lot of soccer books around: I had a few big illustrated yearbooks, some obviously very quickly thrown-together celebrity guides. Thanks to the growth of the sport and the cultural changes that have made it fodder for people like me, who thirty years ago would have been thinking about avant-garde poetry rather than the flexibility of Mauricio Pocchetino’s pressing game, there are many more kinds of football writing today—many more ways to try to talk about what happens on the field or in your sleep.

I found three books: one on watching football by Ruud Gullit, a genius footballer who cannot write to save his life; another a historical and cultural analysis of Argentine football by Jonathan Wilson, a football journalist who sees everything (but maybe he lacks passion); and finally a book of football reflections by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, a man who seems to know almost nothing about the game, but who writes the way Zidane played. He’s insouciant and magical, maybe even a little arrogant. Untouchable, and yet somehow vulnerable.

Toussaint is an acclaimed Belgian novelist, and he writes like one. “This is a book that no one will like,” he warns at the beginning. Toussaint doesn’t have much time for analysis, either historical or tactical. “I’m not interested in football as a symbol of globalization or a metaphor for society,” he says. “From a strategic point of view, football strikes me as entirely summary, almost simplistic, the respective advantages of the different systems of play (4-2-4, 4-4-2 or the catenaccio) are of elementary simplicity compared to the skillful subtleties of the smallest line of play in chess.” At one point he admits, beautifully and bizarrely, in this book called Football, that he hates football.

He describes going to games at the World Cup in France and in Japan and South Korea; he describes falling into other fans’ arms when Sweden beat Paraguay; he describes watching games on TV through a shop window in Brussels when he was a child. And yet he moves easily away from these memories. The book is lithely written, blithely structured. He’s as likely to be writing about his hotel, about writing itself, about sex or memory, as he admits: “I am pretending to write about football, but I am writing, as always, about the passing of time.”

It’s true: part of the reason you play is so as not to be an adult for an hour. I start to wonder, because I’m reading instead of actually playing, is that why we get so competitive, yell at each other and kick lumps out of each other, because our bodies aren’t doing what we want them too, any longer? Because we want this to be a pause, for the clock to go back–and instead time just goes on happily accelerating? When my last game ended, I waved goodbye to one of my team-mates, and he said, sad and tired: “Back to reality.”

The high point of Toussaint’s book is a dreamlike, hallucinatory experience of trying to watch the Argentina-Holland World Cup semi-final in 2014. He is in Italy, in a rented house in the countryside. He’s streaming the game online. It’s the first time he’s done this, so he describes it in detail. But an electrical storm takes out the internet connection. Extra-time is starting. He turns on the radio in the kitchen and finds a French commentary. The power goes out entirely. He finds himself going through the unfamiliar house in the dark looking for the old transistor radio, twisting the tuning button to find commentary in Italian, eventually hearing an Italian screaming that Maxi Rodriguez has put the deciding penalty in, and celebrating by himself. He has to write about football because, he says, he doesn’t want to break the fine thread connecting him to the world. Soccer does something that writing doesn’t, that sex doesn’t. Reading this book is a unique experience. The one thing Toussaint doesn’t write about is playing the actual game.

Jonathan Wilson is an excellent football journalist and he writes like one. Wilson wrote the definitive history of soccer tactics, Inverting the Pyramid. I have to admit that there’s something about reading about football tactics that makes me feel like I’m reading Henry James: long paragraphs of extraordinarily complex, musically absorbing sentences, yes, but do they finally refer to anything real in the world? But Wilson is a thoughtful, earnest, admirable writer, and in Angels with Dirty Faces: How Argentinian Soccer Defined a Nation and Changed the Game Forever, he dwells thoughtfully on soccer in the context of politics, culture, and society in a country gone mad.

The genius of Wilson’s book is to analyze how football in Argentina reflects its environment, and then, because it’s so important, affects society again in a kind of feedback loop. The initial chapters on the early history of the game feel a little rushed, but Wilson’s discussion of the interlacing of Argentine government with Argentina’s two World Cup triumphs, in 1978 and 1986, is totally absorbing. The military dictatorship attempted to exploit and manipulate the home tournament in 1978; during Maradona’s run to victory in Mexico 86, the president called the team manager repeatedly—not for encouragement, but to give tactical suggestions.

The book concludes with the competition in the national team between Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez. They represent two important aspects of Argentine culture, Wilson says: the sophisticated, European-influenced, artistic, philosophical side of the country, counterposed to “viveza criolla,” a native cunning and liveliness that, against all odds, finds a way to get ahead. It’s a familiar enough comparison, and each has its merits: consider Apollo and Dionysus, put a fine cognac in an urn-shaped glass next to an ice-cold beer. Messi left Argentina at age 14, and has played his entire career to date with Barcelona; today Tevez is his counterpart, but the apotheosis of “viveza criolla” was Maradona. Messi, because of the clarity of his gifts, because of his incomparable talent, leads the team and orchestrated Tevez’s removal. But Messi has yet to lead Argentina to tournament success. He has played his best soccer at club level. He even recently quit the national team, though he rejoined shortly after. No matter how many Champions Leagues Messi wins for Barcelona, he doesn’t quite have the place that home-grown, rough-hewn Tevez has in the nation’s hearts.

