Transcending Language Through Sports: Football Writers

Asymptote team members and readers share their favorite pieces of writing about the game.

We are well into the World Cup, which means endless amounts of football (or soccer, depending on your location) for the serious fans and a chance to dabble in that world for those less-serious fans of the sport. The group stage is coming to a close and there have been more than a few surprises, including Iceland’s humbling of Messi and Argentina, Poland going down against the tenacious Senegalese team—and Germany? Really?

The World Cup, an event that very much goes beyond the ninety minutes of twenty-two players and a ball, generates an endless amount of controversy, discussion, national pride, rivalry, and politics from all sorts of people, including our favorite writers. With that in mind, today we bring you a special treat as Asymptote team members and readers share their favorite pieces of writing about the game.


From Austria: Elfriede Jelinek

Already, the 2018 World Cup has delivered its quota of surreal moments. Some have been joyfully surreal—the director of Iceland’s 2012 Eurovision video leaping to keep out a penalty from one of the greatest players of all-time; Iran’s failed attempt at a somersault throw-in during the final seconds of a crucial game against Spain—but others have had a more sinister edge. Among the defining images from the opening match was the handshake between Vladimir Putin and Mohammed bin Salman, two star players for the Axis of too-wealthy-to-be-evil.

Perhaps the writer this morally ambiguous World Cup needs is Elfriede Jelinek, the Austrian writer whose 2004 Nobel Prize win prompted Knut Ahnlund to resign from the Swedish Academy in disgust. Jelinek once described football as “a kind of Geiger counter of civilisation . . . a catalyst for good as well as bad.”         

Her first thorough examination of sporting archetypes took place in Ein Sportstück (translated into English as Sports Play), a drama played out between “two opposing crowds of people” separated by a fence in a generic “sports stadium.” Seeing World Cup headlines juxtaposed with reports on Trump’s latest acts of callous brutality, it’s tempting to imagine international football as having a panem et circenses function—mindless entertainment to distract the masses—but Jelinek pushed still further to suggest that sport is “a symptom of proto-fascist enthusiasm for the strong, healthy body and condemnation of the weak and the sick.

Changing your mind can be a dangerous thing in an age obsessed with branding, but Jelinek has since refined her position on football: “At the time [I wrote Sports Play], I did not realise that football, for example, can also play an incredible political role—and a peacemaking role. As much as football can cause war, it can also cause peace.” Had she seen Shaqiri and Xhaka’s celebrations in Switzerland’s win against Serbia, she may have been tempted to alter her position again.

—Jacob Silkstone, Assistant Managing Editor


From Brazil: Sérgio Rodrigues

Sérgio Rodrigues (born 1962), fiction writer, literary critic, and journalist, is the author of seven books of various genres: novels, short stories and non-fiction. A former sports journalist and a perennial football fan, he wrote in Fairplay, an online special edition about the 2010 World Cup, on the way Brazilian people see their national squad. “You know, it is not easy to admit it without sounding downright arrogant,” he wrote, “but the fact is Brazilians are born with a deep, DNA-inscribed conviction: that in the natural course of things, unless we get foolish or some terrible accident comes to pass, nobody in the universe can ever beat us at soccer.”

With such an ever-present passion, it should not be a surprise that his third novel O drible (The Feint) deals with the game. The novel is centered on Murilo Junior, an eighty-year-old sports columnist who can no longer can be helped by doctors, and who witnessed the golden age of Brazilian soccer. He fills the silence that dominates weekly fishing trips with his son with delicious tales about the great players of the past. Interspersed with the main story, we read the book that Murilo is writing about an extraordinary player from the 1960s called Peralvo, who, according to him, was blessed with supernatural powers and would have been “greater than Pelé” if he had not met with a tragic end. The fascinating character of the old columnist is the vehicle for a celebration of the history of Brazilian soccer.

—Rita Mattar, Editor-at-Large


From Italy: Umberto Saba

Umberto Saba (1883-1957) is one of the major Italian poets of the twentieth century. While most other writers were breaking with tradition and experimenting with new expressive forms, Saba retained a more traditional metric and organized his poems organically in a Canzoniere, like Petrarch did centuries before. Saba’s poetry, however, also breaks with tradition and innovates Italian poetry by elevating all aspects and objects of daily life to lyrical dignity­. In the 1930s, Saba wrote five poems about soccer, included in his Canzoniere. In them, he describes simple moments related to soccer—an amateur team entering the field, a goalkeeper’s focus, a group of young boys at the stadium—but he does so with an exquisitely refined, epic language that immediately projects the particularity of the episode onto a universal dimension. In the last poem, Goal, a keeper who failed to save a shot is portrayed in despair: “The goalkeeper, fallen in / the last, vain defense, hides his face / into the ground, so as not to see the bitter light”; the powerful enjambment between the first two lines gives incredible suspense to the scene, while not wanting to see the bitter life seems to be referring to life in general rather than just the episode of the game. In all five poems, players and fans are surrounded by an epic aura that makes their actions truly immortal, worthy of eternal fame.

—Anna Aresi, Copy Editor


From England: David Peace

Born in 1967 in West Yorkshire, England, David Peace is the author of The Damned Utd (2006) and Red or Dead (2013), a pair of strikingly poetic novels about British football in the 1960’s and 70’s. The Damned Utd follows the tale of Brian Clough’s ill-fated time as manager of Leeds United, while Red or Dead details the epic career of Bill Shankly, beloved Liverpool manager from 1959-1974. Peace’s writing has more in common with the patter of a radio announcer during a match than the usual staid paragraphs of sports biographies. This intense, immersive stream-of-consciousness often verges on poetry, and will satisfy even the most football-phobic connoisseur of experimental prose. Despite his literary stylings, Peace also has a sport-historian’s obsession with detail. Detailing nearly every goal of every game, these titles convey beautifully the massive cultural importance of football for the English public, especially in the working-class North.

