ROMAN CATHOLIC MISSIONARY St. Francis Xavier had a great insight: “Give me the child until he is seven and I’ll give you the man.” His goal was to instill faith through religious training, but for billions of people around the world over the past century or more, soccer has been as much of a molding force as any religion. Known lovingly by its Brazilian euphemism, o jogo bonito — “the beautiful game” — the sport now pervades all countries and is no longer the solely male pursuit it had been at the start. The United States, too, is entering the era of its first native soccer generation, and this book is its primer in the philosophical possibilities of what the world calls football.

Structured around the games of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Home and Away takes the form of letters written between Karl Ove Knausgaard, author of the much feted “My Struggle” series, and Fredrik Ekelund, his friend, a Swedish novelist and expert on Brazilian soccer. Ekelund is “away” in Brazil on his own, playing in pickup soccer games, visiting friends, watching the games at the stadiums, in bars, or at large public viewing points. Knausgaard is at “home” with his wife and children in Glemmingebro, Sweden, and watches the games on his computer or television late at night or early in the morning.

The games receive plenty of attention, but they are only starting points for discussions of national culture and character, of the state of world development, of gender stereotypes, of human desire, of memory, of ISIS. Of anything, in short, that the mind can conceive.

Ekelund is 60, but an optimist. His trips to the favelas of Rio prompt him to share his belief that we are living at a time when an unprecedented number of people have been lifted out of poverty. He is in Brazil in search of “o jogo bonito” and celebrates expansive teams and players looking to achieve the marvelous. He supports Brazil. Knausgaard is 45, more lugubrious. He worries about the oppressive culture wars in Sweden, about the decline of literature and the diminishing number of serious readers. He writes about his infant daughter Anne’s sleep patterns and her need for milk. He supports Argentina. For both of these men, soccer and writing are at the center of their lives, like a religion or mother’s milk.

Bill Shankly, the legendary manager of Liverpool FC, once memorably joked that “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” In these letters — emails dignified with an epistolary conceit, really — everything between life and death, between Shankly’s joke and his mordant seriousness, is interrogated. Both writers include autobiographical anecdotes to illustrate points or open up topics of discussion that are invited by the games and their context. Knausgaard recollects listening to phlegmatic stories of death in a small, gray Middle European town while on a book tour. Ekelund tells of his first transformative experience with the poetry of Nobel laureate Tomas Tranströmer. Unlike in Knausgaard’s epic series, the correspondence and the soccer keep the conversation grounded. Readers are never more than a couple of pages from an observation about a game or a refreshingly different perspective.

Then there are accounts of the way that the men spend their days. Knausgaard makes babysitting plans and ferries his older children around to dance practice and to playdates. Ekelund’s children and stepchildren have left home, but his companions in Brazil are enlightening. Just as Knausgaard struggles with his life and his vocation, Ekelund’s friend Cláudio Aragão in Rio has had to struggle to write his 15 books. Claudio, though, cannot make a living from his writing. Instead he leaves home at 3:00 a.m. to catch a bus to the restaurant he opens at 4:00 a.m. and where he works 12-hour days. The semi-reproachful example is offered by Ekelund and accepted by Knausgaard.

On the page, as on the pitch, what happens both does and does not matter. It’s just a story. Soccer too, is only for play. “É brincadeira” — it’s just “a game” — say the players to a “Grandad” on Ekelund’s team after he yells at their whiz kid “nine- or ten-year old left winger” for failing to trap one ball, using words “so vulgar that I can’t commit them to print.” The kid leaves in tears, broken, vowing never to play again, and a scant few minutes later Grandad, realizing what he’s done, breaks into tears himself. “Me desanime,” he sobs, “I’m sorry, I’ve lost my soul.” It’s just a game, repeats Ekelund, wondering with despair what would happen if Argentina did win the entire tournament, in Brazil, and 90,000 Argentineans ran around gloating in a town spoiling for a fight.

For soccer is always entwined with desire. As samba is a stylized version of lovemaking, soccer is a stylized version of war. But the sinewy thrusting of each of these two dances is sometimes only a slip away from the other. Desire is, as Freud noted, perversely polymorphous. For the writers, soccer slips from dream to event, from pastime to sexual passion. (In England, we refer to an extramarital liaison as “playing away from home.”) In this book, with its oddly old-fashioned mores, gender norms are questioned but sexual desire is almost always heterosexual. This is true even when — in Rio — Ekelund watches the first Brazil game with a man who is not, he explains, a transvestite, but rather a “Transformista.”

