George Vecsey, a longtime columnist and writer for The New York Times, started covering the soccer World Cup in 1982 when much of America had, at best, a passing interest in the game. In his book
Eight World Cups: My Journey Through the Beauty and Dark Side of Soccer,
he chronicles his personal and the country’s relationship over the years
with what the world calls “the beautiful game.” Contributor Ram Subramanian
conducted an electronic interview with Vecsey, who is currently in Brazil covering the 2014 World Cup.
What drew you to soccer? You did play it in high school, but in 1982, when you were set to go to Spain for your first World Cup, how did you bridge your knowledge gap so quickly to write eloquently about a game that was (and, to some extent, still is) so foreign to most Americans?
It was, bluntly, a different sport. I just didn’t think anybody could move the ball so expertly to the open player. It was hard to follow, particularly because I didn’t know the players by heart. I tried to learn on the fly – I mean, journalists have to do that, no matter what they cover – and my motivation was that I liked the sport, and the travel, and wanted to be able to keep covering World Cup soccer. I appreciate the compliment. The sport is becoming less “foreign” because of cable TV and the Internet and even electronic games. Younger people have played it, and know it. They don’t resist it the way people my age did.
You indicate that your soccer viewing method involves watching a play develop for sixty seconds, after which, in your opinion, the original sequence essentially ends and a new one begins. How did you develop this approach? Is it standard among soccer journalists?
I can’t say I ever asked anybody how they followed the action. I suspect that fans and writers who were around the game as youngsters just automatically know it. I can watch a baseball game slightly less intently, perhaps, and yet I can see when something goes wrong – an outfielder turns the wrong way on a fly ball, something like that. But in soccer, the trick is to see when the momentum turns, when somebody gives up the ball, how a team counter-attacks. I had to concentrate on the changes. I suspect long-time fans do it automatically.
You seem to have a particular fondness for certain players – Zinadine Zidane, Andres Iniesta, and Roberto Baggio. What was it about these players – Baggio, for instance, who is featured a number of times in the book – that drew you to them?
Thanks for noticing. I played a lot of schoolyard basketball as a kid, and appreciate the intricate city-ball passes we saw from New York passers like Dick McGuire, Bob Cousy, Lenny Wilkens, Larry Brown, Nate Archibald. I love the same in soccer, the players you mentioned, who of course could also score. They created something from nothing, harder than in basketball with its repetitive scores. Zidane and Iniesta won finals, which adds to the mystique. Baggio also had an element of suffering – national coaches who underestimated him, injuries and the missed PK in 1994, etc. Also, a good friend of mine is friendly with Baggio, tells me nice things about Baggio as family man, citizen, sportsman. Plus, he has the aura of an Italian kid who converted to Buddhism, and the ponytail. One of a kind.
While soccer is referred to as the “beautiful game,” FIFA, per your description, appears far from beautiful. A whole cast of FIFA characters – Jack Warner, Chuck Blazer, Joao Havelange, and, most prominently, Sepp Blatter, don’t come across in good light. There is a hilarious anecdote featuring Robin Williams and Blatter that perhaps captures tellingly the American perspective on a powerful figure with questionable ethics. How does the game survive and flourish, in spite of FIFA?
Well, the subtitle does include the words “dark side,” whose importance grew on me as I wrote the book. These characters kept disappearing in recent years, as they were found to be crooked. Blatter has not been found to do anything illegal, and we were very careful not to suggest he was. But directly under him, all kinds of chicanery took place, including that bizarre double election for 2018 and 2022. FIFA is an opaque organization with very dubious ethics. The Williams thing is more of a prank, just two words colliding – the comedian and the foil. I was going to portray Blatter as merely a bumbler, but then his associates kept going down with charges of improprieties.
The game survives because people love it. A tribute to its universality. But I do think the sum effect of the past four years is that FIFA has been found out.
How does the rest of the world regard an American soccer writer? With amusement? With skepticism? In a patronizing way? Has it changed since 1982?
Good question. Sure, it’s changed since 1982. Good people always try to appreciate and teach newcomers. I had nice people like Jacomini, the Italian AP guy, and other friends try to teach me stuff. After a World Cup or two, I started to run into people who remembered I was there. In the time of the Internet, they could see what I wrote, and maybe thought I knew nothing, or maybe just a little bit. Some FIFA press aides – I mention three who are good people – tried to help. Also, they knew the US was important, and they wanted me to know as much as I could, and to have their side of things. Fair enough. There was one FIFA official who would splutter that America did not have a good soccer team and really we writers should keep our mouths shut and accept whatever seats and mixed-zone passes we were lucky enough to get. Players, being pragmatists, judged you on their experience. I met guys like Dino Zoff (1982) and interviewed players from Denmark, Bulgaria, Romania, Italy, Netherlands, UK, using intermediary languages. The greatest compliment I ever got was covering a Juventus trip to the USA in 2011. Gigi Buffon was very nice when I spoke to him in my bad Italian. And Del Piero gave me the ultimate praise: “Your Italian better than my English.” How cool was that? (I doubt it was true, but how nice.)