Assigned Reading: The Ultimate World Cup Reading List

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While the hype for this Saturday’s USA v. England match may be at a rolling boil, relatively speaking, soccer isn’t exactly in America’s DNA. If you just want to know who’s who in the World Cup, you can always check out the group guides and team profiles over at ESPN, the Guardian, or Bolas and Bandeiras. But what if you want to know what to watch for and what all the excitement is about? Well, you might just have to dig a bit deeper. To that end, we’ve selected a half dozen soccer reads that are perfect companions for the June madness that is upon us.

– Jonathan Wilson

If you’re new to soccer, keep scrolling. This is the strong stuff. Inverting the Pyramid is an engrossing look at the evolution of soccer tactics, so it helps to have some familiarity with the basics. But for such a seemingly dry topic, this is an eminently readable book. Wilson charts how soccer evolved from being essentially a brawl in which 5 forwards were the norm and passing was considered unmanly, to the modern game where fielding just one striker is commonplace. Wilson writes “The Question” column over at the Guardian, which is a seedbed of insight that other commentators shamelessly parrot. If you’re curious how Inter Milan managed to hold off Messi and Barcelona or how the US handed Spain its first defeat in 35 games, then this is the book for you.

– Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski

As the title suggests, this is a sort of Freakonomics for soccer. It uses economics, statistics and even psychology to explain some of the most niggling questions in the sport. Because it cuts through the romanticism of soccer with stats and objective analysis, Kuper and Szymanski’s book is especially well-suited to the American reader — because you know no one over-analyzes sports like we do. Ideal if you want some counterintuitive ammo for anyone who starts jabbering on about the beautiful game.

How Soccer Explains The World: An Unlikely Theory Of Globalization – Franklin Foer

Less gimmicky than Soccernomics, this is a sustained attempt to examine globalization through the prism of soccer. Foer’s analysis takes him from Italy and Brazil to Bosnia and Iran to make that case that soccer (or at least the passion for soccer) can help explain such varied issues as the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the rise of militant Islam. It’s a wild ride, but worth it.

– Peter Alegi

If all the build up to South Africa has left you curious about the history of African soccer, this book is a terrific introduction to it. Alegi traces the sport’s rise during the colonial and independence eras to its wild popularity today.

The Global Game: Writers on Soccer

– ed. John C. Turnbull, Thom Satterlee, and Alon Raab

If you’d prefer to browse and graze on a collection literary takes on the sport, then this new title is perfect bedside or beach reading. It features a terrific array of authors writing about soccer — including Ted Hughes, Charles Simic, Eduardo Galeano, Günter Grass, Giovanna Pollarolo, Mario Vargas Llosa, and even Elvis Costello.

The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer – David Goldblatt

The Ball Is Round fills in the rest of the story you’ll find in Inverting the Pyramid. But where Jonathan Wilson is interested in the transition from 2-3-5 to 4-3-3, Goldblatt is fascinated by everything else. Goldblatt, who is blogging about this World Cup over at Prospect Magazine, is one of the best writers about soccer around and this is a truly engaging history of the game. Perfect for those who are interested in how the sport made it to nearly every corner of the globe, but aren’t into the tactical minutiae.

If you’ve got suggestions of your own, leave them in the comments!