Soccer heads into the literary leagues

Baseball, as we’ve frequently been told, lends itself to literature. The absence of a clock, the elegant geometry of the playing field, even that the best hitters fail two-thirds of the time: all these have proved irresistible to writers ever since Casey struck out with two men on back in 1888. One of the nation’s most prominent political columnists cultivates a secondary persona as a kind of intellectual of the diamond and our most prestigious literary magazine employs a more or less full-time baseball correspondent. “I see great things in baseball. It will … be a blessing to us,” Walt Whitman is supposed to have written.

Soccer, whose showcase event kicks off next week in Johannesburg, South Africa, hasn’t always been held in similarly high regard. Until pretty recently — at least in Britain, the birthplace of the modern game — it occupied a place in the culture somewhere between dog racing and darts. Working-class men gathered on cold, dark afternoons in crumbling, ill-lighted stadiums to watch players artlessly hoof the ball up and down a soggy, frozen pitch — with booze and violence never far from the surface for players and fans alike. Even to want to pull from this gray landscape anything aspiring to literature would have been like trying to create an opera out of a pint of beer — the kind of category error that only a fancy-pants intellectual would ever make.

Meanwhile, on this side of the Atlantic, soccer was until recently such a niche pastime that it would scarcely have occurred to anyone to write in a sophisticated way about it. What soccer writing did go on here tended to be of the embarrassing type that referred to a midfielder’s “ball-handling” — as if he were a point guard — or that smugly dismissed the game for not having enough scoring.

Then, something changed. As English professional soccer began to clean up its act in the early ‘90s, creating a safer environment for fans, intellectuals — or at least the upper middle class — discovered the game. It started with Pete Davies’ “All Played Out which used first-hand reporting to render England’s players and fans caught up in the chaos of Italia ’90 with a sort of quiet, thoughtful — almost literary — dignity.

At first this new approach was jarring. Seeing, in the book-review section of a major English newspaper, a review of Nick Hornby’s “Fever Pitch” (1992) about the highs and lows of being an Arsenal fan, I was struck, at age 15, with a mixture of excitement and profound confusion. I liked the book-review section. And I liked soccer, of course. But what on earth did the two have to do with each other?

A lot, it turned out. “Fever Pitch” showed not just that soccer could offer a canvas for the sort of themes — triumph, disappointment, obsession, belonging, — that the best literature explores. It also helped claim the game, or at least a piece of it, for people who liked to read more than the match reports. If a middle-class, Oxbridge-educated writer could participate — unself-consciously and unapologetically — in this ritual of English masculinity, then so could just about anyone. (It helped bolster Hornby’s narrative that three years earlier Arsenal had produced a last-second championship-winning goal against Liverpool at Anfield that for sheer you-couldn’t-have-scripted-this drama was sort of the equivalent of Kirk Gibson’s World Series home run, Michael Jordan’s NBA title-winning jump shot and David Tyree’s super-catch all rolled into one.)

From there, we were off and running. With “Fever Pitch” serving as the model, a whole genre of writing soon developed that uses soccer to explore serious subjects and finds original insights about the game itself. Ian Hamilton’s “Gazza Agonistes” (1993), first published as a long essay in the literary magazine Granta, offered a fan’s-eye-view of the media phenomenon that was Paul Gascoigne, the most talented and perhaps the most troubled English player of his generation. In comparing the midfield maestro to a Tourette’s sufferer profiled in neurologist Oliver Sacks’ “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat” and suggesting that “Gazza” might be similarly afflicted, Hamilton even offered a sympathetic explanation for the bizarre behavioral tics that one might have found off-putting about England’s best player.

Since then, things have gotten more creative still. David Winner’s 2002 “Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius Of Dutch Football” argues essentially that because Holland is small and densely populated, the Dutch have developed a unique conception of space, which is reflected in their distinctively creative style of soccer, as exemplified by the “Total Football” concept pioneered in the 1970s by Johann Cruyff, et al. A stretch, but when it lets you draw parallels between Rembrandt’s portraiture and Dennis Bergkamp’s passing, who cares?

Even Americans have been getting in on the game lately. Franklin Foer’s “How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization” (2004) looks at how, from Glasgow to Rio, the game continually reflects the particular social, political and religious tensions of the communities in which it’s played — a trend toward localism that may actually be increasing in reaction to the homogenization of global culture. And in the lead-up to the 2006 World Cup, it was two Americans, Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey, who compiled a collection of literary essays about each of the tournament’s 32 participants, with entries from prominent writers such as Dave Eggers and Aleksandar Hemon.

Shorter-form soccer writing too offers rewards beyond the results and goal-scorers. Expert correspondents like the legendary Brian Glanville — who’s been covering World Cups since the 1950s — and Patrick Barclay can turn ordinary match reports into vivid battlefield accounts, aesthetic assessments more suited to an art critic. For the smartest writing from South Africa this month, keep an eye on Barclay of the Times, Kevin McCarra of the Guardian and Henry Winter of the Daily Telegraph — whose recent campaign to ensure that England midfielder Steven Gerrard plays in the center rather than on the left is surely the Lord’s work.

Most of this stuff is on par with the best writing about baseball — or any other American sport. Where soccer literature has run into trouble is when it tries to mimic the turn toward statistics-based analysis that, since Michael Lewis’ blockbuster “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” (2003), has characterized much American sports writing. By showing that stats like on-base percentage were being systematically undervalued, Lewis’ book helped revolutionize the way that baseball executives gauge players’ worth — and as a reader made you feel like you were discovering the game anew.

Last year’s much heralded “Soccernomics” by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, looks for ways to apply that kind of thinking to soccer, but it’s unlikely to have a similar impact. Figuring out the best direction for a goalkeeper to dive when trying to save a penalty or which country has the best record in international competition when you control for things like GDP and population size (it seems to be Norway — now you know) are fun mental exercises. But statistics simply don’t reveal as much about soccer as they do about baseball — one reason many of us like it. It’s pretty passing in the center-circle rather than the incisive run into the box of which goals are made.

But with the best sporting event in the world set to get going in South Africa next week, why dwell on the negatives? After all, for the first round, fans will face that awkward 2 1/2-hour match-watching gap between the second and third matches of the day. What better way to avoid soccer withdrawal symptoms than with a bit of light reading about the Beautiful Game?

Roth will be blogging the World Cup from South Africa at the New Republic’s “Goal Post” blog.