A Literary Lineup for the World Cup
By Dan FriedmanJune 21, 2018
In soccer, as Jonathan Wilson (see below) describes it, 11 players take the field, with a goalkeeper (allowed to use his hands) preceded by 10 outfield players (who are definitely not allowed to use their hands). The outfield players work together in one, or a variety, of formations. These formations are usually described according to the numbers of players in each bank, moving forward from the keeper to the attackers. So 4-4-2, a favored formation, is four defenders, four midfielders, and two attackers in front of an implicit goalkeeper.
For this list, I have arranged the books in a 3-4-3 formation.
With Albert Camus in goals and a tough back three that includes documentary memoir by Bill Buford and philosophical fiction by Karl Ove Knausgaard, there’s no thought of anyone scoring cheap points against this team.
The midfield oozes class and energy, with Johan Cruyff, Nick Hornby, and a couple of masterful technicians ready to outwork — and outplay — any other list.
Featuring the top scoring international player of all time, the most famous attacker and footballing great of all time, and also Zlatan Ibrahimović, the players in our front line might not ever pass to one another, but, as a group, they are cutting edge.
I hope you enjoy.
- Keeper: Albert Camus, L’Étranger
Goalkeepers literally have a different set of rules that apply to them. Albert Camus, who played in goals for the Racing Universitaire Algerios (RUA) junior team, was surely inspired by this existentially excluded but exigent status to write his masterpiece of outsider literature.
- Central Defense: Karl Ove Knausgaard and Fredrik Ekelund, Home and Away: Writing the Beautiful Game
This elegant correspondence provides a philosophical defense of soccer. Everyone’s favorite navel-gazer writes to his friend who’s visiting Brazil for a soccer tournament, and the two exchange a series of reflections on life. Knausgaard and Ekelund discuss their joy and views of the game and how those views cast light on the formation of other relationships.
- Left Defense: David Peace, The Damned Utd: A Novel
With Jose Mourinho in charge at Manchester United, it doesn’t seem so crazy to hire your enemy’s celebrity manager. But before big money soccer, tribal culture ran personal and deep. You can’t skip past this fictionalized account of Brian Clough’s time at Leeds United without being pulled down by its power.
- Right Defense: Bill Buford, Among the Thugs
Every defense needs someone prepared to do the dirty work. At, or just after, the heyday of 20th-century British soccer hooliganism, journalist Bill Buford went to join a group with the intention of finding out why they did what they did. He made it out to tell the tale, but only just.
- Right Middle of a Diamond Four Midfield: Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, Soccernomics
The Sergio Busquets, Nemanja Matić, or N’Golo Kanté of our midfield, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski offer an explanation of the economics of soccer that makes sense of everything around it. This book is, as has been said many times, and always accurately, the Moneyball of soccer.
- Left Middle of a Diamond Four Midfield: Jonathan Wilson, Inverting the Pyramid
What Kuper and Szymanski do for the finance of soccer, Jonathan Wilson does for its tactics. Against such a powerful overview of the history of soccer formations, any opponent would have to come up with a paradigm shift to contend with Wilson’s nonpareil tactical sense.
- Top Point of a Diamond Four Midfield: Johan Cruyff, My Turn
It’s all very well having technicians in the midfield, but you also need someone with proven class and experience to elevate the players around him. Johan Cruyff (who died last year) was arguably the greatest European player ever, one of the great modern builders of soccer clubs (Ajax and Barcelona), and one of the world’s most successful soccer managers, too. Add to that a commitment to social justice, integrity, and curiosity about the wider world, and you have a story worth hearing.
- Base of a Diamond Four Midfield: Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch
Before playing baseball across the United States in movie form, this was the quintessential football fan memoir. I won’t judge Jimmy Fallon’s portrayal of a Boston Red Sox supporter, but the passion of Hornby’s support for Arsenal is exhilarating and infectious for anyone who has supported any team or country.
- Center of a Fluid Top Three Offense: Pelé, Why Soccer Matters: A Look at More Than Sixty Years of International Soccer, co-authored with Brian Winter
This comes from the greatest striker the world has ever seen, with a life story and pedigree in soccer diplomacy to match. The journey of Edson Arantes do Nascimento to become Pelé has influenced every major global soccer star that came after. His legacy has been tarnished by the revelations of corruption in the governing soccer bodies of the Brazilian FA and FIFA, but you’d still want this man up front for you.
- Right of a Fluid Top Three Offense: Zlatan Ibrahimović, I Am Zlatan
Possibly the most gifted soccer player not even to make the top three of his generation, he is nevertheless head and shoulders above most of his peers in terms of skill, but mostly in terms of physical height, and overweening egotism. Rarely has an autobiography presented its subject with so much adoration.
- Left of a Fluid Top Three Offense: Abby Wambach, Forward: A Memoir
Abby Wambach partners Zlatan and Pelé in a formidable striking trident. With 184 goals for the US Women’s National Team, she has scored more international goals than either of them — in fact, more than both of them put together, and more than any other person in history. In a sport historically dominated by heterosexual (and homophobic) men, Wambach has done a phenomenal amount for the visibility and rights of women and lesbians in the sport. This frank, fascinating memoir traces her life, career, and slow recovery from intense depression after retiring from playing.
Coach: Brian Glanville
Arguably the world’s greatest living soccer writer in the English language. He’s written comedy, novels, biographies, analyses, regular journalistic sports columns, guides — all with passion and verve. From the 1960s to 1980s he also managed the Chelsea Casuals team, an amateur assortment of his friends, writers, and acquaintances that took on various footballing challenges. He’s more than qualified.
Dan Friedman is the executive editor of Forward.com, a contributing editor to 8by8Mag.com, and author of a new eBook about 1980s rock group Tears for Fears.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Dan Friedman plays ball with “Hooper’s Revolution” by Dennie Wendt.
Daniel Friedman reviews “My Turn: A Life of Total Football” by Dutch soccer legend Johan Cruyff.
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