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THE THINKING FAN'S
GUIDE TO THE WORLD CUP
Edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey Harper Perennial, $14.95
Credit Nick Hornby with making a book like The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup possible. Soccer, once scorned by "serious" writers as at best middle-brow and at worst violent and destructive, became fashionable with the 1992 publication of Hornby's Fever Pitch, a smart, funny and unapologetic discourse on the author's obsession with the London club Arsenal. Literary salons worldwide began to buzz with debate over how soccer--football to the rest of the planet--could serve as a lens through which to examine personal and national character.
That's the idea behind The Thinking Fan's Guide, a collection of 32 essays, one on each nation competing in the world's most important sporting event, which will consume the globe for a month beginning on June 9. But be forewarned: This is not your typical tournament preview. Readers looking for insight into the roster selections of England's manager, Sven-Goran Eriksson, Germany's coaching crisis of faith or the U.S.'s strategy for breaking down Italy's defense must look elsewhere. This book aims higher.
A few entries make the fan think too much. An essay on Ecuador's sparse sporting triumphs comes across like a Borges short story and is just as baffling. Other pieces might better fit in The Thinking Fan's Guide to Third-World Income Disparity and Political Despotism. The connections with sport, and particularly with this World Cup, are tangential or cursory.
But there are numerous gems. Tim Parks, a native of Manchester, England, who has lived in Italy for a quarter century, paints a vivid picture of life on the sun-splashed Adriatic coast during the 1994 World Cup. Mornings are spent lounging under beach umbrellas and lolling in the tepid sea. But the tranquillity masks an unspoken urgency. All is prelude to game night. "A powerful tide is running," Parks writes. "The moment approaches like a first date with a pretty woman." Not a fan of the Italian team, Parks experiences the emotional ebb and flow of Italy's match with Nigeria vicariously, watching in the cramped living room of a cinder-block house as his father-in-law agonizes over every free kick and foul. When a late goal ties the match and the Azzuri win in extra time on a penalty kick, Parks is won over too. "What can I do," he writes, "but choose to be happy."
In other insightful pieces Alexander Osang writes about Germany from the conflicted perspective of an East Berliner--an outsider in his own country--and Jim Frederick, Time magazine's Tokyo bureau chief, gives an engaging account of soccer's emergence in the new Japan, where the players are throwing off the shackles of conformity and developing a more joyous style of play. Elsewhere Courtney Angela Brkic describes how Croatia's stunning third-place finish in the 1998 World Cup buoyed that country's self-image in the years following the Balkan war.
Hornby is also here, trying to come to terms with his English fandom in the era of the hooligan. "Those drunk, racist thugs draped in the national colors ... they were, it turned out, my people," he writes. Hornby looks back wistfully at the players who embodied the old English virtues. Once, the nation looked to the ethos of its captain, Terry Butcher, who famously emerged from a World Cup qualifier with Sweden soaked in his own blood. "Off the pitch I was always an ordinary, mild-mannered bloke," Butcher said. "But put me in a football shirt, and it was tin hats and fixed bayonets." Now England's captain is the stylish androgyne David Beckham, who, fans suspect, "will wear a tin hat and bandages only when tin hats and bandages become de rigueur in some ludicrously fashionable European nightclub." While Hornby accepts that Beckham is "brilliantly illustrative of a new kind of English sportsman: professional, media-aware, occasionally petulant and very, very rich," the unsettling notion dawns on him that the fate of his team, his nation and his passion now lies in the hands of "sarong-wearing multimillionaire pretty boys." Unlike Parks, Hornby's lasting feeling is ambivalence. "We're not happy about it," he writes, "but what can we do?"