Reading Edge: The World is Round

It goes without saying that reading is a good escape. The process itself, of converting symbolic words into imaginary visual images, is absorbing and a form of fantasy. Fantasy is probably necessary to a creative human life, but now, with creative and social freedoms under severe repression from a political order that seeks to colonize truth and harness fantasy in service to the big lie, it’s essential to understand its power.

No more powerful shared fantasy exists than sport , as measured by the passions it excites. No sport has launched more fantasy than football- the kind you play with your feet- a cultural practice that David Goldblatt points out cogently in his exhaustive study of its history, is common to more of the world’s people than any other. No religion, language, cuisine, or most certainly, other sport, can match its hold on the sheer numbers of people football beguiles.

Consisting of infinite complexity within the frame work of a very simple structure, it’s the scaffolding upon which billions of wishes, hopes, playing styles and cultural attitudes are hung, a shared dream.

Within my four walls with a pandemic virus raging outside, and a cynical, uncaring thugocracy in place in the White House, time to kill and a more than virulent need for escape, it’s become a comfort. It helps to have a new TV, which the long dark approaching winter of a quarantined society almost demanded.

New streaming services, in a jostle for customers are offering cheap packages, and mine provides football from some of its artisanal centers, such as Germany, Italy, Holland and England. It’s rarely noted, but one thing that separates football from insular American league sports is international play, and so competitions range from national leagues of cities and towns to Champions Leagues of top clubs from each country, to Nations Leagues of whole countries vying for continental championships, to of course, the World Cup, a true world championship in which each of over 200 sanctioned nations around the world is eligible to compete.

There is no ‘offseason’, no recovery day, no ‘wait til next year’. The game is an engine of dreams, an escape into the infinite variety of human ambition and athletic creativity. So it’s perfect for a quarantine.

The rest of the world, by virtue of not having a corrupt goon leading it, is now mostly on the way to limiting the virus. After a short shutdown, most leagues are now back in operation, and with an obsessive agenda of making up game fixtures lost. So there’s a LOT of football on right now, albeit in half empty stadiums. US TV can not get enough of it.

First off, there’s the omnipresence of multiple leagues and competitions mentioned above. Coming from all time zones, it offers solutions to every unfilled time slot. My go-to is the European leagues, with offerings each day from roughly 6 AM- 4 PM. That leaves the evening for movies or reading (The US league, an acceptable brand of football comparable to Dutch or Swedish top tiers, and English and German second tiers, is on during the evenings, but for various bizarre reasons, my own local team is unavailable to watch, so it’s hard to not get seduced by the foreign games. Anyway, I haven’t been able to watch much Euro Ball in the last few years owing to prohibitive cable costs. I’m sure streaming will also become expensive after the promotional push is over.) So now is the time.

Football has now become my comfort activity for the pandemic shutdown. I did read a lot during the early days of shutdown, though I always read a lot anyway. As variety becomes a necessary quality in Q-time diversion, soccer fills the bill. Travel, exploration, cultural outreach and escape- football provides a little of all of those, if only in my mind.

I’m still reading, of course. What’s on my list? No surprise:

The Ball Is Round, David Goldblatt: I said “exhaustive”. This 900-page monster is that. The first time I read it after the US edition was released in 2008. At the time I simply let large parts of it wash over me, a favorite strategy for large complex readings. But I kept it on the shelf, knowing a return was inevitable.

Goldblatt spares no detail, and the book might not be for the superficial fan. Goldblatt traces ancient origins then the growth of the game in elite English public schools. Then its adoption by the British working classes as the industrial revolution’s unionism brought a sudden surge in wages and the invention of the weekend, along with the railways as a way to enable professionalism with traveling teams then leagues. Chapter after chapter, a litany of the game’s spread to the myriad nations of the British Empire, and beyond: both formal colonies and informal trading partners. A given country gets British help building industry and railways; native workers get income and holidays; country absorbs football, adding its own cultural flourishes. As the game grew, it became irresistible to fascists and socialists, militarists and capitalists, industrialists, and always, the poor. and working classes. Each culture has its own history with football, and all the histories are here.

