JUNE 20, 2016
IN THE CLOISTERED, very non-transparent world of New York book publishing, there’s a saying (at least for some of us): the bigger the ball, the smaller the advance.
That is, golf, tennis, and baseball books are more likely to attract ample money up-front — and the marketing muscle that comes with that — than, say, basketball and soccer books. There’s subtext there (and book publishing is all about coded language), but I’ll leave that to you, dear reader.
What New York publishers haven’t realized yet (they’re always the last to find out) is that soccer is the silent majority of sports here in the United States. Slowly, over the last few decades, more and more American fans gather, not so silently, around flat screens, in bars, and in public viewing spots across the country, especially during the men’s and women’s World Cup, entranced by the global game. On weekend mornings, and weekday afternoons, we watch matches from the European leagues live on TV or follow them on the internet and social media. Right now we have the good fortune of having easy access to games morning, noon, and night, thanks to a newly expanded, monthlong European Championship coinciding with the South American Championships (known as Copa América), which is being held for the first time ever, on the occasion of its centenary, in the United States across 10 cities in cavernous NFL stadiums. The US Men’s National Team was a special invited guest to this Copa América Centenario, as was Mexico, North America’s traditional power.
Mexico may not have the soccer CV of a Brazil or Germany but it enjoys its own deep tradition, has hosted two beautiful World Cups (one of which, in 1970, is still considered by many to be the greatest ever), produced the continent’s best player (Hugo Sánchez), and has an exciting (if not tactical) domestic league. So it came as welcome news that the formidable writer and thinker Juan Villoro would have one of his soccer texts, God Is Round, published in the United States. What’s surprising is that Villoro, a friend of the PEN set who’s written over 30 books — novels, short story collections, essays — only had his first book translated into English, his collection of short fiction, The Guilty, last year.
“The Whistle,” from that collection, concerns a 33-year-old defensive midfielder, a “kicked-in lump,” who’s facing the end of his not-so-illustrious playing days. “I was in the desert, ending a career of bad memories but I wasn’t sad to be there. A place to make my exit, for everything to end and nothing to matter.” Call it The Midfielder’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. Like the other stories in the volume, it’s wise, absurd, melancholy. And funny. “The referee turned out to be my parrot’s vet. He hated Argentinians.” In “Mariachi,” Mexico City’s venerated Estadio Azteca, host of two World Cup Finals, is mentioned, and in “Holding Pattern,” a Chelsea match is on at a pub. “Neither of us like soccer but we watch the game with strange intensity.”
Villoro does like soccer and cares about it deeply. God Is Round, he writes, “combines a passion for literature and a passion for football,” and he lovingly evokes great writers throughout: Elias Canetti, André Malraux, Robert Musil, Wilde, Baudelaire (“genius is merely childhood recaptured”), Beckett, Pasolini, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán (the latter three were fans), and various Latin American writers like Juan Sasturain, Darío Jaramillo Agudelo, Juan José Arreola, and Juan Carlos Onetti, who once wrote, “I go to the stadium to form my own mass sensibility, multitudinous and at the same time unanimous.”
“A fan,” Villoro writes, “is a person who resigns himself to things,” and later, “Though I shouldn’t shout about it, defeat suits me.” He’s an enthralled sad sack. It’s a wonder he doesn’t cite philosopher E. M. Cioran. (Guess which of the following chapter headings are taken from God Is Round and the Romanian’s On the Heights of Despair: The Monopoly of Suffering; When Wishing Helps; Beauty’s Magic Tricks; The Appearance of the Invisible; The Sense of Endings; The Sense of Tragedy; Unimaginable Joy; How To Be Happy; Truth, What a Word!; Is There Anyone There?; Facing Silence; Eternity Passes Quickly.)
Villoro’s book is made up of, to borrow a soccer and literary term, set pieces: short, tangential takes on players, coaches, teams, fandom, and goals, past and present, all mixed with memoir. This episodic approach may (also) be unappealing to the narrative-driven, mainstream publishing world — this isn’t a year-in-the-life of such-and-such a player with phenomenal hair who is going to move copies, nor a Rocky-esque tale on the little team that could — but in Villoro’s hands, or, rather, at his feet, it’s often delightful. He regales us on how he came to support the unfashionable Club Necaxa, the electricians’ team in Mexico. “They weren’t exactly the logical option, not being much of a side, titles were hardly guaranteed, and nor were the Sundays going to be plain sailing.” When the club was transformed into a powerful one in the 1990s, “All that efficiency seemed like a vulgar transgression.”
Defending the sport in his own mind to Juan José Arreola, a writer he admires who wasn’t a fan and saw soccer as regressive, Villoro writes:
Football offers one of the most propitious situations for the intellectual life, in that the majority of the game is spent doing nothing. You run but the ball is nowhere near you, you stop, you do up your bootlaces, you shout things no one hears, you spit on the ground, you exchange a harsh look with an opposing player, you remember you forgot to lock the terrace door. For the majority of the game, the football player is no more than the possibility of a footballer. He or she can be in the game without being in the game.
Villoro played soccer in the prestigious youth ranks for the Mexico City club Pumas and understands things that Americans and Anglos — who still manage to dominate the soccer press in the United States — are only now, finally, coming around to, like, for instance, “the magic of football depends on cunning, a quality that resists all quantification.”
