Contrary to popular belief, books are meant for multi-tasking. You can eat with a book, drink with a book, even sleep with a book; it’s all a question of the right book for the right occasion. For some people, that occasion will be at a bar where you’ll hear the zizzing of vuvuzelas, the shouting of national anthems, the thumping of a jabulani. It’s hard to justify spending hours in front of the screen, drinking beer no less, unless, of course, you bring a book. Then you are reading, drinking, watching.
After trying a few others and getting bored (or drunk) I thought that Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs was the perfect book for bars during the World Cup, despite the fact that it’s not about international soccer. It is, however, a famous book, which is to say, it seems that most people have read it; I hadn’t read it, but when I began to read it, I realized why most people have read it: once you start it’s impossible to stop. It’s a sanguine, rowdy, raucous account of an American journalist that braves it with Manchester United hooligans. But the book is more than just brash violence and ballsy reporting, it’s hopping borders, skipping fare on planes, pissing onto people’s plates.
Although much of what Buford narrates is about England of a certain era — lagers, crisps, skinheads, oi music — hooligans and their fanaticism can be found all over the world. This is life in the cheap seats: “There was a narrow human alley, and I joined the mob pushing its way through for a place from which to watch the match. Except there was no place. There was a moveable crush. It was impossible once inside to change my mind.”
Buford writes with impeccable rhythm and clarity. You can read Among the Thugs as book of brilliant soccer grotesques: “a tall very sunburnt man wearing very little clothing”; “He was short, dumpy, and balding, and wearing a white linen suit that would have flattered a man many times thinner… his forehead was damp and clammy, and his skin had the quality of wet synthetic underpants.” I could go on, but I don’t want you to vomit like so many of Buford’s subjects do after a few too many warm lagers.
Published in 1991, the book precedes the more recent craze for immersive non-fiction, and as a work of plain old journalism, it is written with amazing intelligence. Buford is cognizant of the many ways he might fall into journalistic clichés. He names them, contemplates them, then moves on. The one you’d most expect, as does Buford, is that he’ll go native, start throwing back the lagers, and wolfing down the crisps, but he doesn’t. Instead he observes that there’s something exhilarating about being with and yelling with other people, whether it be scoring a goal, or breaking a window.
Simon Kuper’s Soccer Against The Enemy is good for half-assed reading for different reasons. It’s a series of articles written over the span of nine years that describe football: its history, its people, its fans around the world in fifteen to twenty-minute reads. The commentary can sound a little outdated, but the story is probably as entertaining as it was a decade ago. Kuper is interested in examining football’s role in culture and politics, why it means so much to so many people, so he spends nine years traveling all over the world as a journalist to figure it out. Most of what Kuper discovers applies to this year’s World Cup.
Kuper’s account of soccer in the former Soviet Union will be familiar to those who followed the North Korean national team this year, their fearful faces and their puppet fan base (that literally had a conductor). In the USSR, soccer coaches are sent to Siberia. Secret Police run their own teams. Kuper arrives just after the fall of the Wall, and immerses himself in the great changes on the former Soviet soccer field. In what was once the only arena in life where fans could yell things like, “Go urinate in front of Lenin’s Mausoleum” to the game’s referees, now Kuper finds fans bored with much greater freedom. The players, rather than priding themselves on this foul-mouthed fan-base as they once did, hardly run after the ball; they’re too busy daydreaming about signing a contract in the West.
Football Against the Enemy also explains the draw game in soccer. Many of those low-scoring games were examples of catenaccio, a tactical style, that is often attributed to the Italians (it means “padlock” in Italian, but it is now a word in English according to the OED). Kuper actually hangs out with the star coach of various Spanish and Italian sides, Helenio Herrera, who some credit with having invented this defensive style of play. In catenaccio, the most of the team defends, thanks to an extra defensive player called the sweeper, waiting for an error; when it gets one, it sends the ball to the front lines, where the strikers can sneak a shot without taking a major risk. According to Coach Herrera, it’s French, not Italian and it’s a libero, not a sweeper. It doesn’t really matter now that nearly everyone uses it when they have to, hence the abundance of low scoring ties at the beginning of this World Cup.
One of my favorite chapters in the book, “Africa (In Brief)” examines the continent’s historically underprivileged position in FIFA, as well as the press’ attitude towards African teams, much of which has been repeated this year in various languages. The age-old criticism? The Africans are disorganized and they don’t train. As Kuper is quick to point out, aside from North Africa, most of the African nations couldn’t even play to qualify in 1994 due to poverty or war. Indeed, we do not know the real conditions behind these teams and their pristine Nike uniforms (in one case “the coach of Ghana has to beg petrol from the Minister of Sport before he can drive into the bush to look at players.”).
Then we get to South Africa, 1992. As captured in Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, as well as J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime, everything, even sports come color-coded in South Africa. Just take a look at the Bafana Bafana (Zulu for the Boys explains Kuper): there are hardly any white players. Then look at South Africa’s rugby or cricket team: the opposite is true. Kuper, born in Uganda of Dutch heritage and upbringing, heads to South Africa for the first multiracial election, and to witness Nelson Mandela’s first visit to the South African national football team.
When Mandela comes, just like in the Clint Eastwood movie, he says, “I support all sports.” The story Kuper recounts with testimony from government ministers, players, coaches is surprising. Despite many setbacks, as Kuper writes, “On a day when they are feeling optimistic South Africans say that their country has everything: gold, sunshine, and an ideal mix of white and black. They tell you that the new South Africa will be as rich as Switzerland, have no crime, and that it will win the 1998 World Cup.” Sure, fifteen years later not much of that is true, but not even Kuper for all of his soccer savvy could foresee South Africa as the host of the World Cup. I guess there is something to be said for that: cheers.