When he first conceived of Hooper’s cockamamie plot, which centers on US soccer in the Cold War era, Wendt could hardly have hoped that Russian-US relations would be at the forefront of people’s minds by the time the book came out. But now a novel about a Soviet attempt to assassinate a Brazilian soccer star during the United States’s bicentennial celebrations seems somehow timely — and hardly more far-fetched than a Putin-era attempt to elevate a crotchety reality TV star to the presidency.
Nor could the people upon whom Wendt based his characters have imagined that, four decades on from 1976, a whole generation of North American children would grow up native players of soccer. But — from Portland to New York, from Chicago to Los Angeles, and from Montreal to Orlando (to choose just a few cities with soccer franchises) — there are now proper, fluent local fans of all ages cheering on their local heroes and despairing at their teams as Europeans and South Americans have been doing for a century.
The coincidence of a political swing against Russia and a social shift in favor of soccer bodes well for this comic novel. This is comforting, because my initial thought after enjoying the book was, “Who on Earth but me would buy this?”
The truth is that I’m over-determined as the book’s target demographic. It concerns the adventures of bearded soccer hard-man Danny Hooper. He’s a number five (center back), who is brought from a team in England’s minor professional soccer leagues — the comically constructed East Southwich Albion — to the United States in order to strengthen Portland’s Rose City Revolution. This happens after he demolishes the leg of a promising young Welsh winger in a Cup game.
As a tough, bearded, English soccer-playing Dan myself, someone who grew up avidly watching muddy 1970s FA Cups but whose dreams of being a “football” missionary were dashed by the vagaries of the American college system, I am far enough from professional soccer players to admire them, but close enough to all the events to recognize them. I played number four and number six. I’ve been to Portland and East Southwich — and I’ve met their fans.
So, for me, the knowing caricatures of the teams, towns, and players of lower-division English and Scottish soccer are familiar. The dense, dour, depressed atmosphere around the team and its specifically low expectations are nicely drawn. The tight-lipped relationship between Hooper and his father likewise rings true. Witness the Hooper men at their most intimate, their most prolix:
You won’t forget it.
Of course not.
I miss you, Dad.
I miss you too, son.
When it gets to the bizarre American All-Star Soccer Association (Wendt’s name for his weird and wacky version of the North American Soccer League), the book becomes more outrageous. Footnotes proliferate, describing how teams came to be formed. Some footnotes become chapters, and some of these chapters even have their own footnotes. The self-indulgent descriptions of the teams’ absurd development get in the way of the plot but, while distracting, are done so explicitly that the author’s glee shines through. It’s charming.
It’s funnier, though, when the juxtaposition of the world game and American insularity is simply left to play out. Rose City head to play the Colorado team who, at the end of the previous year, had left Denver. North Beef, Colorado, was excited to host a nearly Major League team and offered its rodeo stadium to house the North Beef Cowhands (a team of imported Romanians). Here the town leader sent to welcome the visiting team explains how he sees the afternoon kicking off:
Well, now, before you boys play your game, we’re staging a little bit of a rodeo for the kids here in town. Was the only way we could imagine getting folks to come out to your kickball game. So anyway, they’re inside there havin’ a high ol’ time right now, and we’re gonna try and keep the energy cracklin’ after the barrel races by havin’ you all come out from the chutes down there under the grandstand. About the same time, the Cowhands will come out the shutes down at the other end and we’ll just go ahead and play ball.
There’s plenty more in that vein, but the novel is really three in one: a jokey Cold War thriller with a nominal romantic interest; a short, wry portrait of lower-division soccer — and life — in 1970s Britain; and an extended parody of the NASL, featuring, among others, Pele as Pearl, the Soccer Bowl as the Bonanza Bowl, the Miami Toros as the Florida Flamingos, and the New York Cosmos as the Giganticos. The three elements work very well separately, but because they each have a slightly different attitude, they sometimes jar when they intersect.
Times have changed since Hooper’s revolution. The exotic 1970s import of the NASL, upon which Wendt’s AASSA is based, has transformed into the somewhat prosaic, but firmly established, MLS (and USMNT). At the same time, a good proportion of the nation’s youth follows the English Premier League and the Champions League, with an eye on La Liga. I now see middle-schoolers with Messi Barcelona shirts in the Kmarts of Knoxville, Tennessee, and men with Arsenal leisure shirts on the streets of Manhattan.
Publishing too has transformed during this millennium. Barriers have lowered and fan fiction of all sorts has proliferated. The best fan fiction — whether about the New York Yankees, Leeds United, or Star Trek — has broken through the self-publication bubble and made it onto the lists of independent presses. It’s in that genre that Wendt’s novel works best. The plot is functional enough to drive the characters through the bicentennial United States and — even though it’s NASL-era soccer — embodies enough love for the game to appeal to major soccer fans. In 2017, Danny Hooper may be surprised to learn that that is a significant audience.