The question on the mind of everyone who gives a damn about US Soccer right now, from Sunil Gulati to Franklin Foer, is this: What happens to the newly minted US fans now that the Americans are out of the tournament?
Will they, as Foer elegantly calls it, find “proxy identities”, some link between the family tree and the tournament bracket? Will they give the MLS a try or, more likely, look to Europe this fall? Will they forget about the game until the bars are hopping and SportsCenter is humming with soccer fever again in 2014?
Here’s what they should do: Read.
The American sportswriting landscape has always been dominated by baseball. The clockless pace, the summer setting, the beer and hot dog nostalgia, the statistical minutiae, they all lend themselves quite well to rhapsodizing on paper. Football and basketball, the two newbies on the scene and, for some, perhaps better representations of the modern day American “fan”, haven’t been as successful in churning out great books. Can we reach a consensus on a top five for either sport without turning to fiction? Sure we could cobble together a list but beyond maybe three or four books–Paper Lion, The Breaks of the Game, perhaps The Blind Side–and we’re already in devoted fan territory. There’s little for the reader simply seeking exemplary writing.
This is one of the primary benefits of following soccer. The writing is fantastic. I didn’t come to be a US soccer fan through reading. That had more to do with the rare American opportunity for unabashed patriotism and, I’ll admit, a slick marketing campaign courtesy of Nike. (As detailed here.) But following that 2006 World Cup, when I wanted to become a fan of the sport rather than just a team, I turned to the bookshelves and found a solid group of good to great books awaiting.
But before we get to the books, it bears mentioning the level of writing we’ve seen at this World Cup. Blogs from The New Republic, Vanity Fair and NPR have brought their usual reporting acumen and teams of influential writers to the table. ESPN’s “Off the Ball” blog and podcasts, the product of two English ex-pats in America, has been nothing short of delightful. Even the independent blogs reach new heights. The Run of Play is easily one of the best-designed and best-written blogs I’ve ever seen regardless of topic.
With no shortage of jumping off points, the question now is where to start? Here’s a list of books, in my own contrived order from easiest for the new fan to most in-depth, that helped my appreciation and understanding of the sport grow. Nothing revolutionary here. Most of the books will be recognizable to those faintly aware of the soccer writing landscape but that’s not the aim. Only quality.
1. Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby – Simply put, this is what it is to be a soccer fan. Hornby is imminently digestible and entertaining. Shame that the ill-fated movie of the same name turns up on a BN.com search ahead of the book.
2. Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski – The Guardian called it “a sort of Freakonomics for soccer,” which, I believe, was clearly implied by the title. Nonetheless it’s entertaining in the same pop economics way. Topics include: Why England loses, why Brazil and Germany win, an excellent chapter on penalty kicks, which fans are the most passionate and a comparison of the NFL and the English Premier League among many others.
3. Bloody Confused by Chuck Culpepper – Could’ve been alternately titled An American Sportswriter in Portsmouth. Culpepper, on the verge of burnout with American sports, heads to England and adopts Portsmouth. Nothing earth-shattering but a good perspective for the now developing American soccer fan.
4. Among the Thugs by Bill Buford – Here’s your guilty pleasure, a discourse on football hooliganism pulled together over eight years in England by the always excellent Buford. There’s a temptation to go with the salacious first, but hold out. Trust me.
5. How Soccer Explains the World by Franklin Foer – This is where I started and, while great, I wasn’t ready to appreciate it without a little more background information. I definitely owe this one a re-read. Many books try to explain global or national truths through sport. Few succeed as well as How Soccer Explains the World.
6. Brilliant Orange by David Winner – My favorite of the group and one of my favorite sports books in general. Winner explores, in exacting detail, the beautiful world of Dutch soccer using the country’s famed art and architectural movements as major reference points. It’s fascinating to hear Foppe de Haan, a manager in the Dutch league, describe the national team’s mindset–completely foreign to America and most of the soccer playing world, in two sentences. “Winning is not the most important thing. The most important things is to play a good game.” Later, de Haan expands on the concept. “Our first aim is to be attractive, to amuse the public a little bit by being artists.” Try finding that anywhere outside of the Netherlands.
8. The Ball is Round by David Goldblatt – As a 900-page “global history of soccer” there’s no way around it: This one is a challenge. Still, if the history of the sport is what you seek, this is your one stop shop.
9. Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson – The only book on the list I haven’t read yet. Why? Not sure I’m ready, but I am sure this is a large piece of the puzzle when it comes to understanding the game. This is the tactics book to end all tactics books.
The good news? I’ve got four more years to get there.