Sunday, August 30, 2009

Guest Post: Random Musings on Soccer Lit Part 2

I've asked one of the most well read guys I know, Chris Shaffer, who is the team manager for Rocket City United, to do a post on some of the "soccer books" that he's read. Now, if you know Chris, you'll know that he does not have a loss for words. So, I've had to break up his list into a few parts. Here is part two of Chris's list. Part one can be found here.

Soccer in Sun and Shadow, Eduardo Galeano

Uruguayan novelist and poet Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow is written in sparsely beautiful language. This is neither a novel nor a history, but rather Galeano’s musings on the world game presented in a roughly chronological context. The book begins with the “Author’s Confession”: ‘Like all Uruguayan children, I wanted to be a soccer player. I played quite well, in fact I was terrific, but only at night when I was asleep.’ Galeano provides similar moments of mirth throughout, but the book is not all sunshine and lollipops. To wit, ‘The history of soccer is a sad voyage from beauty to duty. When the sport became an industry, the beauty that blossoms from the joy of play got torn out by its very roots. In this fin-de-siecle world, professional soccer condemns all that is useless, and useless means not profitable.’ Some of Galeano’s subject matter is vague or general, some quite specific and even obscure, but the quality of his prose and the applicability of so much of the content to life’s grand themes render this a special book, one that can be appreciated even by (gasp) someone with no interest in the game.

The Miracle of Castel di Sangro: A Tale of Passion and Folly in the Heart of Italy, Joe McGinnis

That rarest of birds, a worthwhile book about the beautiful game written by an American, in this case New England journalist Joe McGinnis. For a season in the mid-1990’s, McGinnis follows the fortunes of an obscure provincial side that miraculously (hence the title) has won promotion to Serie B, the second flight of Calcio Italiano and serious professional soccer. The main theme centers on the team’s struggle to avoid immediate relegation back to the Serie C regional leagues, although McGinnis manages to weave a mobbed-up team owner and player involvement in cocaine dealing into the mix. How credible this material is, is anyone’s guess. McGinnis sure did burn his bridges when this was published, and the book does reinforce notions of corruption in Italian soccer (notions may be the wrong word here). Some memorable scenes include McGinnis, upon traveling back to New England for the Christmas holiday after being immersed in Castel di Sangro’s tortuous Serie B campaign for five months, bewildered and uninterested in his friends excitement over the Patriots’ Super Bowl prospects.

Behind the Curtain: Football in Eastern Europe, Jonathan Wilson

Wilson’s work is the best (and only) English language study of the (relatively) current state of footballing affairs in Eastern European nations formerly in the Soviet sphere. He also includes those pieces of the former Yugoslavia, since Tito forged a separate path to socialism. I digress. While the rollback of communism undoubtedly provided more freedom and self-determination (nationalistically speaking) for the peoples of these former communist states, it did not help their soccer clubs. With their new market-oriented economies and the advent of Bosman Ruling free agency in Europe in 1995, former eastern powers could not afford to hold on to talent they had developed. The story is even more complex than that, but that’s where the book comes in. Wilson uses personal contacts in the Ukraine (surprise: the Ukranian mafia has huge influence at Dynamo Kiev), and elsewhere to glean insights beyond the obvious, e.g. the Ukranian mafia has huge influence at Dynamo Kiev. Fascinating trips to Armenian clubs and the story of perhaps the greatest Russian player of all time spending his prime years in Siberia make for compelling reading. The incipient return of Russian clubs to the highest reaches of UEFA (see Zenit St. Petersburg, winners of the 2008 UEFA Cup), and progress in the Ukraine, the future looks brighter for at least the bigger nations of the former Soviet bloc.

Chris covers three more books in Part 3.

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