Footy Books: Your World Cup Reading

At 10:00 a.m. ET, the 2010 FIFA World Cup kicks-off in South Africa. ReadThis asked footy fanatic and South African-born journalist and editor, Tony Karon, to give us his three favorite soccer books of all time. Why think about anything else between games? Get reading. And click the links in the text for illustrative video.

Johan Cruyff

1) Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer
by David Winner

The more cerebral football fans old enough to remember will generally place the incomparable genius of Holland’s Johan Cruyff-era of the mid-1970s as the zenith of the game. Indeed, when Cruyff’s team came up against Brazil in the 1974 finals, the Latin American guardians of the “beautiful game” were literally reduced to rugby-tackling Cruyff. Winner’s tour de force not only gets every great player and coach of that era reflecting on its “total football” concept, but finds it roots in the spatial awareness of Dutch art and architecture derived from living in such a tiny country. And then he resorts to social psychology to explain the relentless self-sabotage that has made it near impossible for the Dutch to ever win anything, preferring instead the mantle of beautiful losers. No finer read both on the game itself, and the nation that produced it — particularly if you’re hoping to understand why, again, despite the current team’s gorgeous attacking potential, it’s unlikely to win in 2010.

2. Soccer Against the Enemy: How the World’s Most Popular Sport Starts and Fuels Revolutions and Keeps Dictators in Power
By Simon Kuper

“What do they of cricket know who only cricket know?” wrote the great Trinidadian historian CLR James, and his aphorism applies equally to football. In most countries where the game is a part of the social fabric, it has inevitably become ritual enactment of the conflicts, past and present, that drive competing national and communal mythologies. In the early 1990s, Simon Kuper (then a young freelancer, now the long-established and well loved sports writer for the Financial Times) traveled across the world, watching matches and collecting the back stories that fuel the passion for the global game and explain much about the societies in which it’s played. Kuper’s book is the real deal; Franklin Foer’s “How Soccer Explains the World”, a decade later, was a pale imitation. And his current title, Soccernomics, delves entertainingly, and provocatively, into the economics of what has become a multibillion dollar global game.

3. Soccer in Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano


Rare is the left-wing intellectual anywhere in the football-playing world who hasn’t at some point connected his or her personal passion for the game with their wider social agenda. Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano has written one of the most poetic collections of observations on the game, in the context of time and place. Galeano is a writer with a rare appreciation both of the game, and its cultural context. Let his elegy to the great Brazilian Garrincha tell you why you need to read this book: “When he was playing, the field became a circus ring, the ball a tame beast, the game an invitation to a party. Like a child defending his pet, Garrincha wouldn’t let go of the ball, and the ball and he would perform devilish tricks that had people dying of laughter. He would jump on her, she would hop on him, she would hide, he would escape, she would chase after him. In the process, the opposing players would crash into each other, their legs twisting around until they would fall, seasick, to the ground. Garrincha did his rascal’s mischief at the edge of the field, along the right touchline, far from the center: raised in the shantytown suburbs, that’s where he played. He played for a club called Botafogo, which means “firelighter,” and he was the botafogo who fired up the fans crazed by fire water and all things fiery. He was the one who climbed out of the training-camp window because he heard from far-off back alleys the call of a ball asking to be played with, music demanding to be danced to, a woman wanting to be kissed.

“A winner? A lucky loser. And luck doesn’t last. As they say in Brazil, if shit was worth anything, the poor would be born without asses.

“Garrincha died a predictable death: poor, drunk, and alone.”

Tony Karon is a senior editor at TIME, where he’ll be blogging the World Cup on

One Comments

  1. […] Per Tony Karon’s recent suggestion you could start with SOCCER IN SUN AND SHADOW, Galeano’s highly personal history of “the beautiful game,” or you can try THE BOOK OF EMBRACES, the writer’s collage-like remembrances of his remarkable life. […]

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