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Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Soccer: The Beautiful Game

A thrilling World Expo of soccer talent is in full swing, but now the group stage is over and there are fewer games to watch, why not add a new dimension to the 2D picture on your TV? Grab a book about soccer and dig a little deeper. Our collection is large enough to make even casual soccer moms and pops into erudite and passionate soccer pundits.
I suggest starting with the amusing collection of soccer trivia and anecdotes Who Invented the Bicycle Kick?: Soccer's Greatest Legends and Lore by Paul Simpson and Uli Hesse, released just in time for World Cup 2014. To get a flavor of the book, try an excerpt published recently by Slate, which includes a medley of YouTube clips showing some of the memorable bicycle kicks cited in the book.

No soccer collection is complete without a book by or about Edson Arantes do Nascimento, aka PelĂ©, considered by many the greatest soccer player of all time. Why Soccer Matters is Pele's latest book. The 73-year-old wizard of the beautiful game still clearly remembers his first ball (a bunch of socks tied together), admits hating his meaningless nickname and praises soccer for tying together communities, giving joy to millions of spectators and giving thousands of talented players a chance to rise from poverty. 

A more thorough history can be found in a magisterial tome by David Goldblatt, The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Soccer. At more than 900 pages the book looks intimidating but is packed with interesting facts, stories and match reports. The book hops from continent to continent and flows across time, but it doesn't have to be read cover to cover. Just open to any page and dig in. You might find yourself in England around 1870 and discover that passing is considered a failure, even a dishonor; goals don’t have a crossbar – just tape strung between two flimsy goalposts; a game may last two hours; and the number of players on the field is negotiable.

Add to this global overview of soccer two country studies: the beautifully written Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life by Alex Bellos and the no less colorful La Roja: How Soccer Conquered Spain and How Spanish Soccer Conquered the World by Jimmy Burns.

Soccernomics is written by Simon Kuper of the Financial Times, arguably the best soccer writer in the world, and Stephan Szymanski, a sports economist based in Michigan. The book will appeal to fans of Moneyball and Freakonomics, who will appreciate the application of econometrics to the game of soccer. Did you know that Norway, not England, has the most dedicated and enthusiastic soccer spectators in Europe or that hosting the World Cup or European Cup reduces suicides in European countries? The authors also have some advice for soccer managers: Don't buy the stars from the latest World Cup. They tend to be overvalued. Buy players in their early twenties and whose personal problems you can solve (both tend to be undervalued).

The beautiful game inspires a lot of beautiful writing, like this description of the 1982 World Cup by George Vecsey, a New York Times sports writer: "This was ... a blend of ballet and geometry, quick triangles appearing and disappearing, instant decisions by athletes on the move, so graceful and independent, performing intricate maneuvers with a round ball, on the fringes of their feet." This passage is from Vecsey's new book, Eight World Cups: My Journey through the Beauty and Dark Side of Soccer.

I would be remiss if I failed to include the perennial favorite Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby. The author, an Arsenal fan since the times when admission tickets cost 25 pennies, has written a brilliant tribute to the agony and ecstasy of fandom in the frame of a tragicomic memoir.  

Our library also has two collections of profiles and interviews of soccer demigods that reveal their human side. The Soccer Men by Soccernomics author Kuper includes more than 60 artful sketches of players and coaches, including Beckham, Beckenbauer, Zidane, Cantona and Messi. Beautiful Game: The World's Greatest Players and How Soccer Changed Their Lives includes interviews with players such as van Persie, Figo, Messi and Muntari, as well as wonderful photographs of soccer played around the world. My favorite is a shot of Bangladeshi kids playing on a soaked soccer field in Dhaka with bamboo goals.

For fiction, try two recent novels by another Brit, David Peace, who ventured from literary crime fiction into football noir. Judge for yourself whether Damned Utd deserves to be called “possibly the best novel ever written about sport,” as the Times of London claims. 

Your little ones may enjoy Soccer on Sunday, the newest soccer addition to the Magic Tree House series, accompanied by a soccer research guide. And they will love how SpongeBob looks in a soccer shirt on the cover of SpongeBob, Soccer Star!, a new book by David Lewman.

Find even more books about soccer here.


-- Vladimir Shutov, Tysons-Pimmit Regional Library

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