Wilson is historically and socially astute, but he has an unexpectedly poetic side of his own: Ricardo Bochini is eulogized as the master of la pausa, the unexpected slowdown, approaching the opposition box, that allows the other attacker to find his channel before the pass is made. (I saw him play in the mid-1980s, and he’s the one player I remember from that game. He was an artist.) Best of all, Wilson brings to life Tomas Felipe Carlovich, Maradona’s favourite player, who I’d never heard of: “Shaggy-haired and resistant to authority”; described by the one-time national team coach Jose Pekerman as the greatest central midfielder he’d ever seen; famous for his double nutmeg (knocking the ball through the opponent’s legs, first one way then the other—where doing it to someone once is considered a humiliation). Wilson makes him sound like a prototypical unknown genius, almost a novelistic figure, because it seems that for all his gifts, no video footage of Carlovich exists: “‘El Trinche’ (the fork), more myth than man, a player whose only negative was that hardly anybody saw him play.”

I love this kind of player, and Argentina produces them by the boatful. I frequently find myself watching a YouTube clip collecting passes by great midfielder Juan Roman Riquelme’s “Geometry and Artistry” I see versions of them in my league too. There are one or two players on each team who are superstars, speckled through the league like raisins in Christmas pudding. The guys with their own time signature, the masters of time and space, who never run, who never seem to exert any effort, and who have the ball on a string. Dribbling forward they tease you into thinking that they’ve lost control, and when you step in to make your tackle, that’s when they’ve gone, disappearing into the space you left open, and you curse.

Ruud Gullit is a brilliant footballer and he writes like one. As a player Gullit was a consummate sophisticate: a creative, strong and brilliant European-cup winning attacker. Dutch, no less, he played for Milan and Chelsea. He then became a less successful manager, and is now a TV analyst—and oddly this book, How to Watch Soccer, often seem to hang on that last, least significant, least wonderful, least interesting phase of his career. (When she saw the title, my wife said, “But I already know how to watch soccer.” ) In its way it’s a classic football book: disjointed, disorganized, lacking a single well-expressed thought. Maybe it’s honest, in the Dutch way. Gullit couldn’t really write a book that would teach us how to play like him, but he can teach us how to watch a game, how to opine, how to comment, how to tell our followers what’s going on, as he does.

Fans watch the ball, Gullit says; managers watch the game. This is about seeing structure, watching for what’s really happening, what builds into the surface froth. The ball is where the action only seems to be, and watching the ball is what amateurs do, like reading for the plot or listening for the melody. Gullit admiringly remembers the way the AC Milan back line moved side to side, forward and back, together, following the great defender Franco Baresi’s elegant, assured lead: he calls it Baresi’s harmonica. The ball doesn’t matter.

Speaking like a pundit, Gullit explains that feelings won’t win you games. But—and this is Gullit’s main, not particularly profound—point: your tactics need to fit your players. Fundamentally, it is a player’s book. The details Gullit points us to when the book is working are a player’s notes, not a pundit’s. Like how you can tell that Cesc Fabregas is only pretending to defend, but not really putting his backside into it. Or everything that the way a team performs the kick off tells you—are they pressing from the start, do they amble, do they look to the bench, or do they know just where they’re supposed to be running to, from the start. This is the kind of thing you can see Gullit watching for in his opponents and team-mates, in his glory days, prowling up and down the field with eyes wide open. Twice he says that if a player walks off the field with clean shorts they’re not really trying.

What’s the point in reading a soccer book? Nothing is as good as playing the game. Reading soccer books is always going to be an experience shot through with unspoken frustration, the author’s and the reader’s. But they’re full of beauty too—look at Toussaint’s poetry, look at Wilson’s eye for detail, even Gullit’s wonderful bumbling obtuseness is a kind of gift. And fundamentally, as Toussaint says, the game itself is not that great. Playing it is not an experience of transcendent bliss. When you are out on the field, you fail to do things as perfectly as you’d like. You fall over and hurt yourself. Reading makes up for not being Messi: that’s why it was invented. (One thing it’s hard to imagine Messi doing is reading a book.)

Still, I keep dreaming. I put the books aside. I step gingerly back out onto the field. My team-mates are happy I’m back. And sometimes, once in a while, a one-two comes off, the ball comes back to me, I’m running into space of my own…

Playoffs start shortly. We’re in sixth place right now, but we have high hopes.


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