Here, the book becomes a story not of a sport, for the devoted fan, but of Industrial Age culture. If history is written by the winners, then football is the story of those brief moments in the sun enjoyed by the losers. A tiny South American country has a democratic renaissance and wins 3 world championships in a row (Uruguay). A Jewish cultural center dominates the world of European football before disappearing into the maw of fascism (Hakoah Vienna). And a ruined fascist realm itself finds rebirth in a new democratic national identity at the 1954 World Cup (Germany). Goldblatt does not set out to write an overtly Marxist history of the game, but he demonstrates clearly that the game can not be separated from the history of socio-economic development. Dictatorships can win World Cups ( Italy, 1934-38), but the game’s inherent celebration of individual and collective endeavor ensures that it is there on the front lines when dictators fall as well ( Arab Spring).

The question is: who writes those scripts? Soccer often looks like an amorphous codified bit of entropy to Americans weaned on the over structured spectacle of gridiron football, but there must be a reason why, as Simon Kuper writes in Soccernomics, Brazil wins, and England loses. It’s not called ‘the beautiful game’ for nothing. Its deceptive simplicity allows endless room for individual creativity, and if English imperial arrogance would not admit of cultural differences, the Brazilians added more than enough samba and Carnival to ensure the game’s continued appeal. And multiple world championships. Like How Soccer Explains the World, by Franklin Foer, this book deserves a wider audience than the typical, obsessive fan boy blather. But as football gains curious new fans here, it may get that.

Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathon Wilson: A game that began as two mobs trying to kick a ball across open fields to a rival town’s city walls retains its transparent aims, but doesn’t always reveal its intricacies. The British in its early days of organization in the 1850’s saw no reason to complicate things much beyond a limit to the amount of people rushing the opposite goal, and that stodgy puritan athletic smugness continued for decades, but others, notably in Europe and South America, quickly saw that a rapidly professionalizing game rewarded innovation. Wilson chronicles the long journey from massed forwards dribbling toward goal to the modern formations that have made managers millions.

The whole thing got started with the ‘center half’, a deceptively named concept of moving a forward back a little off the front line to entice his opposite numbers to advance, thus creating space behind to pass the ball into. The center half, as linking function, eventually drifted back to just in front of the goalie, as ‘sweeper’, and now seems to have manifested as the variety of roles included in the designation ‘defensive midfielder’ that seem to be an integral part of all successful teams. Along the way, 2-3-5 morphed into 4-2-4, and on and on with a high pressing 4-3-3 currently the Ferrari among the Volkswagens. And a 4-2-3-1 the Volkswagen Van of small club dreams, providing versatility in defense and attack. Each change subscribed to the calculus of creating time and space for the most creative players, though there were retrenchments as well, e.g., “Catenaccio’.

Suffice it to say, that this book, too, is not for the superficial fan, sitting on his couch stewing over a 1-0 scoreline, wondering when is the two minute warning so he can get some snacks. But if you’ve gotten sufficiently fascinated by the game’s mysteries to wonder just how that sneaky little pass before the killer pass came to be, then you might find it your tankard of Tetley’s. As for me, having long ago become obsessed, I came up with the plan to read this tactical history in tandem with Goldblatt’s cultural one, alternating in roughly two-decade increments, comparing the game’s social progress with its strategic leaps. I’m now up to the mid-50’s through 60’s, a golden era for most of the game’s important regions, except England, of course.

Not nearly as dry and technical as it might seem, this book amplifies the way that each culture made football its own taking its inspiration and often its narratives from Goldblatt. Often it is individuals, whether players or managers, who inspire tactical innovation. And sometimes, as in the case of Brazil, it is an entire cultural project, to bring the individual expression of the ghetto and the Carnival, into a high performing team level. The results have been known to bring down governments, so it is far from a trivial story.

Will football show the way to a safer communal celebration of sport? Will it dull the violent racism of populists or surrender to it? Will its globalist momentum lead to expression, or repression? Will women, gays, blacks lead its next resurgence? The answer may lie with a rag tag neighborhood game and 22 beat up pairs of sneakers being played somewhere (everywhere?) to a hip hop beat, or, in other words, the beat of a different drum.

I certainly wouldn’t bet against it, and I’ll be watching, for sure. That’s what makes it a great escape, for me, and for ghetto kids of all stripe. It obviously can’t be quarantined out of existence, because it’s what dreams are made of.

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