The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup

Edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey

Read June-July 2006

Blame it on this book.

For a brief moment, America's chattering classes latched on to soccer as the Thinking Man's game, and the self-appointed watchers of the chattering classes have taken to pointedly observing and mocking this attachment. And how do the Americans know enough about soccer to chatter at all? The Web, no doubt, and Franklin Foer, but also this book, edited by two Americans.

There has always been melodramatic, over-the-top, football-as-metaphor writing; some intriguing, some outright silly, drawing precisely the conclusions it wants to draw and neglecting to mention that every negation could be derived just as easily. Because football is so much more universal than just about any sport, and the Olympics is outright silly, football has to serve as the reluctant hitching post of just about every global theory. As someone recently pointed out (I can't recall where), when it comes to journalists and national stereotypes, the observations that confirm them only add to the stereotype, while those that contradict them are silently tossed away. (In a different context, it reminds me of Adam Gopnik's comments about black swans in his New Yorker article about Karl Popper, entitled “The Porcupine”.)

So what's in the book, anyway? A series of essays, each by a different author, each on one of the countries in the soccer World Cup of 2006. The editors selected generally good writers, named a country, and then left the writers to write about any darn thing they chose; the authors sometimes focus on football, but in other instances range over everything from totalitarianism to teenage sexual fumblings. (It's curious that the former deviation from football is by far more interesting than the latter.) Some essays invoke the expected metaphors of hope, tragedy or expectation; some are brilliant; some (Hornby, Lanchester) are predictably clever; some warrant a refund. All are short; some are too short to actually going, a few are too long already.

A clever twist is that each essay is accompanied by World Factbook numbers for that country. These invite repeated examination and grazing. When, for instance, one reads that Togo's median age is 17.8 years [sic] (as opposed to, say, 39.8 for Switzerland and 40.6 for Sweden), one immediately, graphically and unforgettably learns more about Togo's recent history than a thousand words could have possibly expressed.

Living in the US, I found the timing was all wrong with the 2006 World Cup. There was something magical about 2002, when the feed came live from Korea and Japan. You bedded early, slept briefly, then bundled down to cups of drink at 2am. Half-asleep but still unable to tolerate the American commentary, you switched to the Spanish channels to let the game filter in in a language you didn't understand but an emotion you shared: a commentary that seemed so alive to the opportunities, the possibilities and the humanity of the game. Four hours later, as the world around you rose your day was effectively over, and having just communed with a billion other humans through a flickering tube and an audio track that to you consisted purely of emotion, not literal comprehension, you truly felt like a world citizen. Now in 2006 it's all tape delay, and you're too awake to not be aware of the stupifyingly bad execution of the American commentators. That thrill is gone. Please, FIFA, move it somewhere else.

You have to wonder whether a book like this isn't a rushed job. Oh, boy, is it ever. The editing is poor, often non-existent. The translations are sometimes a hash; when one translator turns Bayern München into “Bavaria Munich” (why that German name is always half-translated as “Bayern Munich” I don't know, but there you have it), you have the editors' equivalent of a trap street or Mountweazel.

The best article in this book is actually before any of the “real” writing: the introductory essay by editor Sean Wilsey. His article captures that deep, entranced state we call fandom. It is humor, self-examination, caricture and an imginary world all woven into a delightful package of splendid writing. Read it last and you will smile for a week.

I learned about this book when Malavika Jayaram alerted me to a chance sighting she'd had of John Lanchester in Foyles, London, in association with this book's promotion. Thanks to her for alerting me to it.