Reading about cricket can sometimes be more rewarding than watching it. Reading about football, however, is seldom as stimulating as watching the game. This has as much to do with the quality of the writing as with the rhythm of the games. Among the two exceptions to the football rule are Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sunand Shadow and Juan Villoro’s God is Round.
“How is it that no great football novel has been written on a planet that holds its breath during a World Cup?” asks the Mexican writer Villoro, and goes on to answer it logically in his book. Like the best books on sport, it is about more than sport. It is personal, witty, and knowledgeable; you don’t have to be a football fan to read it, but it helps.
When the British magazine The Spectator reviewed God is Round when it was first published, it headlined the piece thus: Why Juan Villoro is the best football writer you’ve never heard of. As far as I was concerned, the magazine was right: I had not heard of Villoro then, but managed to get hold of a copy of the book soon after. The Uruguayan Galeano, to my mind, is the poet laureate of the game. Villoro is the writer’s writer, his book a collection of essays with depth and width, ecstasy and agony. “Football takes place,” he writes, “both on the turf and inside the agitated awareness of the spectators. A sports report is a way of joining these two territories together.”
Villoro is 66, prolific, and shares with the late Galeano a deep passion for the beauty of the beautiful game. “Is it possible for a player to identify with a shirt that is also a sales catalogue?” he asks, explaining, “…in no more than twelve inches of fabric you are encouraged to drink milk, book a flight, open a bank account, and pick up a phone.”
One of my favourite lines in sports is this by Villoro in an essay on Maradona. “When he didn’t have the ball,” he wrote, “he felt more alone than Adam on Mother’s Day.” The essence of Villoro is captured in that telling description: succinct and surprising, but equally, visual and apt. Once read, never forgotten like some great lines of poetry.
And this observation sets Villoro apart from the merely good writer: “When Maradona went on his famous run in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico…the whole thing was made possible because Jorge Valdano was ghosting along on a parallel run, drawing numerous defenders out of Maradona’s path.”
Of the two great strikers of our time who will be playing in Qatar, Cristiano Ronaldo is 37 and Lionel Messi 35. Here’s Villoro’s tribute to Messi: “When he retires, the mere memory of him will help the team to win matches.” And on Ronaldo: “No teammate of Cristiano’s has ever improved by playing alongside him.”
One whimsical, the other devastating — but the point is made in each case. Subtly and colourfully.