By Sean Callahan
Sunday, June 20, 2010; BW02
During the most recent edition of the World Cup in 2006, 16.9 million Americans watched the quadrennial soccer tournament's final game on TV -- more than those who tuned in to the NBA playoffs that year. Soccer is growing in the United States, especially because ours is one of only seven national teams to have qualified for all of the last six World Cups. And right now there is little chance of escaping talk about it -- even in the United States.
"The ESPN World Cup Companion" can help you join the conversation. This coffee-table book provides a lighthearted but thorough look at the tournament, which was first held in Uruguay in 1930. On almost every page, the book digs up a nugget of soccer history gold. For example, authors David Hirshey and Roger Bennett tell us that Brazil won its first World Cup in 1958 in Sweden after undergoing extensive preparations, including the extraction of "more than 300 teeth . . . from 33 players, who had never been to a dentist." Pelé, playing in his first World Cup at 17, also may have been a factor.
The authors identify cult figures, such as England's Nobby Stiles, a midfielder who helped the team win the 1966 World Cup and who "spooked opponents merely by removing his dentures before a game." And they select the winner of their "World Coiffure Cup": Carlos Valderrama, who sported a blondish Afro for Colombia in 1990.
Tom Watt's "A Beautiful Game" features reflections on soccer by England's David Beckham, Argentina's Lionel Messi and other soccer stars. These remembrances are accompanied by striking photos of children playing soccer. (UNICEF receives 5 percent of the book's revenues.) Among the best photographs: a shot of children in India playing the game on a dried mud field, cracked like a jigsaw puzzle. Most of the players' reflections are prosaic. Some, however, offer real emotion: "Until I was ten, I didn't have any [soccer cleats] but then my dad bought me a pair," recalls Mahamadou Diarra of Mali. "I was so happy that I slept cuddling them for the next two days."
"Africa United" delves deeply into African soccer. Steve Bloomfield writes that South Africa's World Cup "is an opportunity to shine a light on the new Africa. The continent that is constantly viewed through the prism of war, poverty and disease will get a chance to present a different face."
In this engaging book, Bloomfield dutifully describes how the Internet, mobile phones and increasing urbanization have boosted Africa's economic power -- a development rarely reported in the West. But some of his stories undercut his thesis, reinforcing the notion that Africa is weighed down with burdens, even if soccer can sometimes lighten the load. For instance, Bloomfield shows how soccer helped speed the reunification of Ivory Coast in 2007, which had split between north and south during a five-year civil war. At the time, soccer star Didier Drogba, who is from the south, eased the reconciliation when he declared that he wanted Ivory Coast to play its upcoming World Cup qualifier in the northern half of the country. "It will be the victory for Ivory Coast soccer, the victory of the Ivory Coast people and, quite simply, there will be peace," Drogba said.
In his incisive, if at times overwritten, "Soccer Empire," history professor Laurent Dubois explores how France's self-image and colonial history are intertwined with Les Bleus, the national team. France triumphed in the 1998 World Cup thanks in large part to two goals in the semifinal by Lilian Thuram, who had been born in the French Antilles, and two magnificent headers in the final by Zinedine Zidane, whose parents were Algerian immigrants to France. Many believed that the Cup victory by this integrated team of blacks, whites and Arabs "showed France what it could be: . . . a nation that gained strength from its diversity."
Eight years later, when France returned to the World Cup finals, the result was a heartbreaking loss to Italy, exacerbated by Zidane's ejection for head-butting an opponent. The international incident gave renewed voice to Jean-Marie Le Pen and his far-right Front National's disdain for immigration. "Ciao voyou! (Bye-bye, hoodlum!)," read the headline of one far-right publication.
Unlike Les Bleus, the U.S. soccer team doesn't carry the weight of the nation. In fact, it doesn't even have a nickname. But expectations are growing for the American team. In "Chasing the Game," Filip Bondy shows how the U.S. team may be able to make a run -- with a little luck -- deep into the tournament. In the 2009 Confederations Cup, the United States showed flashes of brilliance in defeating Spain, one of the top teams in the world, 2-0 in the semi-final. Then, miraculously, the United States led mighty Brazil by two goals in the final, only to collapse in the second half, losing 3-2. While the score was close, Brazil showed it remained at least a cut above American soccer. "You have no idea what they're going to do until they actually do it," U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said.
The same can be said of the U.S. team. No one knows whether this squad can make a run to the World Cup quarterfinals as the team did in 2002 or will flame out as it did in 2006. But no matter what happens, it's a safe bet that more Americans than ever will be watching.
Sean Callahan is an editor at Crain Communications and the author of "A is for Ara" and four other children's books.