Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

5 Great Books to get you through the World Cup

Most of the drama of this year’s World Cup in South Africa seems to be taking place off the pitch (thanks to the likes of John Terry, Raymond Domenech, and Nicolas Anelka), but that just serves to point out what Catalan  novelist Manuel Vazquez Montalban (creator of the excellent Pepe Carvallho detective novels) put his finger on when he described football as a “post modern religion [..] Its cathedrals are stadiums, its gods footballers, its faithful the millions of fans who not only participate in this ritual every matchday, but practise their faith on a daily basis, thinking about and reflecting on the deeds of their gods.”

Or to put it in simpler terms, football is about much more than just football. And with that in mind, we’ve lined up a short list of great (and perhaps surprising) books that go well with the beautiful game, both for footie fans and literary types  who are already fed up with the endless coverage that the world cup entails.

Including the excellent 'Zidane's Melancholy' by Jean-Philippe Toussaint

1. Best European Fiction 2010 edited by Aleksander Hemon

There are a couple of reasons why this is a great read during the world cup. First of all there is Belgian author Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s wonderful short story/essay Zidane’s Melancholy, which takes a lyrical and  existentialist perspective on the infamous incident from the last World Cup final when Zinedine Zidane floored Italian defender Marco Materazzi.

It’s hard to imagine any English novelist being similarly inspired by, say for example, the moment when David Beckham was sent off in 2002 – and that’s another reason why this is a great book to read right now, because it gives a flavour of some of the non-anglophone world which largely dominates football.

Mighty performances by Slovenia and Serbia may have stirred your interest, and you can step into their respective cultures with stories from David Albahari and Andrej Blatnik  respectively. Smaller nations and linguistic divisions are particularly well represented in the book, with stories coming from Albania, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Estonia, Bosnia,  and Wales amongst others, with Dutch, French, Irish, and Castillian making appearances.

2. Africa United by Steve Bloomfield

The staging of the tournament in South Africa has brought up lots of questions – for example, how ethical is it to spend huge amounts of money on a manicured tv spectacle in a country where poverty is a huge problem.

Steve Bloomfield’s Africa United is by parts a travelogue/history/political/football book which will cause headaches to book-shop shelvers, following in the noble tradition of books like Calcio by John Foot, or Futebol by Alex Bellos where a culture/country gets examined by its relationship with football.

The scope is larger, taking in a whole continent, but Bloomfield manages to carry it off, and in the process takes you from Cairo’s massive derby match through to the Soweto Uprising and the Kaiser Chiefs in South Africa.

One of the interesting things is how Bloomfield manages to recontextualise global football, for example examining the role the Ivory Coast team played in promoting the peace process during that country’s brutal civil war. From 2002 the country was effectively divided into North and South, but the national team had players from all parts of the country, and were succesful in qualifying for the 2006 World Cup championships in Japan and South Korea. While to fans of the English premiership mention of Didier Drogba may bring to mind dives in the penalty box and petulant outbursts, in the Ivory Coast it will conjure up the brave moment when he chose, after being nominated BBC African player of the year,  to visit the Northern city of Bouaké with his trophy (Drogba comes from the South).

By the author of 'The Open Veins of Latin America'

3. Soccer in Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano

Uruguayan historian and novelist Eduardo Galeano got an unexpected boost in popularity in the United States and elsewhere last year when Hugo Chavez presented Barack Obama with a copy of his influential The Open Veins of Latin America.

A weighty book that examines in detail the history and economics of colonial exploitation in South America, with typical index entries including agrarian reform, mining industry, labor exploitation,  textile exports. It’s written in a flowing and poetic style, commended by – amongst others – Isabel Allende, but nobody’s ever going to kid you into thinking that it’s easy going reading.

Soccer in Sun and Shadow, though, is a great and readable  introduction to Galeano and many of the themes that he deals with in The Open Veins of Latin America. Like many of Latin America’s intellectuals, Galeano is a fervent football fan, and in this book he looks at great and important moments in the game. Typically filled with political and national import, for example the symbolic match of resistance put up by Dynamo Kiev against a Nazi fielded side – Dynamo’s victory led to the execution of its team – Soccer in Sun and Shadow is filled with anecdotes which demonstrate why the game is so popular and important, particularly in countries where freedom is more than just a consumer choice.

4. Marabou Stork Nightmares by Irvine Welsh

Amidst Shakira soundtracks, glossy commercials and sporting semiotics (Umberto Eco is just one of a number of high-profile academics/intellectuals to have written about Football) you could be forgiven for thinking that Football is just one big happy hand-holding sponsored event, albeit one with a competitive edge. What’s missing from the equation? Violence.  While it’s to be hoped that the World Cup will pass off without anything ‘going off’, it would be ridiculous to have a list of football related books that didn’t include one which examines the testosterone-tinted culture of the football hooligan (and let’s be clear here, there are hooligans associated with the majority of major clubs – in all countries).

Leaving aside Bill Buford’s horrifying non-fiction account Amongt the Thugs (well worth a read though), there’s really only one book that fits the bill, Marabou Stork Nightmares by Irvine Welsh.

David Baddiel recently wrote about the lack of great football novels, suggesting that “Football – if you are a fan – is just too dramatic, too genuinely exciting, too completely involving to fictionalise”. You can just imagine what one of Welsh’s football loving characters would make of that  piece of Three Lions on a Shirt positivity. Now he may have hit the spot when he suggests that the reason Americans have great sports novels (by the likes of De Lillo, Updike and Roth) is because of the way they tend to look at themselves (for example, they talk of the ‘great american novel’). It’s clear how Baddiel likes to look at football, and that’s why he misses what is a brilliant football novel – the problem is that it’s about the dark underbelly of football rather than the heraldic insignia – plus it’s Scottish!

It’s a novel that deals with thuggery, gang mentality, the drug culture (how ecstasy changed the football terraces), and above all else violence. It’s also a great literary achievement – and perhaps the last book of Welsh’s where his storytelling and structural experimentation really works (though, if I remember correctly, there were plenty of people at the time that were muttering about how it wasn’t as good as Trainspotting).

You won’t find Fifa promoting it, but you should definitely check it out.

5. A Season With Verona by Tim Parks

If faced with a non-football fan, though, and asked to provide just one book that would entertainingly capture the reason why so many people worldwide love this game, I think it would have to be English novelist Tim Parks’ account of a season he spent travelling around Italy to support his local team Hellas Verona.

Parks, who has written critically acclaimed novels (like Judge Savage, and Cleaver), literary criticism (on Italo Calvino, D.H. Lawrence, and Beckett amongst others), and teaches a post-graduate degree course on translation, is perhaps the last person you’d think would support a team like Hellas Verona, tarnished as it is with the label of one of the most racist, and least succesful clubs in Italy, but he does, and with insight, intelligence and humour this great write manages to explain the inexplicable – why a succesful, cultured, and intelligent man can get so worked up about 22 players kicking a ball around.

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