And throughout God Is Round, there are terrific turns, the writerly equivalents to back heels, nutmegs, and glorious chips:
Certain geniuses of the game, like Butragueño and Valderrama, are able to slow the ball down, putting the clock in parentheses; others, like Xavi and Andrés Iniesta, pile up comma after comma to create serial subordinate clauses […] Street players, for whom it’s just as important to get past your opponent as it is to finish off a move, are like the Spanish opening question marks […] — they don’t necessarily ask the whole question.
If some of his literary forays peter out, well, the sport itself is often more about the clever build-up than scoring goals. But Villoro loses his footing a time or two, which can happen, or as Villoro himself puts it, “the turf becomes slippery, the most accurate player on your team misses every now and then.” For instance: Arminia Bielefeld is a team in Germany, not a player; Patrick Kluivert didn’t miss two penalties in a single Euro 2000 match (that was Frank de Boer), and as good-natured as he was, it’s doubtful he’d “have a blissful smile on his face”; Australia didn’t qualify for the 2006 World Cup as early as in 2004; technically, FC Barcelona are the azulgrana (in Spanish), but they’re universally known as the blaugrana (in Catalan) — in the book they’re both; Ronaldo did play his last seasons at São Paulo club Corinthians, but that isn’t the local rival of Flamengo, nor did the great striker begin his career at that legendary Rio de Janeiro team. Villoro also implies that the reliably dodgy FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, conspired against the Mexican national team to allow the United States passage to the 1990 World Cup, and that the Mexican Federation kept quiet in exchange for “several cushy jobs for its staff, and some mouthwatering deals for the TV networks.” There might be something to that, but then he writes, “On the eve of Italia ’90 […] [Mexico’s] passport to the World Cup — they’d already qualified — was revoked.” I’m not a flag-waver (especially when it comes to soccer) but that’s not true: Mexico hadn’t qualified for the World Cup yet, and they were disqualified in 1988 (not “on the eve” of the tournament), well before the United States eventually advanced in November ’89.
Those mistakes might not be on Villoro; perhaps signals got crossed from the bench, though there are repetitions, too. There’s a lot, too much for me, on Diego Maradona, already one of the most-chronicled players in history, as well as Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona. No question, Messi’s 2007 goal versus Getafe was sublime, and eerie in how it mirrored Maradona’s famous effort at the Azteca in the 1986 World Cup Quarter-final. But it comes up more than once in this book. The veneration of Messi versus the demonization of Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo has gotten tiring over the years. Yes, Messi is the greatest player I’ve ever seen, and yes, everything Villoro writes in his admitted “diatribe” against CR7 is true — he’s a vain, self-absorbed peacock — but he’s one of the greatest to ever play. Ronaldo might look as if he’s just been plucked out of a mildly offensive Dolce & Gabbana ad, but it was Messi, the altar boy, who was named in The Panama Papers and, as this review went to press, was on trial for tax fraud.
Villoro is a Barcelona fan, in addition to Necaxa (which, considering the reverential reams that have been written about the former, is, for me, the more interesting of the two clubs). Early in the book, he points out how Barcelona, once sponsored by UNICEF, eventually switched to the Qatar Foundation: “From infants to petroleum: a neat metaphor for the salability of fans’ connections with their club.” Later, he excoriates FIFA for awarding Qatar the 2022 World Cup, and aims more wrath at Sepp Blatter, the former president of the world governing body, who refused to resign after an embarrassing corruption scandal. All of that is fine, except he goes on to write:
How different from the goodbye of one great footballer. In the summer of 2015, upon retiring, Xavi Hernández, possibly the greatest Spanish player of all time, defined his job as “a ball and some guys running around after it.” The words of a great. On behalf of this dream, FIFA does its business deals. In art and sport alike we make a mental return to childhood, the space in which great marvels are possible. The unfortunate thing is that FIFA has put childhood up for sale.
Right again. And so did Xavi. After that 2015 retirement, he very publicly accepted an offer to play in Qatar for 30 million Euros and to be an ambassador for the 2022 World Cup there.
Villoro, like Eduardo Galeano before him, is right to call out the corrosive effects commerce has had on the game and the game’s institutions. He writes, “It isn’t all about the money in football — just nearly all,” and says the sport “is the most money-spinning form of passion on the planet.” So he’s well aware of the encroaching shadows in soccer, but the sun, at certain angles over the terraces, can, on occasion, blind even the great number 10s, the on-field visionaries who are supposed to see the whole field, what’s behind them, and what’s about to unfold. (Michel Platini and Zico both missed penalties one afternoon in Guadalajara long, long ago; the author may have even been there.) Still, Villoro has earned his captain’s armband. I hope to read him again on fútbol — or anything else — if more of his work is translated. When more of his work is translated. The world is getting smaller. And (hint, hint New York publishers) that soccer ball might be, too.
Michael J. Agovino is the author of The Soccer Diaries: An American’s Thirty-Year Pursuit of the International Game and The Bookmaker: A Memoir of Money, Luck, and Family From the Utopian Outskirts of New York City.