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'Soccerhead'

Knee-High: The kids of Jim Haner's 'Soccerhead' learn how to get their kicks.

Follow the Bouncing Ball

Two new books think globally and act locally about soccer

By John Freeman


'WHAT IS SOCCER," asks Sean Wilsey, in The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup, a hefty new anthology, "if not everything religion should be?" Quibble with that question all you like, but football, as the world knows it, is certainly less dangerous than organized belief. About the only people who get seriously hurt are the fans, who occasionally pick fights or stampede one another at the end of close matches.

In light of such behavior, the title of this book feels a little less presumptuous. To feed the mind, Wilsey and co-editor Matt Weiland have gathered some three dozen writers to write about the 32 countries participating in the 2006 World Cup. Each essay is preceded by a page featuring facts about each country, from its per capita GDP to its spending on military.

As these details suggest, most of the essays in this book veer dramatically away from soccer. William Finnegan spends his essay on Portugal discussing the destruction of a once-secret surfing spot. In her dispatch on Tobago and Trinidad, New Yorker editor Cressida Leyshon describes Columbus' first sighting of the island, when he danced and played music to signal his friendliness. He got arrows in return and so "immediately stopped the music and dancing and ordered some crossbows to be fired." As Peter Ho Davies points out in his essay on South Korea, soccer's roots "lie in the colonial past, which is so responsible for making it the world game."

Therefore, it's not surprising that many of these essays point out the effects of globalization. Caryl Phillips notes that Ghana's best players go abroad to play, while Henning Mankell describes how difficult this exporting of talent made it for Angola to field a team at all.

True soccer fans might feel jilted, but this doesn't feel like a book for them anyway. Like Patrick Neate's tour of global hip-hop, Where You're At, this book is best appreciated as a guide to how local subjectivities impact a shared culture. Soccer has struggled in the United States, argues Dave Eggers, because, supposedly, we like fairness and transparency, while in Italy, Tim Parks says, the game is the only thing that will take men's eyes off women.

How we play soccer tells us who we are. Writing about Saudi Arabia, Subkhdev Sandhu explains how a powerful sheikh attempted to ban post-goal celebrations, arguing, "What do joy, hugging and kissing have to do with sports?" The good news is that not everyone obeyed.

The most powerful recruiter in the United States is not the army, but the American Youth Soccer Organization. Since 1970, the AYSO has conscripted millions of youngsters into Saturday morning soccer, dragging their parents into all-important orange slicing and sideline yelling. Several years ago, Jim Haner found himself "shanghaied" into coaching one of these squads, and his book Soccerhead describes his journey from shambling naif to fire-breathing inspirer of 9-year-olds.

In between games, Haner bones up on the game's history, which he braids into the story with reporterlike grace. Native Americans played it with a deerskin ball, while industrial workers imported the game from England and Scotland at the turn of the century. In St. Louis, the church sponsored it, so priests left seminary "with a Bible and a pair of soccer shoes."

Ultimately, these stories eclipse his own, which is, after all, fairly mundane. Talking to old-timers, Haner turns up the Pelé of early American soccer: Billy "the Big Bomber" Gonsalves, a 210-pound Portuguese who played in the New England textile leagues. "Even his hair was perfect," remembers one teammate. "He combed it before every match and combed it again at halftime."


The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup, edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey; Harper Perennial; 416 pages; $14.95 paper. Soccerhead: An Accidental Journey Into the Heart of the American Game, by Jim Haner; North Point Press; 288 pages; $24 cloth.


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