Brad's Reviews > The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup

The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup by Matt Weiland
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Jun 15, 2009

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bookshelves: football-lit, personal-mythology, sport
Read from June 11 to 29, 2010

It's the 2010 World Cup, and I've reread an essay from this book -- or two -- every day of play so far. All of the essays are interesting, but as a book about football, it's a teeter-totter. One day I read about how a beautiful expression of how football can be more important than sex or how an unquenchable England fan can find himself cheering for Les Bleus, and the next day I am reading an article about surfing that happens to mention a footballing superstar (apparently that's all it takes to qualify the essay as "footy" writing) or a piece of political propaganda that happens to draw some obscure parallel between the beautiful game and a nation (see the essays on Paraguay and Mexico).

When the book is on the teeter, it is a perfect compliment to the matches. When the book is on the totter, though, it is maddeningly off-topic, suggesting that editor Matt Weiland was either lazy or rushed when he put this book together. Still, even with the totters and its World Cup 2006 focus, The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup is a perfect diversion at half time when Brazil and Portugal are playing to a dour draw or Germany is on the verge of embarrassing England...again.

I leave you with one of the finest description of what makes the beautiful game beautiful that I've ever read. It was in the essay I saved until last, Robert Coover's essay on Spain; it's the essay that will always keep me coming back to this book, despite its totters:
The explanations advanced for soccer's intense mysterious power, the trancelike quality of great matches, its worldwide domination over all other sports, have been many, some finding in it a vivid reenactment of the prehistoric ritual hunt, others echoes of the matriarchal dream, initiation rites, pastoral dreams of a lost golden age. There is, akin to these, the game's inherent theatricality -- not the razzamatazz of an American halftime, but the inner dramas of sin and redemption, the testing of virtue, the pursuit of pattern and cohesion, the collision of paradoxical forces: soccer has often been compared to Greek tragedy, or seen as a kind of open-ended morality play. Perhaps the difficulty in scoring (and thus the usual narrowness of margins of victory, even between teams of markedly unequal ability, the everpresent danger of a sudden reversal of fortune) intensifies this sense of theatre, causing the denouement -- or the collective catharsis -- to be withheld almost always until the final whistle. Nor, until that whistle, is there relief from the tyranny of time's ceaseless flow: once you've fallen into a game, there is no getting out. The player must stay with that flow, maintain rhythm, press for advantage, preserving all his skills, his mind locked into the shifting patterns, and the spectator, though less arduously, shares this experience.
It's that sharing of experience that makes the game beautiful for me. It's why I was depressed for two weeks after Zidane headbutted Materazzi in 2006; it's why I was depressed after France's ignominious exit in 2010, at least until the amazing Slovakian defeat of Italy. I feel the game in a way I feel no other. And it's nice to know someone can put my experience into words.
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Reading Progress

