For 90 minutes last Sunday, the world turned around a spinning ball.
Hundreds of millions of people, from remote villages to major cities, stopped what they were doing and watched 22 sweaty men in shorts compete in the final of this year’s World Cup tournament in Russia.
Few other rituals — apart from birth, death and marriage — are as universal as soccer. No single religion can match its geographic reach. Nearly half of humanity, 3.2 billion people, watched at least one minute of the 2014 World Cup, according to FIFA, the world soccer federation.
What explains the near universal appeal of soccer through the centuries? What is it about a checkered ball hitting the back of a net that can turn millions of grown adults into screaming children? The following are five books that help explain “the beautiful game” and its indelible power:
Soccer in Sun and Shadow
By Eduardo Galeano. (Nation Books, $16.99.)
A lyrical masterpiece, “Soccer in Sun and Shadow” (originally published in the United Kingdom under the title “Football in Sun and Shadow”) reads like an extended love letter, a long homage to soccer’s capacity for beauty. The late Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano, who has been called the poet laureate of football, captures the ecstasy of this “great pagan mass” and its power to unleash the best and worst of the human species. In elegiac vignettes, Galeano laments soccer’s trajectory from sport to industry, from play to mass-produced spectacle, in which lightning speed and technocratic skill have come to trump grace, daring and inventiveness.
The Soccer War
By Ryszard Kapuscinski. (Vintage, $15.95.)
In 1969, war broke out between Honduras and El Salvador. The 100-hour conflict was called the “Soccer War” because the sparks that set off the conflagration were struck in the stadiums of San Salvador and Tegucigalpa during the qualifying rounds of the World Cup. National flags were defiled, mob violence broke out, and several Honduran fans were killed. A week later, the two countries broke off relations, and a brief but vicious war ensued that would eventually claim 6,000 lives. Legendary Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski traveled to the front lines, and his searing firsthand account, “The Soccer War,” stands as an enduring testament to the horrors and chaos of war.
This Love Is Not for Cowards
By Robert Andrew Powell. (Bloomsbury, $17.)
In media accounts and Hollywood films, Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, is often portrayed as a parched hell, a crime-ridden border town terrorized by rival drug cartels. But the city is about more than just violence. It’s a place where hundreds of thousands of people live, work, fall in love and worship their local soccer team. Robert Andrew Powell, an American sportswriter, traveled to Ciudad Juárez in 2009 and spent a rollicking season following the city’s hard-luck soccer club, Los Indios, as violence in the region intensified. His fascinating journey, chronicled in “This Love Is Not for Cowards: Salvation and Soccer in Ciudad Juárez,” provides a rare view of soccer’s power to create community and hope in even the most desperate environments.
The Ball Is Round
By David Goldblatt. (Riverhead, $28.)
A tour de force, “The Ball Is Round” claims to be the first and only comprehensive world history of the game of soccer. At more than 900 pages, the book can seem intimidating. But author David Goldblatt recounts the long history of the game in dramatic fashion, vividly describing its rotating cast of angels and devils, fallen giants and rising stars, as if they are actors on a grand stage. Goldblatt is at his best in exploring the changing perceptions of soccer; and how the game went from being perceived as a public nuisance and threat to the social order (in 18th-century England) to a tool of social conformity by nationalistic autocrats, from Mussolini to Pinochet.
By Nick Hornby. (Riverhead, $16.)
No compendium of great soccer books would be complete without Nick Hornby’s “Fever Pitch,” a brilliant autobiographical account of one man’s love affair with an English soccer club (Arsenal). The book offers insights into the obsessive madness that drives certain soccer fans, and how the game can be an opiate for the pain of a disjointed childhood. Hornby pleads for tolerance for soccer maniacs everywhere: “We do not lack imagination, nor have we sad and barren lives; it is just that real life is paler, duller, and contains less potential for unexpected delirium.”
Staff writer Stephen Montemayor contributed to this review.