Awhile ago I planned out a column for World Soccer Talk, where I regularly contribute, about exceptional soccer writing and journalism. It’s something I value a lot, and do my best to support outlets that encourage and provide it. I especially enjoy when novelists and other talented, “literary” authors write about the beautiful game. The editors kind of brushed it off after initially liking the idea, so I’m just gonna do it myself here on the blog. Maybe it’ll transition elsewhere in the future. Otherwise…here’s the first installment of what I’m calling “Beautiful Words on a Beautiful Game.”
There’s no shortage of soccer coverage nowadays; beyond the already large pool of newspapers and TV networks around the world that cover the beautiful game, literally thousands of websites have gotten in the action. The internet created this largely filterless stream that we are constantly sifting through, and often the best writing goes unseen by the multitudes. Essays and articles that are well-written, well-researched, and entertaining are a joy to me as a reader and enlightening to me as a writer.
So in an effort to bring excellent, enjoyable soccer writing into the spotlight, I’m starting this column to highlight the best soccer writing found on the internet and beyond. The focus will be on recent pieces found online, but occasionally I’ll mention older stuff, slightly off-topic subjects, print magazine/journal articles, or even *bad* writing to use for examples. There may be themed editions, centered around specific topics or styles. I’ll happily take requests (if you want me to find something on a particular topic) or suggestions of pieces I’ve missed, so feel free to leave them in the comments of the latest column or e-mail me at email@example.com.
For this first column, I’m going to focus on some of my favorite soccer writing EVER, as well as point out some of the outlets that consistently publish excellent stuff. The recent boom of independent soccer magazines based in the USA has really contributed to the game in America, as well as the building coverage of the sport by traditional American outlets. Howler Magazine and 8by8 Magazine lead the indie charge, and ESPNFC has put out some brilliant multimedia-based pieces in the past year. Grantland, the ESPN-acquired sports blog started by Bill Simmons, regularly covers European and American soccer with a literary slant, and currently has one of the best sportswriters on the planet, Brian Phillips, on staff. Sports Illustrated senior editor Grant Wahl leads the inspired soccer coverage at the legendary magazine, and highbrow intellectual magazine The New Republic’s editor-in-chief Franklin Foer ensured that his magazine’s World Cup coverage was top notch. It’s a great time to be a literary-minded soccer fan, both in the USA and abroad.
So here goes, a few of my favorite pieces of writing about my favorite sport:
by Jeff Maysh, originally for Howler Magazine, reprinted at The Guardian online
Urban legends amongst sports are often found out to be myths–take the story of Mario Balotelli’s supposed confronting of a bully at a Manchester school, which has been refuted countless times but is repeated so often that most still consider it fact. But in this piece, Jeff Maysh finally caught up to the source of a legend he had heard for over a decade–the day that Harry Redknapp brought a fan out of the crowd and onto the pitch in a preseason match after the fan had heckled him all day. Maysh’s narrative is compelling and takes on a stranger than fiction vibe to it, and the subject’s side of the story takes it into the surreal.
by Brian Phillips, for Grantland
“And that’s what we’re playing for on Sunday. Validation for the best team in the tournament or validation for the best player in the world. In a sense, it’s perfect.”
As mentioned above, Brian Phillips is perhaps one of the greatest sportswriters working today; luckily, much of his greatest writing happens to be about the beautiful game. This piece, brilliantly written in the short stretch of time between the 2014 World Cup semifinals and the final, goes into the heart of the two teams participating and captures the ethos of each spectacularly. Phillips touches on a variety of points with ease, gliding from the shock of seeing Brazil lose 7-1 to the awe in which the world sees Messi and the weight that puts on his shoulders. As it happens, his preview of the final was spot on, and in the end the machine did, indeed, beat the man.
by Grant Wahl, Sports Illustrated
Sometimes the most compelling stories about soccer aren’t about a game or a player. Sometimes the best soccer stories are about the people and the fans. Grant Wahl tells a great story about a man whose lifelong dream was to see El Clasico, to see his Real Madrid play. Every year he would volunteer to help the club while they trained in Los Angeles, but had yet to see the team play in Spain. What follows when the man, Abel Rodriguez, makes it to Madrid and has a chance encounter with Jose Mourinho, is just awesome and inspiring. Even the most ardent Mourinho hater will have a little soft spot for the Portuguese after reading this story.
by Wright Thompson, ESPN FC
“He barely stopped himself from rolling his eyes when I brought up the two sides of Suarez. ‘There are not two Suarezes,’ he said, raising his voice.”
No matter how you feel about Luis Suarez, both in past and present, there’s no doubt that he’s a compelling soccer character. As a Liverpool fan, I felt his highs and his lows. Most soccer fans and even most Liverpool fans will admit that the Suarez enigma eludes them in ways that no other player does. His talent and his behavior are constantly at odds with each other, and there’s no way to know what he’ll do next. This article is incredibly well-researched and presented, an example of the multimedia-reading experience that has taken over journalism lately. It works quite well here, and the art is as off-putting as it is impressive–just like Luis Suarez. The story that Thompson stumbles on in this piece is fascinating, whether it is or isn’t true. It leaves you scratching your head, debating the truth.
These are but a few of my favorites, and I’ll be sprinkling more into future columns. But you’ve got homework! Read these pieces, and let me know in the comments or at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any requests or suggestions.