A Heightened Pitch
soccer as culture at the world cup
The young genre of “soccer studies” is a bit of an odd marriage: an academic approach born in ivory towers applied to a game so base and populist you can play it without hands. It attempts to trace the histories, politics, and identities of nations through their feet, whether it be American isolationism, German efficiency, the rebellious artistry of the Dutch Oranje, or the rhythmic flair of the Brasileros. Hardly a national identity exists that cannot be found reflected in that country’s relationship with the beautiful game.
Entering the soccer studies fray most recently are the keen father and son Steven Stark P’11 and Harrison Stark ’11, who submit to growing the canon with World Cup 2010: The Indispensable Guide to Soccer and Geopolitics. It is a refreshingly intelligent and soft-spoken introduction to the teams, tactics, personalities, and global intricacies of the world’s grandest exhibition. The guide provides multiple layers of soccer knowledge, perspective, and subtext to those whirlwind few weeks.
The first third of the book is cautious but colorful. It succinctly provides an overview of the tournament as well as a few short essays on soccer’s global significance and the potential for Africa’s first Cup to function as a coming-out party for the continent, á la the Beijing Olympics. It also accounts for the role of the less obvious factors like geography, altitude, racism and spiritual intercession in shaping the outcome of the tournament.
Like a good soccer game, the guide really finds its rhythm about a quarter of the way through. Group by group and country by country, the Starks evaluate each team with a concise but illuminating report. They assess not only offense, defense, and management, but also pedigree and politics, without which we would never understand why the Dutch are chronic underachievers, and why Slovenia will be worth watching but Slovakia might not.
World Cup 2010 is perhaps the ideal guide for the uninformed (read: American) viewer. Its clipped pacing and partitioned fact-boxes make for a very easy read for those accustomed to 40 seconds between downs. It is extensively researched and written with a combination of humility and wit that just hits the mark. Most importantly, anyone who cares can immediately tell that Stark & Stark are no armchair fullbacks. After reading half a page, it’s obvious that they actually play the game, enjoy it, and enjoy writing about it. While it may lack the exhaustive depth of analysis you might find across the pond, this may be the first American book about soccer that lives and breathes the game.
There may be critics who say the book is irrelevant, or at least a decade late. They will posit that if power has moved from the nation-state to the transnational corporate behemoth, then surely the Barcelonas and Chelseas, conglomerates of the world’s best players unhindered by borders, are the executors of the best soccer. If the World Cup is just an excuse to resurrect arcane allegiances, how could it possibly have anything left to say about the world? On the other hand, what could be more appropriate in the Obama age of re-engagement with the world than a strong American showing?
To those clamoring for easy answers, you’ll be disappointed. Stark and Stark refuse to lay out their own particular assessment of where soccer imitates life and where the two become one. On the grand questions of geopolitics, as well as to the more direct one of “who will win?” the Starks allow us o draw our own conclusions. It’s too complicated and too uncertain to give a straight answer, though that won’t stop the hacks on ESPN from trying. But a few things are certain. First, the world’s favorite tournament is about to break new ground. Second, the planet will go bonkers for it. Third, as the dust settles on Johannesburg on the sixth of July, a winner will be crowned. If you want to understand what happens in the meantime and why it matters, this book is worth your while.