Ranking books is a lot like watching soccer games: Beauty tends to be in the eye of the beholder.
The game's elusive qualities involve an inherent subjectivity that fuels never-ending debates in bleacher seats, barstools, television studios and pickup games around the world. Selecting the five best soccer books presents much the same challenges.
But in the spirit of Sporting Kansas City goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen's bravery and honesty in penning his new autobiography, Welcome to the Blue Heaven, with the help of respected scribe Paolo Bandini, we're giving it a shot.
Of course, feel free to take issue with our selections and vouch for your favorite page-turners in the comments section below.
5) Joe McGinniss, The Miracle of Castel di Sangro
A relative soccer neophyte, the veteran Massachusetts-based author was impressed by what he saw in the 1994 World Cup and subsequently arranged to chronicle the 1996-97 season of Castel di Sangro Calcio, a provincial club from a small Italian village which had miraculously climbed its way up to Serie B, the country's second-tier professional league.
In a journey of discovery analogous to those made by so many North American fans, McGinness is moved by the passion and beauty of his adopted community and its love affair with soccer, even as they struggle and scrap just to avoid relegation. Yet the complexity of the Italian game leads to something far removed from a conventional happy ending, leaving both “il scrittore” and his readers with as many questions as answers at the end of the season.
4) Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch
This classic treatment of a devoted fan's emotional relationship with his team is structured around Hornby's life as it relates to his boyhood club Arsenal and their run to the 1989 English First Division title. Soccer becomes both a metaphor and a barometer as he attempts to negotiate adulthood and all its everyday triumphs and disappointments, from romance to the workplace.
Both deeply English and widely appealing, it captures the essence of true fandom effectively enough for Hollywood to import it to the Boston baseball scene and use it as the basis for a popular hit movie starring Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore. But make no mistake: It's a soccer story at heart.
"While the details here are unique to me,” explains Hornby, “I hope that they will strike a chord with anyone who has ever found themselves drifting off, in the middle of a working day or a film or a conversation, towards a left-foot volley into a top right-hand corner 10 or 15 or 25 years ago.”
3) Grant Wahl, The Beckham Experiment
Speaking of blockbusters, this week's news of New York City FC's entry into MLS has drawn many parallels to the game-changing arrival of David Beckham on American shores in 2007. The LA Galaxy's sensational capture of “Goldenballs” set MLS and marketing executives beaming, yet the club's attempts to manage the unprecedented presence of a true world superstar didn't exactly unfold according to plan.
From shadowy boardroom intrigue to explosive locker-room confrontations, Wahl's unauthorized, unforgettable narrative gives readers an inside glimpse of one of the most momentous chapters in US soccer history. And as we subsequently watched, it set the stage for Beckham himself to deliver one of the redemptive comebacks that are his personal specialty.
2) Eduardo Galeano, Soccer in Sun and Shadow
Consider this the elegant South American Designated Player for our largely homegrown list. A self-described “beggar for good soccer,” Galeano's spare, elegiac masterwork highlights the eternal artistry of the beautiful game, without for a moment losing sight of its history, flaws and the very real pressures exerted by globalization and crass commercialism.
The Uruguayan journalist's works are powerfully influenced by the political upheaval that wracked his home continent during the 1960s and '70s, and he brings a suitably nuanced eye to soccer in this book, which takes its name from the contrast between a stadium's exposed “cheap seats” and the sheltered sections occupied by the well-to-do.
“He was born in a poor home in a far-off village, and he reached the summit of power and fortune where blacks were not allowed,” writes Galeano of Brazilian demigod Pelé. “Off the field he never gave a minute of his time and a coin never fell from his pocket. But those of us who were lucky enough to see him play received alms of an extraordinary beauty: moments so worthy of immortality that they make us believe immortality exists.”
1) Franklin Foer, How Soccer Explains the World
Are you one of the countless North American fans who routinely find themselves laboring to convey the beauty, intricacy and universality of soccer to uninitiated friends and family? Then Foer's sprawling yet accessible bestseller could be your bible.
With chapter titles like “The Gangster's Paradise,” “The Sentimental Hooligan” and “The Discreet Charm of Bourgeois Nationalism,” the auther races us around the globe from back-alley meetings with violent supporters'-groups-turned-armed-militias to the glittering showcase that is FC Barcelona's Nou Camp stadium to the Saturday-morning youth leagues of his own childhood in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.
In doing so, Foer discovers that “globalization had failed to diminish the game's local cultures, local blood feuds, even local corruption,” and poses some incisive, if ambitious, arguments about the larger lessons for society as a whole.
HONORABLE MENTION: Bill Buford, Among the Thugs; Simon Kuper, Ajax, The Dutch, The War; Gavin Newsham, Once in a Lifetime; Geoffrey Douglas, The Game of Their Lives