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The best books on Soccer as a Second Language

recommended by John Turnbull

The Global Game by John Turnbull

The Global Game
by John Turnbull


When the World Cup comes around, many of us think of our national teams and their chances of winning. But the beauty of football is how international it is, and its ability to cut across borders. John Turnbull of the Global Game blog introduces us to football (or soccer) 'as a second language.'

The Global Game by John Turnbull

The Global Game
by John Turnbull

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Our topic today is ‘Soccer as a Second Language,’ which is the subtitle of your blog, The Global Game.

Yes. The books I’ve chosen are very broadly oriented, but the one aspect they all have in common is that soccer is both primary and secondary at the same time. Soccer is the reason for the books being written, but the writers’ interest is everything that goes on outside the stadium. Which makes it more effective and more interesting than writing that just covers the game itself, which is very hard to describe. As Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish writer, says, ‘Football is faster than words.’ It’s very hard to capture, but it becomes something more transcendent when you look at what happens outside the arena.

What does that mean?

I believe the game affects how people orient themselves to the world and conduct themselves in their daily lives. I think in the United States there’s this underdeveloped appreciation for the fact that around the world people not only support clubs, but in countries in Latin America and Africa, towns and communities are oriented around the soccer field. It’s a space that I have always thought of as a liturgical space. It’s both space and time that is separated from the mundane. Sport is a place of transcendence, like the arts, and I think a lot of cultures and societies around the world have an intuitive understanding of that. There’s one story I remember: a woman who is a mission worker in Guatemala told me that she has women who are illiterate, and they draw maps of their villages. And the maps they draw are invariably oriented so that the soccer pitch is at the centre. And I think how people draw maps of their world is pretty indicative of how they think about it.

Let’s talk about your first book, by the Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano. One of the reviews I read called it ‘the most lyrical, whimsical book ever written about football’.

I haven’t read all books on soccer, but I think it would certainly be up there. Lyrical is true, though of course I’ve only read it in translation by Mark Fried. Interestingly, the title works well both in Spanish and in English: in Spanish it’s El fútbol a sol y sombra and in English it’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow. The metaphor refers to the football stadium, where you can buy seats on one side or the other. Some are in the sun and they are cheaper, or you can buy seats in the shady part which is preferable but more pricey. And the very first sentence of the book is: ‘The history of football is a sad voyage from beauty to duty.’ What Galeano means is that sport as play has been lost as an idea in Western capitalist culture. Sport is now competition and sport is consumable. The World Cup in South Africa will be a spectacle, something for consumption. The television rights will have been sold, the areas around the stadium in South Africa will be zones of exclusion, limited to sales by the sponsors – Coca-Cola etc. It won’t be the local sellers who make their own beer. So that’s an example of the kind of thing that Galeano is talking about. In South African culture football has been very important, a place of everyday interaction, but that element will be lost. The tournament could really be held anywhere; you wouldn’t especially know that it’s in South Africa.

So are social divisions, the difference between those who sit in the sun and those who can afford to sit in the shade, a big theme of the book?

Galeano is, of course, well-known for his social activism, his writing about the marginalised, and the underside of Latin America. But it’s a complex metaphor; really it could be taken many different ways. The soccer in the sun could be what everyone sees on TV but the shadow side may be more interesting. But in this book he argues that the idea of play as a philosophy in sport is very important to humanity, and it gets minimised or cheapened when sport gets commodified. I think that’s what Galeano means. He’s looking for playfulness in soccer, he’s looking for a beauty in it, and when we only focus on the élite, and the very upper levels of the game, you miss some of that – the beauty of the shadow, the hidden part. Soccer is played every day, all over the world, in much more extraordinary circumstances than you’ll see at the World Cup. That’s what he’s trying to recapture. Although the odd thing is that he writes about the World Cup every four years and updates this book. He’s written about the 2002 and the 2006 World Cups and he’ll write about this one again.

Is he looking mainly at Uruguay or around the world?

He starts there [in Uruguay]. All his work is written in what in Latin America is called the crónica form, which are very short episodes. He has great credibility because, of course, Uruguay hosted the first World Cup and won the first World Cup. And so he reaches back to those kinds of memories. I suppose, maybe, in the way of nostalgia, things always seem sweeter and more innocent and more playful looking back. But I think he’s probably right in some sense. His books were the first that I read when I started writing about soccer, and they influenced me to look elsewhere. I’m not interested in the big matches. I like seeing how people play soccer every day.

Tell me about Simon Kuper’s book, Football against the Enemy.

This book was published in the United Kingdom in 1994 and, to me, it’s the most important book on soccer in English. He wrote this as a very young person, just out of university, and what really impressed me is that early on in the book, in the first couple of pages, he confesses he knows very little about big soccer, big football, and that he’s never sat in a press box or spoken to a professional footballer. This is pretty unique for sports writers, who are usually claiming an expertise they don’t have. Early on he describes interviewing Roger Milla, the Cameroonian forward, and not being able to look up from his list of questions. I like that kind of openness, his willingness to learn about the sport. His father is Adam Kuper, a well-known anthropologist who’s done a lot of ethnographic studies in Southern Africa, and I’m sure that influenced Simon and the questions that he brought to the game. His questions are anthropological ones, in a sense, and that’s an influence for the good when writing about football. Another thing that he does, which is probably unique for that time, is he doesn’t take an England-centred view of football. The London publishing market, and the English press in particular, are infatuated with English football. Simon has one chapter on Celtic and Rangers, who are in Glasgow and so from a Londoner’s point of view might as well be on the moon. So he’s not going to the power centres of world soccer. Instead he goes to Ukraine, for example, and to South Africa.

What kind of people is he interviewing?

He has little success speaking to footballers themselves, which is what football analysts are addicted to – getting footballers’ input on the game, which normally is not very revealing. It’s hard to narrate something that you’re participating in. So, he’s speaking to artists, to people who really hadn’t been spoken to, certainly by English-language writers, to academics, sociologists, political scientists. He’s looking outside the arena, for what those on the outside notice about the sport.

OK. But who is the enemy then?

That’s a good question. I’ve asked myself that many times. I think it’s a very clever title and I keep forgetting to ask him who really came up with it, because it’s quite brilliant. He writes, of course, about football and politics, and the relationship between them is very important. You can find the enemy in many places, I suppose, but he asks why so many political leaders and ambitious politicians around the world attach themselves to football clubs. There’s Berlusconi in Italy, who owns AC Milan, and in African and Latin American countries there’s often this relationship between political leaders and particular football clubs. But it’s also true that, historically, supporters have attached themselves to teams and seen football as a place of resistance. This was true in the former Soviet Union and it’s true in Burma today. People see the football stadium as a space where they can speak their mind. Perhaps under militaristic or overly repressive regimes it’s a free-speech zone that exists where none other does. So perhaps that’s one expression of football against the enemy, football against the state. But you’d have to ask him, as I may be over-reaching…

What’s the over-all message of the book?

It’s episodic. It would be diminishing it to call it a travelogue, but that’s what it is, superficially. It is a nine-month journey he makes on £5,000, in the early 90s (when you could still travel the world on £5,000), watching football and talking to people. That’s what it is in some sense, but it’s also more than that. The power in it is that he’s not trying to get one theme or one message from his journey; he just allows it to happen.

Let’s go on to your next book, Goldblatt’s The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Football.

This book was published in 2006 in the UK and was sent to me. It’s about 1,000 pages long and the copy I got was a hardback and I remember the impact it made as it hit my doorstep. I think for a book on sport that’s unique, a book of that length. But, setting sport aside, I think it’s one of the best English-language narrative histories that I’ve read on any subject, certainly from the first decade of the 21st century. Goldblatt is an amazing, very gifted storyteller. He’s a football reporter for the BBC, and his work is a treasure, I think.

You had no trouble getting through the 1,000 pages?

Oh, no. It’s extraordinarily well-crafted.

What is it exactly?

It’s a chronological re-telling. He starts out in pre-history, and there’s any number of pre-historical football-like ball games from an array of cultures, from Asian cultures, from Mesoamerican cultures. He looks at those and does a very good job of not linking those directly to modern-day football, as that would not be right historically.

But he sees those games as expressions of the truth, these societies who value sport and have this very early intuition about sport as a possible place of transcendence. In Mesoamerican cultures the ball game is a place where you can encounter the gods; it’s almost a mythological setting. He starts from there and quickly gets to the modern game, association football, and goes through its development on every continent. And, like Kuper and Galeano, he’s interested in the social mechanisms that work outside the sporting complex. He has that same awareness of context, that football never exists on its own, but that it shapes culture and is shaped by cultural forces. It’s more a work of history and sociology: the game, the matches that are played, are just a way of illustrating the social forces at work.

Oh dear, that doesn’t say great things about British and Dutch culture, if you think about the hooliganism.

He does talk a lot about the violent aspects and the sublimated violence of soccer. He writes about hooliganism in England in the 1980s, in the context of Thatcherite Britain. The hooliganism that was seen at that time, and that was seen as so appalling in US and in various places around the world, was almost a self-fulfilling prophecy of the policies of that time. Thatcher had made enemies of the underclass and those on the dole.

He argues this?

He puts it in that frame. The violence that you see at football stadiums isn’t just because it’s football: there’s violence for a reason, and there are many deeper reasons that one finds. I should add that another important contribution of his is that, early in the book, he notes that religion and food and rites of passage vary from one place to another. But soccer is played in more or less the same circumstances, by the same rules, around the globe. This is an aspect of soccer as language. It really requires no translation to be able to play it; it is its own language. It’s intuitively understood, you don’t need to say anything to be able to play it.

What about your next book, Hem and Football by Nalinaksha Bhattacharya?

This is a hard book to find – it’s out of print and has been for some time. To me it’s one of the most extraordinary fictional works on sport that I’ve seen and certainly on women and sport. I came on it by accident looking for material for our anthology. The principal character’s name is Hemprova Mitra, or Hem for short. She’s a Bengali girl from Calcutta who is chafing at school and family restrictions, and she decides that her school should have a football team. Again, the football is rather episodic; it’s not the centre point of the novel. But what she does in football and her activism in football helps her make sense of all the other countercultural leanings that she has. She’s a gay woman, and she leaves her husband, who she’s married to as a result of an arranged marriage. She rejects her family and takes a female lover, and football seems to propel her and give her confidence as a character moving through life. It’s a two-book series, there’s Hem and Football and Hem and Maxine, and Hemprova Mitra is the central character in both of them. It’s a much more interesting story than em>Bend It Like Beckham was, which some might compare it to, even though it was written about ten years before that film came out.

Was Bend It Like Beckham based on the book? I guess not, since that was set in Hounslow rather than India.

No. I’d be interested if Gurinder Chadha, the director, was even aware of the book. Perhaps she was. What I do know from reading about it is that Bend It Like Beckham originally had a different storyline. It was supposed to feature a gay romance between the two principal characters, Jules and Jess. But that had to be changed. Such is cinema.

What happens to Hem? Does she end up playing professionally?

Hem ends up like a lot of female footballers in India in real life. The only way they can keep playing football is to get a job in the civil service, which is massive in India. And this is what happens to Hem as well. She gains favour by being a good footballer and is able to get the civil service job.

That’s a side of India I’ve never even heard of, women’s football.

Yes, it really is the shadow side of the sport. Hem joins an amateur team in Calcutta at some point, and her coach is a committed Communist. And one of my favourite lines from the novel is when her coach says, ‘Here in Bengal all you get for bringing in those shining trophies year after year is a cheap garland of marigolds and … if you are lucky enough, a four-line report on the back page of the Bengali daily with your name invariably misspelt.’ I think that’s true in so much of the world for women footballers. It’s almost always a marginal activity, and an activity that women have to go against the grain to participate in. It’s not just in India, it’s in almost all societies that I can think of. Women playing football challenges gender categories, our assumptions about sexuality, and the book shows how much is at stake for women participating in sport and their identity as a woman. So in that sense it’s a novel that’s very deserving of a read. It’s a very funny book too.

A lot of the reviews say Kuper’s book is also very funny.

That’s true. All these writers really – Galeano and Goldblatt as well are very good about seeing the humour of it all, and I think that’s appropriate.

Finally, you’ve chosen an Iranian movie, Offside. These women go to watch football a match and are arrested and put in a holding pen in the stadium.

This is an especially relevant film now. Jafar Panahi is a major Iranian director, and he was imprisoned in Tehran in March, as a direct result of his filmmaking. Like a lot of his films, the idea is for the action to transpire in real time. So it starts with women who have disguised themselves as boys, and are trying to infiltrate the crowd at a World Cup qualifier. He managed to get permission from Iranian authorities to film at the stadium at an actual World Cup qualifying match, so it has a very realistic feel about it. Also, the actors he uses aren’t really actors – he tries to get real people to sneak into the stadium and then he films that. So they are rounded up by security authorities and penned in outside the arena at the match. The venue is Azadi Stadium in Tehran and it seats 100,000 or more, and you hear the crowd noise as they have this ongoing debate with their jailers, who are just doing their national service and really don’t care one way or another about Islamic law. One of the scenes in the film that I particularly remember is when one of the guards has to escort one of these women to the bathroom and, of course, there are no women’s rooms in the stadium because only men are allowed. So he has to get her into a men’s room and they have this long conversation. He’s a security officer and is just following orders, just doing his job, trying to satisfy his boss, and she ends up escaping from him in this sort of maze inside the stadium. It’s really an extraordinary film.

Presumably the film has not been screened in Iran.

No, the film has never been shown in Iran or in the cinemas there. But much of his work is available on pirated DVDs – that’s how people get to view it.

I’m confused how he managed to get permission to do the filming in the first place. He doesn’t mention the women, I take it.

No, he keeps that from authorities. He uses a ruse – I think he says he is filming the atmosphere at the match, without revealing his real purpose. As I recall, he had an approximately 30-day filming schedule, including the match where he gets a lot of the footage. But the authorities were chasing him and trying to catch up with him, so he had to film the last couple of days in a great hurry. But it’s very raw, the women ultimately gain their freedom and at the end he films them in the midst of a celebrating crowd in the streets of Tehran. It’s quite beautiful at the end.

December 17, 2010

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John Turnbull

John Turnbull

John Turnbull has been editor of The Global Game website since January 2003. He co-edited The Global Game: Writers on Soccer and has blogged for the New York Times ‘Goal’ blog, as well as writing on soccer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, When Saturday Comes (London), So Foot (Paris), Soccer and Society, World Literature Today and Afriche e Orienti.

John Turnbull

John Turnbull

John Turnbull has been editor of The Global Game website since January 2003. He co-edited The Global Game: Writers on Soccer and has blogged for the New York Times ‘Goal’ blog, as well as writing on soccer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, When Saturday Comes (London), So Foot (Paris), Soccer and Society, World Literature Today and Afriche e Orienti.