Ekelund meets the Transformista (he doesn’t feel compelled to dress up like a woman, he only does so when he feels like it) in Bar Waldemar. The home team has been lucky enough to win, and Ekelund tries to exchange pleasantries with the bar’s owner:

“Are you Waldemar?”
“No, I’m Waldemar Junior”
His face is completely impassive. Has he suffered some great loss, some heartache, I wonder, and decide to give it another go and knock a ball in from the other side: “And the match, a disgrace with the penalty, wasn’t it?”
He stops for a moment, two beer bottles in his hands, looks at me, not smiling as I’d hoped, but with careworn, bar-owner eyes and says, “It’s all fixed. Haven’t you realized that? FIFA have rigged the whole thing from start to finish.”

Though Knausgaard has a running, and accurate, joke that Ángel Di María, one of Argentina’s finest players, looks like Kafka, the remark that renders Ekelund speechless is the real Kafkaesque moment in the text. Looming through the narrative like the policeman in “Give It Up!” or like the father in “The Judgment,” Waldemar Junior slays Ekelund’s motivating, playful desire and holds it up for public derision.

But, in the end, the ridicule doesn’t matter to the congregation of o jogo bonito. Even if the global church is hopelessly corrupt, prayer will continue. This is the “last party,” the writers note, before the World Cup goes to Russian autocracy in 2018 and then, worse, to Qatar in 2022 — where the Cup was lured with oil money and where it will be staged on blood and desert sand. But soccer as played on the beaches of Brazil and the summer grass of Glemmingebro will endure, because the vitality of the game comes not from the spectacle, but from the lens it offers.

Playing is praying, and you can do it anywhere, with anyone. I’ve played in England, France, Germany, across the United States and Japan. In Japan, the word saka (soccer) and the word sakka (writer) are almost homophones, and the close conjunction throws out a combination of meanings which Ekelund, Knausgaard, and I could eagerly discuss. But if we were to talk we’d talk soccer, not literature. Because soccer transcends language, class, and culture.

Witness the photograph of Argentinean soccer-loving Pope Francis watching the Argentina versus Switzerland game at the invitation of his Swiss Guard. Knausgaard bemoans this profanation of the holy. Not because Francis shouldn’t have his team, but because even in the bemerded Middle Ages a diseased worshiper could come to church and find a sacred space where his life could be given meaning.

It didn’t matter whether the man had fallen into the manure cellar and drowned in excreta, when he was buried it was with dignity, piety, solemnity, his life was sacred, our lives were sacred, humanity was immense not small.
[…]
Some probably thought when the priest was giving a sermon that he shits too, but it wasn’t said aloud, it wasn’t seen and wasn’t present in the holiness, wasn’t a part of it. The technology we have now means that human foolishness […] and human smallness […] have become boundless, are everywhere, and what has been lost and no one wants back, is grandness and dignity.
[…]
As yesterday I was foolish enough to compare football to art, today I will be even more foolish and compare football and religion. Because on a football pitch […] almost everything from human life has been removed, what is left are rules, rituals and predetermined patterns of behaviour, where as good as all doubt and ambivalence have been erased: when a goal is scored that is all that exists, the goal-scorer’s happiness is total […] When do you see such elation in real life?

And then Knausgaard puts his finger on the elusive property of the sport that has colonized the world: “Football is a theater, a place where the normal world has no place, it is a zone of concentrated meaning.” But at the same time, “football matches are worthless, [an act in a game only has value because] it takes place in a restricted area where we say that such actions have value.” Those actions have “pseudo-value,” they are “entertainment,” he says, and then he goes on, tongue in cheek, to offer a blasphemous prayer for Brazil to beat Germany in the semifinal. But, of course, prayers, even blasphemous ones by Karl Ove Knausgaard, have their effect; Brazil suffers arguably its worst defeat ever.

Coming from a discussion of Lionel Messi and the Argentina team, the authors briefly discuss “Funes the Memorious,” a story by Argentinean Jorge Luis Borges in which the eponymous hero can forget nothing. They might have done better to discuss Borges’s “On Exactitude in Science,” in which the “Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.” Soccer is analogous to that map. It may seem like a perfect facsimile of the world that we know, and it can function for us like the real world. But as soon as you poke at it, “é brincadeira” — it’s only a game, even as the tears flow.

¤

Dan Friedman is the executive editor of Forward and contributing editor to 8by8 Magazine.