The beautiful game, warts and all

As the World Cup begins in Brazil, two books help illuminate how Americans (some of us, anyway) learned to love the sport. But these memoirs also grapple with the sport’s corrupt underbelly, which has come under intense scrutiny in the lead-up to Brazil. New allegations surfaced recently of a Singaporean syndicate that paid referees to fix matches just prior to the last World Cup. And that’s in addition to the bribery charges and construction-worker deaths that plagued the host (for now) of the 2022 tournament, Qatar, not to mention the unrest rippling across the current host country of Brazil.

In Eight World Cups, his chronicle of covering the game for the New York Times, George Vecsey offers a primer on the notoriously opaque practices of FIFA, the sport’s governing body. “I had seen FIFA up close, as the 1994 World Cup approached,” he writes, “and its disdainful attitude toward the leadership of the United States Soccer Federation seemed uncomfortably like a powerful nation seeking a regime change in a puppet state.”

But Vecsey’s at his best in various set pieces, whether he’s describing Landon Donovan’s climactic goal for the U.S. squad against Algeria in the last World Cup, or recalling his own awakening to jogo bonito at the 1982 tournament, when he caught his first glimpse of the Brazilians: “This was some entirely new sport, a blend of ballet and geometry, quick triangles appearing and disappearing, instant decisions by athletes on the move, so graceful and independent, performing intricate maneuvers with a round ball, on the fringes of their feet.”

Over the decades, Vecsey grew increasingly savvy in his understanding of soccer, though not without a few memorable hiccups. Assigned to write a profile about the combustible Argentinian striker Diego Maradona before the 1990 World Cup, Vecsey tracked down the player’s home number in Naples, where he was playing in Italy’s Serie A league. A man answered, and after a halting exchange in Spanish and Italian, agreed to pass along the interview request.

Soon after, when Vecsey heard Maradona hold forth at a press conference, he realized it had been the Argentine himself on the phone. This didn’t exactly rival the deceit of Maradona’s infamous “hand of God” goal against England in the 1986 World Cup, when his illicit handball, disguised as a header, eluded goalkeeper Peter Shilton. But for Vecsey, it was an initiation of sorts: “The more I thought about it, the more I respected the way he had goofed on me over the phone. After all, look at what he had done with Peter Shilton.”

Vecsey pinpoints the uptick in American interest to the 2006 World Cup, when fans took to Twitter en masse to vent their frustration with the U.S. team’s dismal showing, and to call for the resignation of Bruce Arenas, its coach. But American soccer can also trace some of its current momentum to the decision in the late 1970s by Edson Arantes do Nascimento, aka Pele, to play for the New York Cosmos in the North American Soccer League (NASL). In Pele, the Brazilian striker recalls his improbable rise to become the first global superstar—- and, in an unfortunate turn, the first superstar to entrust his finances to unscrupulous associates who lost his entire fortune, not just once but twice.

Pele’s loss proved America’s gain, because the second time he found himself broke, in the twilight of his career, he was being dogged by English journalist-turned Cosmos manager Clive Toye. “Toye kept after me for years, obsessively, like some kind of crazy hunter — I was Moby Dick to his Captain Ahab,” Pele writes.

Inspired no less by his $7 million contract, Pele signed with the Cosmos. Though the NASL folded in 1985, earning a reputation as an “elephant’s graveyard” for its past-their-prime foreign stars, it inspired a rising generation of U.S. players.

Pele’s book ultimately misses his goal of explaining why the game matters. And Vecsey, better known for his baseball writing, sometimes gets too mired in the personal details of his globe-trotting exploits. Still, I’m reminded of the “Small Ball Theory” proposed by the late George Plimpton. In his estimation, the tinier the ball used to play a sport, the more formidable that sport’s collected body of literature. Baseball’s canon, headlined by such notables as Richard Ben Cramer and Gay Talese, largely dominates the best sportswriting of the 20th century.

Though soccer’s bookshelf has grown in recent decades and a younger generation of Americans has started to meet the demand for savvier coverage, most of the best writing of recent memory has been by foreigners (such as Simon Kuper and Eduardo Galeano, whose Soccer in Sun and Shadow was re-released last year). Which is what makes this book by Vecsey such a welcome contribution. If only more writers of Vecsey’s caliber would help unravel the beautiful game for the American audience.

Eric Wills reviewed these books for the Washington Post.