Television commentary is the most in-depth discussion many of us soccer fans get, and the cadre of ex-players, failed coaches, and loaned voices from other sports is a woeful font. So, literate fans seek out literature to fill the void. The precious metal that can be found after mining through layers of forced fiction, tactic and technique jeremiads, tiresome memoir is worth the effort.
But even the best soccer literature falls shy or doesn’t even attempt to be literary, to be Literature. Should it matter? Perhaps not, but I would like more folk to try. There is a tradition in South American writing of intermingling, weaving sport and literature. In this tradition, Mexican author Juan Villoro gives us God Is Round, a series of vignettes exploring the vagaries of soccer and football’s luminaries.
What is perhaps most enticing and pleasant about Villoro’s book is it strives and reaches the level of Literature. Albeit, a Literature firmly grounded in allusion, insisting on demonstrating a literacy that may put off some readers. Yet Villoro’s prose wins over readership with is stolidly agreeable positions–Maradona is a god whose foibles are easily dismissed, Messi the greatest footballer of a generation because of his humility and skill, Cristiano Ronaldo is admirably contemptible because he is acutely aware of his own greatness (“incapable of identifying with other players, he finds his only reflection the object of desire: the ball”), some words about the childlike wonder and nostalgia of the sport, and of course, some digs at FIFA’s corruption of the beautiful game (“an irascible banana republic within the realms of the free market”). All of this is rather low hanging fruit yet follows along with Villoro’s assertion that “writing about football means recreating, in another form, that which supporters already know.”
In fact, nothing in Villoro’s book is at all new or fresh or compelling; it’s all conversations you’ve heard before on television in studios, on the terraces, in pubs, online, and among those you may casually play the game with. Yet, it’s Villoro’s style that makes God Is Round so enjoyable to read. He brings a flair that is lacking in nearly all soccer writing in a voice that is amenable yet sophisticated. Villoro is hardly a “philosopher-fanatic” nor is he “as adept on the vagaries of the game as he is in his psychoanalysis of its players.” But he does give that impression. Villoro is a grand sophist for soccer, a writer who takes what has become banal ‘hot takes’ transmuting them into poetic prose.
It may sound like I’m denigrating the book but make no mistake, God Is Round is a quality work succeeding in its mission to combine “a passion for literature and a passion for football.” Villoro believes, to paraphrase, the reality of football gets better through the writing of it:
Writing about football is one of the many consolations of literature. Every so often a critic will wonder how it is that no great football novel has ever been written, on a planet that holds its breath during a World Cup. The answer seems fairly simply to me: the system of references in football is so strictly codified, and so totally involves the emotions, that it includes its own epic, its own tragedy and its own comedy. There isn’t any need for parallel dramas, and the writer’s invention is left with very little space to work in. This is one of the reasons why we get better short stories about football than novels. Because football comes to us with all these preformed narratives, any hidden aspects, anything that hasn’t already been published, tend to minimal. The novelist who sees the task as doing more than acting as a mirror, would rather look elsewhere for material. Whereas the short story writer–interested in going back and recounting what has already happened–finds an inexhaustible fount.
So Villoro rates the novel over the short story, and since he is writing nonfiction, he embraces the short story’s nonfictive cousin, the vignette. In this smaller form, longer than flash while more than mere impressionism, he is able to write some wonderful statements such as “Finishing a move is less important than creating one” and “To hate can be enjoyable, a pleasure you cultivate, and perhaps football serves the secret function of annoying those people who honestly just want to be annoyed” urging us to continue reading demanding justification and extrapolation.
This is what makes God Is Round enjoyable. Because he acutely understands “football is loved by too many people not to be enjoyed in a thousand different ways,” Villoro draws out the poetry of the game in lyricism, that is, the individual’s moment of grace. Thus, his focus on the great players and how they turn a your usual “ogling imbecile, mouth full of pie, head full of useless information” soccer fan into someone acutely aware of the beauty of the player on the pitch. It is his take on the footballer over football where Villoro excels, knowing “For the majority of the game, the football player is no more than the possibility of a footballer.” It is this possibility, this immanence, that makes the game so wonderful for spectators and raises a player up beyond the realm of elites to that of deities.
With an engaging style and a unique eye for moments to muse about, Villoro’s God Is Round is an excellent book. The casual and ultra, the child and the adult, will find themselves not just satisfied but hungry for more such literature.
Juan Villoro is Mexico’s most prolific, prize-winning author, playwright, journalist, and screenwriter. His books have been translated into multiple languages; he has received the Herralde Award in Spain for his novel El testigo, the Antonin Artaud award in France for Los culpables. His novel,Arrecife, was recently short-listed for the Rezzori Prize in Italy. Villoro lives in Mexico City and is a visiting lecturer at Yale and Princeton universities.
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