06/12/2010 page 54
13.0% ""Now I feel I am able to say what I couldn't then...Bollocks was it the Hand of God, it was the Hand of Diego! And it felt a little bit like pickpocketing the English." ~~Diego Maradona"
06/12/2010 page 190
46.0% "Our teams reflect our soul, as with so many other countries: somehow we never quite make it to the top, and we are never quite up to our potential. ~~Jorge Castaneda"
06/12/2010 page 130
31.0% "Sex and [football] do not mix well. ~~Aleksandar Hemon"
06/12/2010 page 357
86.0% "Then again, do we really want -- or can we even conceive of -- an America where soccer wide popularity or even respect? If you were soccer, the sport of kings, would you want the adulation of a people who elected Bush and Cheney, not once but twice? You would not. You would rather return to your roots, communist or otherwise, and fight fascism with your feet. ~~Dave Eggers"
06/13/2010 page 254
61.0% "Here, though, it was difficult to resist the conclusion that something in the Serb soul craves gridlock. (How does this translate into football? Packing the midfield? Playing for a draw and hoping to sneak through in injury time -- as the amber turns to red, so to speak -- or on penalties?) ~~Geoff Dyer"
06/14/2010 page 60
14.0% "But racist or quasi-racist slander of ['wogball'/]football was not uncommon in Australia, even in the cities, where the football-eggball rivalary could serve as a cover for deeper biases. ~~Ben Rice"
06/16/2010 page 72
17.0% "Every time you kick the ball, it's more likely not to go where you aim it than it is to go there; or to go at the wrong speed, or to bounce too much; or it does go where you aimed it but an opponent was standing there, or the teammate you were aiming it at wasn't looking, or moved away, or failed to control it, or was tackled, or fell over, or immediately gave it away to an opponent. ~~John Lanchester"
06/18/2010 page 262
63.0% "Germans are efficient, Italians operatic, the French cultured, Spaniards temperamental, Brazilians flamboyant, and the English...(bull)dogged. ~~Peter Ho Davies"
06/19/2010 page 204
49.0% "[It] is not so much whether the world is ready for the Netherlands to win the World Cup this year, as whether the Dutch are."
06/20/2010 page 91
22.0% "For better or worse this is Naipaul's Africa: a place of magic and the mysteries of the village, now also on display at the many roadblocks in the north and west of Cote d'Ivoire, where soldiers are convinced that the amulets they wear around their necks will ward off bullets. War, too, encourages superstition."
06/22/2010 page 230
55.0% "At least one young Madeiran, a poor kid from Funchal named Cristiano Ronaldo, had made it big playing for Manchester United. Ronaldo -- he was named for Ronald Reagan, of all people -- is on the Portuguese national team. He drives a silver Porsche. Every boy in Madeira, according to my sources, wants to be him. ~~William Finnegan" 2 comments
06/23/2010 page 122
29.0% "In the mind's eye now, England games during that decade were frequently only just visible through a cloud of tear gas, used by European police to disperse our rioting hooligans. England fans were fast becoming a pretty sinister bunch; and though our club games were frequently plagued by riots, it never felt as though the yobs were setting the tone. ~~Nick Hornby"
06/26/2010 page 173
42.0% "United as a nation usually only by their indignant reaction to foreign criticism, Italians enjoy the World Cup as a rare moment of positive collective pride, but to be rehearsed, replayed and gloated over in the safety of their exclusive regional groups. ~~Tim Parks"
06/26/2010 page 151
36.0% "The trend of continually exporting home-grown African talent to countries that not only welcome them into their richly funded and well rewarded league systems but...even absorb them into their national sides may well destroy the chances of any African country actually ever winning the World Cup. ~~Caryl Phillips"
06/27/2010 page 138
33.0% "[Fritz] Walter was responsible for Germany's reputation as a tournament team, a team that was never beautiful, but always the best and most determined when the game depended on it. ~~Alexander Osang"
06/28/2010 page 207
50.0% "On the pitch, they are said to speak in Guarani, rather than Paraguay's official language, Spanish, to confuse their opposition. Like Paraguay itself, the identity of the national team is not what it seems on the surface. ~~Isabel Hilton"
06/29/2010 page 186
45.0% "In contrast to the oppressive feel of Japanese baseball, Japanese soccer is freewheeling, unburdened, even joyous. The play is loose, expressionistic, wide open. ~~Jim Frederick"

Comments (showing 1-9 of 9) (9 new)

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message 1: by Brad (last edited Jun 12, 2010 02:01PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Brad It's my second time through. Even though this book was compiled for the last World Cup, I am reading one essay/match about one of the teams on display. Some teams aren't represented in the book, having missed the last WC, but there's enough to make a reread fun.


Brad Is anyone out there watching World Cup 2010? Messi was great today, but Vincent Enyeama was even better (and man of the match for his goalkeeping). And the USA pulling out a draw against England was a nice bit of illusion dispelling. England are not as good as they think, and not just in net.


message 3: by Nancy (new)

Nancy England has a lot of talent, but not a lot of flair. I always fall asleep during their games. New Zealand was a surprise today!


Brad And what a surprise! Wow. I was so excited to see the All Whites dig out that draw. In a perfect world they'd make it to the next round. Of course they won't, but wouldn't it rock? yeah...England is borrrrrriiiiing.


message 5: by Ben (new)

Ben Who ya pullin' for out of the teams left, Brad?


Brad Germany. I know, I know...but I can't help myself. There is something about the Germans that just stokes me. I am a keeper, and they always have the most fascinating keepers. Oliver Khan and Mad Jens are the two most recent awesome German keepers, so I can't help myself (it didn't hurt that Mad Jens played for my club team when they were at their invincible best -- Arsenal). But I have a huge soft spot for Paraguay, and my current club Captain sits on the bench (wtf?!) for Spain. So I like them too.

And I have to say -- officially -- that I HATE Brazil. Whew. There I said it.


message 7: by Ben (new)

Ben Yeah, I don't like Brazil either. Nor Argentina. I like Germany and the Netherlands from the teams left.

I'm impressed that you're such a renaissance man. Actor, goal keeper, writer, teacher....


Brad Thanks, Ben. I wouldn't really put goalkeeper with the others, though. I do that for fun on the side. The others I've all done professionally. But I sure do love being a keeper.

Did you see Spain beat Portugal yesterday? I thought it was a damn fine match, even if there was only one goal. It was nice to see Ronaldo neutered out there.


message 9: by Ben (new)

Ben Didn't see it, but got the play-by-play from my desk at work. It sounded evenly matched; I figured Spain would come around from the way they were playing before.


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