Growing up, Wolfram Eilenberger was like a lot of young Germans — he dreamed of playing soccer professionally. He loved to read, too. But he always thought he’d have to choose between his two passions. “Either I read and I’m a nerd, or I play soccer and I’m a sports guy,” he remembers thinking.
In the end, the decision was out of Eilenberger’s hands. One day, he realized: “I’m not good enough. I won’t make it.” Which, for a soccer-obsessed teenager, was devastating. “There’s a great emptiness that haunts you when you’re 17,” he said.
Eilenberger decided to replace soccer with books. He eventually got a PhD and became editor of Germany’s largest philosophy magazine. But then, a decade ago, he learned that a group of authors had started a soccer team: the Autorennationalmannschaft, or "Authors’ National Team" — Autonama for short. Books had led Eilenberger back to his favorite sport.
Autonama first got started when a playwright named Thomas Brussig received an invitation to play in a tournament against Italian writers. Brussig wrote to a few German writer friends, and pretty soon, he had enough players to compete. “It was like a dream come true,” said Andreas Merkel, a novelist who was present when the team was founded in 2005. “It’s, I think, the dream of every German child soccer player to play once in a German national dress, and hear the anthem, and play in a stadium.”
The team’s first practice was held on an improvised soccer field in what was once East Germany. Most team members, however, were better at wordplay than actual gameplay. “Our first guy got hurt after five seconds of training, and broke his arm,” said Merkel, with a wry smile. “It was a big laugh for us.”
Still, with help from a well-known professional coach named Hans Meyer, Autonama took second place in Italy — and that was just the first trip of many. In recent years, the team has traveled to Norway, France and Cyprus. They’ve also competed in Brazil, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Once, they faced off against a team of crime fiction writers based in western Germany.
Autonama’s literary bent sometimes adds a philosophical air to their weekly practices, which take place on a soccer field in the heart of Berlin. Team members can be heard shouting instructions to their teammates and cursing when the other team scores a goal.
“I think that soccer is a game that is essentially about failure and emptiness,” said Eilenberger cheerfully. Soccer players try to control a ball with their feet, he explained, but most of the time they end up losing control. “The very fact that life is failure, and your everyday experience is failure, is somehow symbolized by the soccer experience.”
Most of Eilenberger's teammates aren't quite so pessimistic about a game beloved by hundreds of millions of people worldwide. “Writing is a very lonesome activity," said Florian Werner, who has published nonfiction books about cows and snails. “You're sitting at your desk and you're struggling against yourself. And then, on Monday nights, we can come here and let that all go.”
Right now, Autonama is a men’s team. But team members do hope a women’s team will get started in the future. Eilenberger says that might require a change in German soccer culture because there’s still a stereotype that German soccer fans are all men — specifically, men who don’t read.
For that reason, Autonama often visits schools, in the hopes of inspiring the next generation of writers and philosophers. “You don't have to choose between literature and sports,” Eilenberger said. That's a lesson he wishes he learned sooner. “It might be a better and richer life if you just choose both.”