With Brian Granville’s The Story of the World Cup updated as “The Essential Companion to Brazil 2014” and now available in the bookshops, the countdown has begun to a familiar ritual, to a collective immersion in different facets of football’s greatest show — some would say, with sport’s greatest show. No other tournament collapses so many time zones, bringing full-time fans and the four-yearly enthusiasts on the same page, and obsessively so. No other tournament, no other gathering in fact, inspires as much curiosity about the folks on the field, and the countries they come from. You’d think that the Olympics would have a firmer claim to this — or even the UN General Assembly — but it is during football’s World Cup that, for the one month every four years, the world is suddenly, un-self-consciously a smaller, better place.
I am not sure whether I already had a clear view of the unique appeal of the World Cup, and so found an echo of my method of catching up on football and its world in The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup, or whether it was this gem of a book that organised my thoughts, such is the way with favourite books that are reread so many times. Edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey in advance of the 2006 World Cup, the book captures the essence of what holds the tournament apart from football’s other big events, the club-based leagues, other championships, the Olympics. In a game unmatched for its universality, a game that piles up its stats for compulsive scrutiny, football gives us a way to follow unanticipated lines of inquiry into the different teams.
Weiland and Wilsey matched 32 writers to the teams participating that year, asking them to write on the country along any axis of their choice. In fact, having begun before the final line-up was clear, the process had eliminated writers like Eduardo Galeano when Uruguay unexpectedly failed to qualify for the finals in Germany and Ian Jack when Scotland too didn’t — Ukraine did, and it is particularly moving at this juncture to read Benjamin Pauker’s essay on how he was drawn to the Ukrainian team, and then to Taras Shevchenko, the country’s greatest poet.
The standout piece is John Lanchester’s essay on Brazil, and in football’s most special country — and this year’s host — he is best qualified to answer the question, “why do we fall in love with football?” Because, unlike other games, to watch and to write about football is always about the experience of watching it too: “The great games I’ve seen… feel less in my memory like things I saw, in the way that I might have seen a movie, than things I lived through, things that happened to me.” Or, he says, drawing on Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, “the way the game sweeps up individual life stories in a bigger collective story, makes you feel part of something”.
This is why, he points out, unlike in other sport, most football writing is about being a fan, not about the game. And taking an overview of the Brazilian team, and its dream runs in World Cups past, he states what may be the obvious, that “the Brazil football team is as far as I know unique in sport in being an example of a beloved overdog”, but the mystery will be framed particularly starkly this summer by the memory of protests about overspend that shook the country last year. What will we learn yet about Brazil, about football, and about the dictatorial manner in which international federations increasingly lay down (instead of don) the requirements for host countries?
For Said Sayrafiezadeh, a fixture in 1998 between the US and Iran becomes a trigger to take stock of his mixed Iranian-American ancestry, particularly his fraught relations with his Iranian father. An American citizen, he feels compelled to visit Tehran, but finds the surprisingly welcoming rules of his father’s land — the consular staff tells him that born to Iranian father, he need not apply for a visa, and that he need just get a supplementary Iranian passport — end up inhibiting his plans. (The requirement for official documentation makes the father-son relationship the key to the visit.)
Dave Eggers wonders about the fact that in the US most little boys play football, only to abandon it at about age 10. Why? “The abandonment of soccer is attributable, in part, to the fact that people of influence in America long believed that soccer was the chosen sport of Communists.” Ethnic diversity is changing that, but football’s still subordinate place as a spectator sport, he says, is also explained by Americans’ inclination for team sports they invented and, interestingly, their incomprehension of “flopping”, “a combination of acting, lying, begging and cheating” to persuade the referee to make a decision on free kicks, penalties, yellow and red cards, etc.
What American fans there are, Wilsey argues, have a unique corner to enjoy football, something Indian fans share. Theirs is not a football-crazy country, “so when the World Cup comes around, you can pick whatever team you like best and root for them without shame or fear of reprisal — you can spend the month in paradise”.