Best known for his short stories and novels, author Jonathan Wilson has veered into memoir with Kick and Run, an account of his lifelong love of soccer. Funny and always full of heart, Wilson’s distinctive storytelling style sets it apart from your average fan’s tale of the world’s most popular sport. The book takes us from Wilson’s childhood, growing up Jewish in postwar England, through his travels around the world and plenty of other big life experiences, connecting it all to his love of the game.
Since his love for the game is infectious, and his writing always leaves us wanting more, we asked Wilson for his ten favorite soccer books. He prefaced his list with the following note: “I offer this list in no particular order. I guess it should really be the Eleven Best Books, 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 plus a goalkeeper. I discounted from the start all books that in one way or another attempted to “explain” soccer to Americans.”
With that, we present to you Jonathan Wilson’s favorite soccer literature: books that both big-time football fans and novices who only break out the jerseys for Word Cup time should read.
Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby
I loathe Arsenal and have done so for more than half a century. So, it pains me to have to acknowledge that Nick Hornby’s Gooner-centric memoir Fever Pitch, inspired by Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, is one of the great soccer books, a smart, poignant, funny book about Hornby’s delusional obsession with a once-great French team. Bafflingly, in the movie version starring Jimmy Fallon, Arsenal was reconfigured as the Boston Red Sox.
This Love Is Not For Cowards: Salvation and Soccer in Ciudad Juarez, Robert Andrew Powell
This by far the best of the “I spent a season with…” books. Robert Andrew Powell is one courageous dude. He’s lost in Juarez and it’s wintertime, too. He’s following the local team, the Indios, and hooks up with their inventively named hardcore supporters group, “El Kartel,” whose logo is a gun-sight. Bus rides to away games (the closest opposition is 500 miles south) are Tarantino spectaculars. Back in Juarez, bodies are hanging from the bridges. What is our man doing there? The soccer saves the city. The book saves us all from having to visit.
Zidane’s Melancholy, Jean Philippe Toussaint (available in Best European Fiction 2010)
This came out as a 24-page book in France. Here it appeared in a collection of essays. Toussaint approaches Zidane’s infamous World Cup head butt via Freud, Bachelard, Starobinski, and the calligrapher’s pen. It’s a lovely meditation. An Italian journalist friend of mine once reported to me the full text of Materazzi’s provocation. Everyone knows he said, “Your sister is a whore,” but less familiar is the coda, “and everyone in Milan has fucked her.”
The Damned Utd, David Peace
A brilliant novel, William Faulkner if he’d been brought up in the industrial north of England and got inside the durable, unreconstructed mind of a hard-as-nails genius football dictator/coach, which in this case belongs to the iconic figure of Brian Clough (1935-2004). Movie featuring Michael Sheen, presently playing William Masters in Showtime’s Masters of Sex, also worth a look.
Bamboo Goalposts: One Man’s Quest to Teach the People’s Republic of China to Love Football, Rowan Simons
How can you not love a book whose author plays amateur football once a week for Forbidden City FC?
Soccer in Sun and Shadow, Eduardo Galeano
A beautiful book. The Uruguayan novelist is a true poet of the game; he’s not afraid to take a chapter (albeit a short one) to describe a single goal. Galeano gracefully mixes politics and art in this homage to soccer: “celebration of its lights, denunciation of its shadows.”
A Season with Verona, Tim Parks
A witty, engaging account of the travails and enthusiasms of a liberal writer whose twisted love for his adopted hometown’s team brings him into close proximity with a set of neo-fascist fans who like to hold up signs saying, “Welcome to Italy” when Napoli comes to town.
Among The Thugs, Bill Buford
The first of the great hooligan memoirs. Buford, a typical thug — former editor of Granta and fiction editor at the New Yorker, now a culinary expert — ran with Chelsea’s and some of England’s other bad boys, documented the mayhem, and sometimes got caught up in it. He ends up scaring himself when the mega-violence (whether dished out or received) starts sending shivers down his own spine and he wisely pulls back.
I’m torn here between The Bumper Book of Roy of the Rovers, a 2008 reprint of comics I read between 1958 and 1962 that now, collected, has the feel, range, and depth of a great graphic novel and Peter Handke’s The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty Kick: “Everything spherical is a symbol of the uncertain.”
Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov
I wish Vladimir Nabokov had written a full-length book on soccer instead of leaving us only the short section of Speak, Memory in which he reflects on his days as a goalkeeper for Trinity College, Cambridge. But let him be the 11th man and 11th book here, the goalkeeper, “aloof, solitary, impassive.”