Literacy is a lifelong pursuit. Even after becoming familiar with a language, one can continue to refine ones sensibilities. There is more overlap between the literacy of a casual and an ultra than one might think. Passion doesn’t imply knowledge any more than curiosity. For many and most, what is interesting one moment is stale the next. We see this in the hordes of fans that pour out for the World Cup every four years. Yet it is from this crop that the new generations of ultras are drawn. It isn’t the only way soccer fandom is manufactured, but if we were to simply look at the numbers I suspect it would win out. What we get are semi-literate supporters, but they are supporters that are hungry for knowledge.
Today I look at two books that are at once reference, history, and entertainment: Who Invented the Bicycle Kick? and Club Soccer 101. The World Cup is long over, the crowds have disappeared, but I believe that as the new domestic season here in North America begins to rev up there will be more casual fans than ever before looking for answers.
Who Invented the Bicycle Kick?: Soccer’s Greatest Legends and Lore, Paul Simpson and Uli Hesse, William Morrow, 2014
Club Soccer 101: The Essential Guide to the Stars, Statas, and Stories of 101 of the Greatest Teams in the World, Luke Dempsey, W.W. Norton, 2014
The hunger for knowledge that characterizes would-be and long-time soccer supporters often takes the form of deceptively simple questions. Usually the first questions are rule based. Explaining the rules of the game may feel bothersome to a veteran supporter, but we all know it’s necessary. Also, explaining the rules of soccer takes little time and can best be seen to be understood. There’s nothing confusing about ‘offsides,’ until you make it so. By-and-large, the progress of questioning so enters a realm that even veteran supporters can’t confidently address. This is where Who Invented the Bicycle Kick? comes to the rescue.
From the seemingly impertinent (“Why do football matches last 90 minutes?”) to the irksomely simple (“What exactly is a derby?”) to the mildly contentious (“Who was the greatest diver of all time?”), the questions that Paul Simpson and Uli Hesse ask and answer can’t help but make pub watching chat more enjoyable. Even for seasoned supporters, the information in Who Invented the Bicycle Kick? is not just useful but often surprising. For example, the answer to “Why can’t you score an own goal from a direct free kick?” may seem rather straight-forward, but I’ve seen more than a few rec league arguments that would have benefited from reading this chapter. Simpson and Hesse have put together an engaging reference book, one that feeds our child-like obsession to know all there is and our mature need to not just know but understand and share.
Similarly, Luke Dempsey’s Club Soccer 101 is an excellent resource and one that can’t help but be a boon to the new fan. In its pages are brief summaries of some of the world’s most interesting professional clubs. What was Dempsey’s criteria for inclusion? More or less, it is success:
To help make decisions about which teams to include or leave out, I’ve relied on their record in international games…as well as how they’ve fared in their respective domestic leagues.
This seems fair enough. One could argue endless about what teams should make the 101 and what teams shouldn’t, but such a conversation is more quibbling than anything else. Yet it does strike me as a major failure that it doesn’t occur to Dempsey to include the Chicago Fire, a team that has won the MLS Cup, Supporters’ Shield, and four US Open Cups, yet includes the New York Red Bulls, a team that has won only one trophy in its nearly twenty year history. But that is a complaint best left for Twitter.
There was a time when regionalism and/or nationality determined what team you supported, this is no longer the case. The casual supporter and the ultra will find in Dempsey’s book a glut of necessary history. Belgium’s Brugge and Anderlecht’s brief flirtation with European success, Borussia Dortmund’s resistance to Nazism and its hand in helping to found Germany’s Bundesliga, the long collapse of England’s Wolverhampton Wanderers, and what Dempsey call the “obscure joy” of South Korea’s Pohang Steelers to name a few. Contemporary soccer isn’t just the international game. As Dempsey makes clear, the club game is the driving force of contemporary soccer. Club Soccer 101 is the intro guide for would-be supporters to find a team to back as well as the reference book for veteran supporters to brush up on other factions.
Both Club Soccer 101 and Who Invented the Bicycle Kick? are entertaining reads escaping the shallowness of coffee-table books while also avoiding the needlessly ponderous. Should you feel the need to craft a small soccer library, both works would be excellent additions.
The Complete Darkness 2014: An Annual Review of Minnesota United FC, W.H. Burdine and Bill Stenross, editors, Byline Press, 2015
Golazo!: The Beautiful Game from the Aztecs to the World Cup, Andreas Campomar, Riverhead Books, 2014
Love Thy Soccer: The Fan Rewrites the Book on the American Game, Sean Reid, 2015
The Damned Utd, David Peace, Melville House, 2014