Fever pitch: why football stories are also about society and politics

Tthe football universe is conveniently divided into two parts. On one side is the glitz, glamor and magic associated with Latin and South American football, and on the other is the nerdy and bookish domain of European football. And every four years these two worlds meet at the World Cup, and fans and pundits decipher and judge which of the two is stronger.

In the leap year – such as 2024 – these two find simultaneous prominence with their respective continental championships at the same time. While Lionel Messi & Co. dazzling at the Copa America, the tournament for the Americas (North and South), Kylian Mbappe and the likes of 16-year-old Lamine Yamal (Spain) are busy lifting the EC, the event for European nations. Aficionados marvel at the genius of the American stars while keeping an eye on the latest tactical trends from Italy, Germany and the Netherlands.

Ties that bind

The written books, at least of the popular variety, largely mimic this dichotomy. There is a sweeping history of football in Latin and South America, and also of individual countries, with the underlying themes of society and politics, and the place of football in this. In contrast, books on the European game provide a window into the world beyond the pitch, but there always seems to be an attempt to create a totem pole of contributions and thus form a hierarchy.

Could it be because Europe, a continent filled with nations that colonized the world, saw soccer as an instrument to establish supremacy while for the oppressed nations of the Americas it was a tool for self-expression? Andreas Campomar certainly thinks so. The Uruguayan writer, i ¡Golazo!: A History of Latin American Football, shows how football, which began as a pastime for a few expats, became a national identity.

“Football had long been our bond,” Campomar wrote in The Guardian 2015. “It was the language we spoke together. We loved the flashier aspects of the game: the bicycle kick, the deft back heel and the art of dribbling. (Our defenders had to have the guts to dribble in their own penalty area, even if it ended in failure.) We wanted cunning and skill to trump Anglo-Saxon notions of tenacity and courage.”

“Of course, this was rather a colonial position to take, but I realized that it was one of the few ways that we, as South Americans, could still compete. Every four years, the World Cup allowed Latin America to be remembered for its excellence. The soul of the continent was reflected in her football.”

A lifestyle

Christopher Hylands Tears at La Bombonera: Stories from a Six-Year Sojourn in South America takes a similar line although it is not a thesis but more of a chronicle. Jonathan Wilson’s Angels with dirty facesthe story of argentine football, Alex Bellos’ Futebol: the Brazilian way of life and David Goldblatt’s Football Nation are compelling accounts that contribute to the genre.

It’s not that Europe doesn’t tell similar football stories in an engaging way. David Winners Brilliant Orange: Dutch football’s neurotic genius and Phil Ball’s Morbo: The story of Spanish football is star work. The complicated relationships that regions such as Catalonia and the Basque Country share with the Spanish national team are very well documented by Ball. Likewise, books about the sport during the time of the Nazis in Germany and the Fascists in Italy have seen the light of day. But they are more about how each country’s identity shaped the game rather than the other way around.

Interestingly, books that have a global bandwidth seem to tell European football stories quite well. Four books headline this list – Football in sun and shade by Eduardo Galeano, Football against the enemy by Simon Kuper, The ball is round by Goldblatt and Invert the pyramid by Wilson. Galeano’s effort “celebrates the glory of the game” through anecdotes, stories surrounding the game’s origins and various World Cups, and fleeting sketches of individual footballers. Kuper travels to more than 20 countries worldwide to find out about football’s role in shaping them. Goldblatt’s is a comprehensive history of the sport, which has gained status as a gold standard against which all other works will be measured. Wilson’s is a history of tactics, a constantly evolving subject.

Club culture

The current era of football is driven by clubs. The franchises are where new ideas and ways of playing take shape. There used to be a time in which Wilson wrote The Guardian 2010, where “the World Cup functioned almost as a conference where delegates arrived from all over the world and exchanged ideas.”

But now international football is lagging behind club football, and Europe is the epicenter of this change. Michael Cox Zonal Marking: The Making of Modern European Football offers a fascinating assessment of these tactical developments. Rory Smith’s latest work, Expected goals: the story of how data conquered soccer and changed the game forever is another for football geeks, in line with Europe’s perceived diligence towards Latin and South America.

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