Reading List

The Ball Is Round

The best soccer Web sites and books to read during the Euro 2008 tournament.

Cristiano Ronaldo

On Saturday, the curtain lifts on the UEFA European Soccer Championship, a quadrennial rite that sublimates centuries of murderous nationalism into three weeks of slide tackles and corner kicks. Euro 2008 will feature 16 teams, including first-time participant Austria, which is co-hosting the competition with neighboring Switzerland. There is a notable absence: England, whose pitiful performance in the qualifying rounds has spared authorities in Innsbruck and Geneva the hassle of deploying storm troopers to prevent the pillaging of its tree-lined squares by visiting British fans.

Euro 2008 promises familiar spectacles—tactical brilliance by the Italians, athleticism from the Germans, forceful attacking by perennially underachieving Spain, and South American-style flair from Euro 2004 runner-up Portugal, whose 23-year-old winger Cristiano Ronaldo may be the world’s best player. In the early round-robin group stage, all eyes will be on the “group of death,” Group C, which includes three of the competition’s powerhouses: Italy, France, and the Netherlands. Not to be missed is the Italy-France showdown on June 17, a rematch of the 2006 World Cup final—this time, presumably, with less head-butting.

News wonks can get their Euro 2008 fix by clicking refresh on Reuters Soccer Blog and the online edition of the popular glossy FourFourTwo. A livelier read is When Saturday Comes, a British publication that launched in the mid-1980s as a zine and has maintained a funny, frisky outsider’s perspective on soccer’s on- and off-field circuses. (Its tag line: “The Half-Decent Football Magazine.”) When Saturday Comes’ worldview is tinged by England’s footballing inferiority complex. The introduction to its Euro 2008 blog poses the question: “Will Euro 2008 live up to the claim we made during World Cup 94 that major championships are better when England aren’t involved?”

More English wit can be found in the Guardian’s online Euro 2008 coverage, including a daily podcast hosted by James Richardson, a likable wag and an expert on continental soccer. But the highlights of the Guardian’s coverage are its minute-by-minute match reports, which have elevated live-blogging to a gonzo literary art. Barry Glendenning’s report of the Greece-Portugal Euro 2004 final typifies the glories of the form: a mix of lyrical play-by-play (“A Maniche snap-shot from the edge of the penalty area fizzes inches wide of Nikopolidis’s right upright”); cheeky asides (“The camera focuses on the Prime Minister of Portugal. A woman beside him, who could well be his wife, is frantically waving a Portugal flag. I was going to write that I couldn’t imagine Cherie Blair doing that, but I suppose I can”); cries of exasperation (“The Greek fans are making all the noise, while the Portuguese, who are obviously in the majority, appear to have succumbed to narcolepsy. I’m not far off it myself—a goal would be nice”); and lots of snippy real-time e-mail interactions with readers at home.

For colorful local perspective on the Euro 2008 drama, there’s no substitute for the fulminations of sports dailies like Italy’s La Gazzetta dello Sport, France’s L’Équipe, and Germany’s SportBild. Those of us whose Portuguese isn’t quite up to a breezy skim of O Jogo may instead wish to consult Socceranto, a book published online in 2006 that proposes a universal language for the world’s game, combining soccer slang and words culled from “the official languages spoken by each of the countries to have won the World Cup to date.” I’m not sure I can imagine anyone actually speaking a sentence like: “Didier Drogba is a natural müller but has been accused by some tifosi in England of betraying the jogo bonito with klinsmanns in the mixer and even maradonas.” Still, I’m happy to have learned the word Fliegenfanger—German for flycatcher, Socceranto for useless goalkeeper. It’ll come in handy, I’m sure, as Euro 2008 progresses.

A more serious read is Soccer in Sun and Shadow by Uruguayan novelist Eduardo Galeano. Originally published in 1998, it is an eloquent, occasionally bombastic love letter to the game, comprising dozens of short essays with titles like “The Language of Soccer Doctors” and “The Perfect Kiss Would Like To Be Unique.” Galeano has a fatalistic, purist take on the sport: “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.” But there is joyful play in Galeano’s writing about great players and great goals, even in these fallen times. Of Italian striker Roberto Baggio, a star of the 1980s and ‘90s, Galeano says, “His legs have a mind of their own, his foot shoots by itself. … Baggio is a big horsetail that flicks away opponents as he flows forward in an elegant wave.”

Perhaps the finest—certainly the stoutest—soccer history ever written is David Goldblatt’s 974-page The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Soccer (2006), which crams it all in, from the game’s ancient prehistory in Tan dynasty China to Zinedine Zidane. Goldblatt thinks and writes lucidly, offering insights on the social and economic aspects of soccer in the globalized age. He makes big claims for the sport, arguing that “no single world religion can match its geographical scope” and pointing out that almost half the planet watched the 2006 World Cup Final: “Three billion humans have never done anything simultaneously before,” he writes. The book takes its title from a famous saying by German soccer legend Sepp Herberger. It nicely sums up the pleasures awaiting the millions of armchair coaches who will settle in this weekend for 22 straight days of matches: “The ball is round. The game lasts ninety minutes. Everything else is theory.”