Given the huge upsurge in spectator and viewer interest as the United States team made an exciting run at the 2014 soccer World Cup, it is hard to believe that the country’s love affair with the game is only of recent provenance. George Vecsey’s part-memoir, part-ode to the game that has the world dancing at its feet traces the arc of a nation’s relationship with soccer via the ears and eyes of an intrepid journalist who made the decision to cover the 1982 World Cup in Spain even when America (and, perhaps, Vecsey himself!) wasn’t quite ready for it.
As he describes the seven World Cups that followed his 1982 visit, it is clear that America’s perspective on what the rest of the world calls the “beautiful game” has changed, running the gamut from one of almost complete ignorance (and no small dose of antipathy) to a cult sport status to a near mainstream following. In putting himself at the center of a country’s embrace of an alien sport, Vecsey paints a highly relatable portrait of the World Cup as it means to Americans.
As far as soccer is concerned, Vecsey is your everyman, the quintessential American. He played the game as a schoolboy, albeit with very little skill, but was able to appreciate the game and its skilled exponents. But, like most Americans, he essentially forgot the game when he went on to other pursuits. When he rekindled his unrequited love of the game (his attempts to play the game as a porous high school defender tellingly indicated that the game didn’t love him back) with a trip to Spain to cover the 1982 World Cup, he was most certainly ahead of the curve as far as America’s interest in it. The U.S. hadn’t qualified for the World Cup over a forty-year period (1950-1990), and to the majority of the Americans it was a foreign game played by foreigners.
Bit by bit, though, the country got it, got what the rest of the world knew was a game that showcased the dexterity, imagination, and prowess of athletes who used their feet to display skills that would amaze people if performed with hands. Through Vecsey’s eyes and beautifully crafted words, we see the artistry (and chutzpah, in no small measure) of Argentina’s Diego Maradona, the vicissitudes of France’s Zinedine Zidane, the fall and rise of Brazil’s Ronaldo, and others who played the game with verve at the highest level. Vecsey reserves his eloquent best when he writes about Roberto Baggio, the ponytailed Italian midfielder who converted to Buddhism. As Baggio lined up to take the deciding penalty kick in the final game of the 1994 World Cup, Vecsey writes:
Baggio did not look comfortable. He bent over the ball, as if humming some Zen
koan, but there was no peace in his tight visage. He used his artistic hands to eliminate
any mole hills, any seismic eruptions, in the grit on the Rose Bowl floor. Then he
trudged back a few steps, bad karma evident in his askew jersey. He took a few steps,
and after a mild approach he dispatched the ball over the crossbar, almost exactly
where Baresi had put his.
A prevailing theory in journalism is that the smaller the ball, the better the quality of writing. Vecsey offers considerable evidence to the contrary in his pitch-perfect observations of soccer over the course of eight World Cups. He makes one wrong move, though. He refers to Andrea Pirlo as the “Beckham of Italy.” To his many supporters, the multi-dimensional Pirlo, with his wondrous ball handling skills that complement his penchant for astute set plays, has outdistanced the Englishman in all soccer skills except, perhaps, the ability to parlay one’s ability on the field to a fortune off it.