Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of former U.S. World Cup team coach Bruce Arena. The review also described fans upset by the team’s performance in the 2006 World Cup tournament as having “tweeted en masse” about it. The book states more generally that fans used social media, not necessarily Twitter, to vent their displeasure.This version has been corrected.
Eric Wills is a senior editor at Architect magazine.
I grew up during the youth-soccer boom in the United States, and I joined school and travel teams in the mid-1980s. But the soccer that we — and so many other kids around the country — played was a crude interpretation of the sport, largely dominated by someone booting the ball down the field and the rest of the players descending on it in an inelegant swarm. No wonder the majority of Americans are so ambivalent about the game.
My awakening came while I was living in London in the late 1990s, when I developed a Saturday-evening ritual of watching “Match of the Day,” a televised recap of games in the English Premier League. As much as I detested Manchester United’s dominance during that era, I was captivated by the moments of electric artistry — Ryan Giggs’s wondrous FA Cup goal , for instance — that punctuated the slow buildup of deft passing. Not even the rampant diving — players falling to the ground and writhing at the slightest suggestion of contact, goading the referee into calling a foul — could diminish what for me was sporting theater of the first order.
Since then, jogo bonito — the beautiful game — has quietly taken hold in the United States, especially among the offspring of immigrants and an affluent cosmopolitan class for whom soccer’s sometimes rugged allure may be a welcome alternative to the concussion-challenged National Football League. In a predictable sociocultural moment, the New York Times recently published a trend piece hailing soccer’s rising popularity among the smart-set literati and the hipster crowd.
But that’s hardly a new phenomenon, nor does it reflect the experience of the average fan in this country. My Facebook and Twitter feeds have long been populated by friends who support Chelsea or Tottenham with a passion usually reserved for fantasy leagues of the American persuasion. It’s a testament to how the Internet has helped the game go global.
On the eve of this year’s World Cup in Brazil, two books help illuminate how Americans (some of us, anyway) learned to love soccer. 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 this past week of a Singaporean syndicate that paid referees to fix matches just before the last World Cup. And that’s in addition to the bribery charges and construction-worker deaths that have plagued the host (for now) of the 2022 tournament, Qatar, not to mention the unrest rippling across the current host country, 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 the game, though not without a few memorable hiccups. Assigned to write a profile of 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 news conference, he realized that 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 used social media to vent their frustration with the U.S. team’s dismal showing and to call for the resignation of Bruce Arena, 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, a.k.a. Pelé, to play for the New York Cosmos in the North American Soccer League (NASL). In “Why Soccer Matters,” the Brazilian striker recalls his 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.
Pelé’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,” Pelé writes. Toye’s pitch: “Play for Real Madrid and you might win a championship. Play for New York, and you’ll win a country.”
Inspired no less by his $7 million contract, Pelé signed with the Cosmos. Though the NASL folded in 1985, after earning a reputation as an “elephant’s graveyard” for its past-their-prime foreign stars, it inspired a rising generation of U.S. players.
For all of Pelé’s exploits on the pitch, his reputation among some fans as a corporate shill since his retirement (this is a man who has registered his name as a trademark) has assumed scandalous proportions amid the massive uprising by Brazilians protesting the public funding used to build the facilities for this year’s World Cup. As Vecsey writes: “Suddenly, with the zeal of citoyens in France at the time of the revolution, crowds were asking if they really needed to turn their country into a giant television studio and resort so billions of people could watch a soccer tournament, with the bills arriving later.”
Because of his support for Brazil’s bid for the Cup, Pelé has been branded by protesters with an ignominious nickname: “traitor of the century.” He promoted the bid, he argues in his book, because the government had promised to use only private funding and tackle much-needed infrastructure projects.
In fact, for the very reasons that the protesters are now rising up, Pelé writes, he waged a spirited campaign against Brazil’s bid for the 1994 World Cup. His change of heart this time came about because he thought the country was in a better position to manage the economic burden — until the politicians reneged on their promises. His lament — “I guess, of all people, I should have known better” — will do little to pacify his critics, however.
Pelé’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, for instance, 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 — even if he does not quite belong in Cramer and Talese’s rank of literary demigods — such a welcome contribution. If only more writers of his caliber would help unravel the beautiful game for the American audience.
Eric Wills is a senior editor at Architect magazine.
EIGHT WORLD CUPS
My Journey through the Beauty and Dark Side of Soccer
By George Vecsey
Times. 289 pp. $28
Why Soccer Matters
By Pele with Brian Winter
Celebra. 292 pp. $26.95