“It was like childhood, but with beer.”
For many Americans, soccer’s appeal comes from being something new. It’s a change of pace to explore something new again after learning all there is to know about baseball, basketball, and football. I imagine there are British fans of the NFL who feel the same way.
That sense of newness is the driving force behind Bloody Confused, by Chuck Culpepper. Where Michael Agovino latched onto soccer in a fit of adolescent curiosity, Culpepper was a veteran of American sports reporting before soccer and England caught his eye. As a reporter, he had grown tired with American sports, filled as they are with flaws and cliches. It’s a problem he describes as “common sportswriter malaise.” While he came to find that English soccer has plenty of flaws and cliches, he found the learning process refreshing.
“The miracle is stability.”
I am of the opinion that American soccer changed forever with Landon Donovan’s goal against Algeria at the 2010 World Cup. It’s hard to quantify the real impact of a goal like that, but the sport has been on a much bigger stage since. That World Cup final set a record as the most watched soccer match in U.S. history. A few months later, ESPN broadcast the Premier League for the first time. And MLS attendances and revenues have grown in the years since.
Beau Dure’s book Long Range Goals: the Success Story of Major League Soccer comes from a pre-Donovan world, published in early 2010. This is not a criticism; every book is written in a pre-something era. But as a result, some bits sound just a bit funny. Here in 2014, MLS is a league where the potential for growth feels massive, if not immediate. When this book was written, it had yet to top the attendance figures of its inaugural season. It’s a testament both to how much can change in four years, and to how closely-removed MLS is from an era when its very stability was a “miracle.”
“Malice hung heavily in the air, along with the stench of horse shit and hot-dog fumes.”
By the time that European soccer reached American shores in earnest, the game was a sanitized version of its former self. In the U.S., the sport is often viewed as “soft,” especially in comparison to the game we know as football, and the modern game often makes this notion hard to deny. But England and the rest of Europe know that this is a fairly recent phenomenon. The game of just a generation ago was marked by real venom, both on and off the pitch. You can’t watch a Premier League match without a commentator noting wistfully that a yellow card tackle wouldn’t even have been a foul some 25 years ago. And along with two-footed tackles, crowd violence has mostly been left in the past in top-level soccer.
In 1999, Martin King wrote Hoolifan: 30 years of Hurt with the help of Martin Knight. The subtitle might lead you to believe that this is a Fever Pitch-esque book about the trauma of fandom, but “hurt” here is meant quite physically. King was a Chelsea supporter through the 70s and 80s, the peak of hooliganism in the English game. Here he provides some insight into that experience.
“What we cannot do by sleight we eke out by strength. No more concise definition of English football exists.”
The average American soccer fan is probably more familiar with names like Charlie Adam, Lee Cattermole, and Kevin Nolan than anybody who plays for Athletic Bilbao or Bayer Leverkusen. Nevermind that the former trio are nondescript players on nondescript teams, while Bilbao and Leverkusen will take part in this year’s Champions League. For a variety of reasons, English soccer receives far more attention than its continental counterparts.
For Englishmen of a certain age, this is still a bit strange. The English soccer David Winner is most familiar with was played on muddy pitches, defined by physicality, and of a lesser technical quality than the soccer in Italy and Spain. The modern day popularity and quality of the Premier League is due not to the English, but to the high priced foreign talent. In Those Feet, Winner sets out in part to answer this question: “why don’t the English play sexy football?”
I remember when, in the early stages of my soccer fandom, I first came across Zonal Marking. At some level, of course I understood that there were tactics and strategy in soccer as with any sport. But to see the game explored from that (top-down) angle was a revelation. Over the years, I’ve spent far too much time going through that site, reading whatever analysis and articles I could find. I owe no small portion of my current understanding of how soccer is played to Zonal Marking.
And so I owe something to Jonathan Wilson. ZM’s bibliography page lists Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid at the top, describing it as “the daddy of all football tactics books.” I just finished reading it, and I can understand that praise.
“I’ve finally learned to accept myself for who I am: a beggar for good soccer.”
Originally published in 1995, Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow is, at its core, a love letter to the game. There are a lot of books that tell the history of the sport, from its roots to the modern day; this is one of them. But, unlike most others, this tells why that history matters. Soccer in Sun and Shadow conveys the joy of the game in its prose. In short, it is poetry.
“In the twenty-first century, the World Cup arrives with a terrible price.”
The World Cup is now less than a week away, but having just finished Brazil’s Dance With the Devil, I am not sure I still have the appetite for it. I mean that as a compliment of the highest order. Dave Zirin’s latest book is a sobering and at times chilling look at the ways in which the upcoming World Cup and Olympics are wreaking havoc on Brazil. It is as excellent as it is depressing.