Lifestyle & Belief

3 smart takes on the World Cup


BOSTON — The World Cup is now just one month away.

And a swift month later we will all be making judgments on South Africa 2010 based on a variety of factors: the host country’s ability to provide a festive, efficient and trouble-free backdrop; the quality and aesthetics of the soccer on the field; how our own favorite teams fare; and whether those vuvuzela horns can be muted so that they don’t exact such a painful toll on our ears.

But regardless of what happens on and off the field in South Africa, the World Cup always delivers a collateral benefit for fans of the game: 'tis the season of soccer books. And several interesting and useful tomes have already landed on my desk.

Here are three notable efforts that offer fans a wide-ranging view of the game and the upcoming Cup competition. Full disclosure: only a small fraternity/sorority write about soccer in this country so we pretty much all know each other. I am well acquainted with both American authors, one of whom kindly gave me an acknowledgement, though, regrettably, not for my soccer acuity but rather for my good company during past World Cups. The British authors have been spared any acquaintance with me.

America — “Chasing the Game” by Filip Bondy (Da Capo Press): Bondy’s is the tale of the American team, a useful primer for both knowledgeable fans and those who, after a four-year hiatus from soccer, want to catch up with our lads before the America’s June 12th opener against England.

tim howard cover
Tim Howard, America's goalkeeper, pictured on the cover of "Chasing the Game."
(Photo provided)

We have pretty much come to take World Cup qualification as our birthright here — the U.S. team is one of only seven teams that has reached six straight World Cups — though it has more to do with weak competition in its region than the prowess of the Yanks. While 2010 Cup qualification did not produce great drama, the ups and downs of the 16-month chase provide a suitable framework for Bondy to reflect on our national team, its players and the game here.

Indeed, in just under 300 pages, Bondy provides a remarkably comprehensive modern history of American soccer and its World Cup experience. He also offers revealing portraits of U.S. coach Bob Bradley and key players who, with their performance in South Africa, will determine if American soccer is, in fact, proceeding on an upward arc.

The book is exceedingly well written as it executes as complex a weave — back and forth in time — as any witnessed on a soccer field. But its greatest strengths are Bondy’s passion for the game — his Czech-born father raised him to prize soccer over all other games — and the fact that he witnessed most everything he writes about. He has covered every World Cup dating back to 1990 and has traveled to the remote outposts like Tegucigalpa and Port of Spain where the team earns its Cup qualification.

Bondy doesn’t stint on the historic 1950 World Cup where America produced what is likely the greatest upset — U.S. 1, England 0 — in tournament history. He interviews the surviving members for what is a fascinating sojourn into the roots of the modern American team. For fans that lament the lack of a soccer culture in this country, a look back at 1950 reveals how far American soccer has come. The rest of this welcome book reveals just how far it still has to go.

The World Cup — “World Cup 2010” by Steven D. and Harrison Stark (Blue River Press): There are a host of guides to the upcoming Cup in your bookstore and on the newsstand. But this father-and-son team has produced one that is many desirable things: comprehensive, insightful, good-humored and quirky.

Every single team warrants almost 10 pages as the authors try to elucidate everything from the predictable such as key players to far less easily articulated offensive and defensive strategies. They are even willing to risk looking foolish, making predictions on every single first-round game.

Moreover, in keeping with the latest fashion in soccer reporting which weaves economic and sociological trends into soccer analysis, they produce snapshots of everything from population to GDP per capita to education expenditures to corruption index.

The quirky, good-humored part is their brief presentation on every national anthem as well as their attempt to encapsulate all 32 teams with a different Beatles song. It’s great fun despite the fact that the U.S. team’s, for example, is “I Me Mine” and I don’t know the song let alone what it is supposed to reflect about the Yanks.

For those who want a thorough briefing before the World Cup or reference book at their side during it, the Starks’ version should prove both useful and companionable.

The World — “Soccernomics” by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski: I am slightly late to this fascinating collection of essays, having waited until the World Cup was in sight. I now regret the few months in which I wasn’t wrapping my brain around this fresh and fascinating material. Even its lengthy subtitle (“Why England loses, why Germany and Brazil win, and why the U.S., Japan, Australia, Turkey — and even Iraq — are destined to become the kings of the world’s most popular sport”) doesn’t really suggest the breadth or originality of their inquiry.

Soccer, perhaps more than any sport, has remained wedded to its traditions and, thus, slow to break into the statistical era that Bill James began mining in baseball during the 1970s. For the longest time soccer stats didn’t extend much beyond goals scored or goals allowed. But of late we are beginning to hear routinely about everything from percentage of time the ball is controlled by one team to percentage of passes completed by each player to the amount of ground covered in the course of a game by an individual.

The two authors — Kuper, a columnist for the Financial Times, and Szymanski, an economics professor — fuse sociology, anthropology, economics and statistics to produce a novel perspective on the game and to hazard answers to some of its most nettlesome questions.

Among their diverse contributions: a statistical analysis of penalty shots, focusing on the epic shootout between English titans Manchester United and Chelsea for the Champions League title two years ago; a look at the evolution of soccer fans from diehard loyalists to soccer “polygamists” with ever-shifting loyalties; an examination of racism in the Premier League; an inquiry into whether hosting World Cups delivers happiness to the population (and the corollary of whether fans commit suicide in response to their team’s failures): and an analysis of why poor countries are also poor at sports.

But the most enjoyable chapter, probably the most heartfelt given where the authors ply their trades, is “Why England Loses and Others Win.” While the English always have high expectations for their team and are almost always disappointed, the authors argue that the English fans’ expectations are unrealistic.

Given England’s relatively small population, how its talent pool is limited by soccer’s strong working-class roots, the country’s diminished economic clout, its isolation from the fertile exchange of soccer ideas that has been taking place in Western Europe, well it turns out, they conclude, that England has been doing at least as well as can be expected and possibly even better.

For years the working class has totally dominated the English roster, without necessarily giving up working-class habits in dining and recreation. The authors note that, while far more goals are scored in the second half of major international tournaments. But in England’s last five major tourneys, the team has scored almost two-thirds of its goals in the first half. While that may reflect suspect conditioning, it may also reflect the toll that the Premier League season takes on English players.

The English take pride in the Premiership’s reputation as the best soccer league in the world. That means it attracts many of the world’s best players, limiting opportunities for English players to develop in their domestic league. The depth of talent in the league assures a rigorous season. And the result is that many English players — their very best player, Wayne Rooney is a current example — enter the World Cup fray exhausted or injured or both. And that is hardly a prescription for fulfilling their fans’ fervent dreams.