—Emma Page, Communication Manager


From Poland: Jerzy Pilch

Jerzy Pilch is a football fan sans pareil. It is no overstatement to say that no other team, not even the future world champion, is as revered by its acolytes as Cracovia is by Jerzy Pilch. He is there for better or worse (and usually for worse, as their last medal in the Polish Cup dates back to 1952, the year Jerzy Pilch was born; Leszek Mazan, another Cracovia aficionado, the author of a book entitled Bury me in Cracovia’s penalty box, once said that loving Cracovia is an act of masochism). But the writer’s devotion to the oldest Polish football club is a tie that binds for life:

If I start hoping to watch Cracovia play in continental club competitions, it will mean one thingthe world, in spite of so many vicissitudes and upheavals, is becoming a better place of general happiness and one can close their eyes and finally find peace.

His passionate football columns can make the most hard-hearted skeptics tear up, but Jerzy Pilch is also an acclaimed novelist: his style has been compared to such literary giants as Milan Kundera or Bohumil Hrabal. His bestselling book, The Mighty Angel, which tells the story of a writer’s (named, tellingly, Jerzy) struggles with alcoholism, has been made, in 2014, into a riveting film by Wojciech Smarzowski, one of the most interesting contemporary Polish directors.

—Natalka Zawadzka, Asymptote Reader


From Hungary: Tibor Noé Kiss

Tibor Noé Kiss is a transgender author of two novels. In the first novel, an autobiography entitled Incognito (2010), Kiss explores the long and thorny process of coming to terms with her gender identity and learning not to hide it. As a teenager she was a professional football player, something she gave up when he started studying sociology at university. However, football has not vanished from her life: she coached a group of teenagers in Pécsbánya, a former mining district on the edge of Pécs, where poverty, exclusion, and ethnic hatred loom large. The presence of a queer coach in such a deprived community might seem counterintuitive, but Kiss felt her own experience of exclusion and alterity were crucial in finding a shared language. Through understanding sexual exclusion, she was able to understand social exclusion: poverty and neglect. As a vocal member of the Hungarian literary scene, she often stands up for deprived regions, struggling civic organisations, and the shrinking space of public debate in the country. Her works have not been published in English yet.

—Diána Vonnák, Editor-at-Large


From Norway: Dag Solstad and Jon Michelet

Very little happens in a typical Dag Solstad novel. “I write boring books about boring people,” the Norwegian has said. Perhaps it is little wonder, then, that football has been one of his favorite subjects: “Football knows it is boring, and accepts it.”

Together with fellow novelist Jon Michelet (who, sadly, passed away this past April), Solstad co-authored a series of books about the five World Cups between 1982 and 1998. In contrast to typical sports journalism, the novelists’ accounts are neither chronological nor objective. Both men make it a point to emphasize their favorite teams (for Solstad, England; for Michelet, Brazil). And the little dramas outside each match become almost as compelling as the matches themselves—Solstad getting hopelessly lost in Marseille after a night match in 1998; Michelet receiving hate-mail from a racist who took offense when Michelet rooted for Cameroon in 1990.

Solstad makes no secret of the fact that he’s only doing these books so he can go to the World Cup on his publisher’s dime: “And while I’m at it, I might as well express my unreserved appreciation for the fact that fifteen years’ hard literary work have allowed me to bluff my way to a World Cup under the pretense of turning out a literary achievement afterwards . . . finally, I was able to reap something from my fanatical devotion to the possibilities of language for the past decade and a half.”

For Norway, not traditionally known as a football superpower (the men’s team, at least—the Norwegian women’s squad won the World Cup in 1996), these book-length dispatches, from two of the country’s foremost literary artists, ushered in a new era in sportswriting. The books are highly entertaining, even if, as Solstad wryly comments, “The bitter truth is that football is a 0-0 sport. Any other result is accidental.”

—David Smith, Blog Editor

flag-costa-rica2x    flag-uruguay2x     peru

Various Latin American writers

While the Costa Rican team has faced a difficult group, the literary names that fill their team—Borges, Bolaños, Gamboa—evoke connections between the game and literature. Indeed, Latin America has an incredibly rich tradition of writers who fill pages with soccer. For example, one of the first texts that many students of intermediate Spanish encounter is Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano’sEl fútbol a sol y sombra” (Soccer in Sun and Shadow, tr. Mark Fried) in which he examines the role of soccer in his home nation of Uruguay and around the world. Even today, his writing about the beauty of the game, the politics surrounding it, and the central position it holds in Latin American culture continue to shape the conversations held in the region. 

With this year’s iteration of the World Cup, I have found myself drawn to writers that have been taking advantage of the audio-visual sphere to discuss the game. Peruvian-American writer Daniel Alarcón, who tends to write about questions of social justice, migration, nostalgia, and violence, is a vocal lover of the game and has written about his childhood experience of the game for The New Yorker. He is also one of the creators of Radio Ambulante, a podcast that aims to tell the stories of Latin America, and has recently put together a thrilling episode in which he examines the role of soccer and the national team in Peru, highlighting the ways that the game intertwines with personal memories of home and family.

Finally, Gabriela Wiener, also from Peru and author of the recently published Sexographies (tr. Lucy Greaves and Jennifer Adcock), speaks from her daily video blog La pasionaria about the politics of race, women’s rights, nationality, and corruption as they relate to the game.

—Sarah Booker, Blog Editor

Photo credit: Alex Livesey


Dig back to Winter 2014 in the Asymptote archives to find more soccer-related or read more from the Asymptote blog: