Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Waiting for the World Cup?... What to Read While You Wait!

In some circles I shared a fairly famous moniker growing up. Lorne (Gump) Worsley was a Hall of Fame goalie in the NHL from the mid-1950's to the early 70's. When I was asked about being related I fudged a bit, but I read his biography when I was eleven, so I knew enough to fake it.
Gradually, hockey lessened as my sport of choice (my brother is the goaltender in the family) and soccer started to creep in. I still remember the European Food Mart in downtown Kitchener near my old high school as being where I first got a taste of the passion the beautiful game evokes. The 1982 World Cup went to Italy that year and being in a deli with all that good food watching a lovely establishment full of people going progressively more insane as June became July made a big impression. I didn't speak a word of the language, but I made a point of hanging around.
A poster of the Italian team took up half the shelf space in the place, and likely contributed to theshop closing for all I know. At the time it probably didn't matter much. With sports writers currently wondering aloud if Canadians are going to watch the Stanley Cup finals now that Montreal is out, it's telling that an entire planet is going mad for the upcoming World Cup.
For entry level or seasoned fans alike, there are a couple of offerings that will accent the proceedings. The Sun Guide to the World Cup is a great little compendium of the teams, the major players and a ton of stats. For less than $15, it's essential stuff and great for resting a pint on.

For a bit more substance, John Doyle's The World is a Ball:The Joy, Madness and Meaning of Soccer is a traveling man's look at the last few World Cups and European Championships from the perspective of a fluid writer, knowledgeable fan and apparently an excellent drinking companion. The Globe and Mail's TV columnist knows from spectacle and it shows.

One of the joys of soccer at an elite level is how differently it's played from continent to continent. Broad brushes aside, the European game differs from the South and Central African variety, and as for the Africans well... whenever African teams put a scare into the powerful European clubs, it makes for an electrifying spectacle. Doyle does this particularly well. He's great when describing an upset in the making and is equally able to convey the artistry of Brazilian soccer and the elan common to the French game, as well as what it all means off the field.
Soccer is politics, history, and inexorably linked to the blood of many dozens of nations. Doyle illuminates many of them and has a good deal of fun doing it, sometimes on the Globe and Mail's dime; occasionally on his own. He makes the point early that he's not a sports writer and The World is a Ball is no mere sports tome. Rather, Doyle gets out of the stadium and onto the streets and bars to get a look at fans the world over. The result is a breezy, funny and poignant look at nothing less than what makes most of the world tick.
Some grumpy reviewers have indicated that the book doesn't go into a great amount of detail about teams, tactics and minutiae. True enough. There's plenty of that elsewhere with reams of material for specific teams and players. This is a book for emerging fans in North America who are embracing the game or would like to. It's also a great piece of travel writing, and a near perfect prelude to what is by far the biggest sporting event on the planet.
I greatly enjoyed the recap of the time when I came of age as a fan, and to whet one's appetite for the 2010 World Cup (June 11 in South Africa) one can't do much better than to dive into this.

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