Eight World Cups

My Journey Through the Beauty and Dark Side of Soccer

By George Vecsey

Times Books. 290 pp. $28.

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Reviewed by Dan DeLuca


Give George Vecsey credit for doing what newspaper columnists are supposed to do.

He saw a story - one that many of his American colleagues refused to see - and spent three decades following it all over the world.

What's that, you say? There's a sport that is played professionally in more than 200 countries, inspires passionate devotion among fiercely nationalistic fans, and features many of the most sublimely gifted athletes on the planet? And they compete every four years in an elimination tournament whose championship game attracts 2 billion viewers?

Maybe that's worth looking into.

Vecsey, who has worked at the New York Times since 1968, has covered every World Cup since Italy triumphed over West Germany in the 1982 tournament, held in Spain. That tournament turned the scribe into a lifelong fan of the defensive-minded, blue-shirted victors, known as the Azurri.

Vecsey's interest in the game goes back to his days playing fullback for his high school in New York City, although he spent most of his time riding the bench. But his soccer passion really ignited when he saw the 1967 documentary film Goal! The World Cup about the 1966 tourney, which England won. Then he fell under the spell of the New York Cosmos, the North American Soccer League squad that included aging international stars Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, and Giorgio Chinaglia.

"I listened to Chinaglia and Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto talking about their World Cups," Vecsey writes, "and I thought, I really need to see one of these for myself."

What follows is part socially observant sports history, part travelogue, part memoir. Vecsey has written books about baseball and tennis, with a sideline penning as-told-to autobiographies for female country music stars, including Coal Miner's Daughter, with Loretta Lynn.

In Eight World Cups, he humbly sets out to educate himself about the colorful characters and either corrupt or clueless overseers of the Beautiful Game while camping out in various world capitals every four years with his wife, Marianne.

Along the way, he recounts the triumphs and failures of the big names of the game, from Italian hero Paolo Rossi in Spain in 1982 to Argentinean star Diego Maradona, who scored the infamous "Hand of God" goal against England in Mexico City in 1986. Vecsey becomes smitten with ponytailed Buddhist Italian striker Roberto Baggio, whose penalty kick sailed high in the cup final at the Rose Bowl in 1994, giving the trophy to the Brazilians. And he chronicles the exploits of French star Zinedine Zidane long before the marvelous midfielder lost his head and used it to butt an Italian defender in the 2006 final in Berlin.

Vecsey, who will read at the Free Library on Monday night, tracks the rise of American soccer in both the men's and women's international game. He pays enough attention to the women's cup in 1999, won by the U.S. with a Brandi Chastain penalty kick against China, that the book would be more accurately called Nine World Cups.

Vecsey began covering the game in the midst of an American soccer drought that started after the U.S. beat England in Brazil in a did-that-really-happen? upset in 1950. After that, the Yanks failed to qualify for the international tourney for four decades.

That streak of futility ended in 1990, giving Vecsey six runs with the U.S. The 2002 squad knocked off Portugal in South Korea and the 2010 team made it to the round of 16 on the strength of an extra-time goal by Landon Donovan, the star American striker whom U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann has left off the 2014 team that is playing in Brazil.

All of this gives Vecsey no shortage of raw material for what could be a great book. But does Eight World Cups rise to the level of such first-person futbol classics as Arsenal fan Nick Hornby's 1992 memoir, Fever Pitch, or the late Joe McGinniss' amusing and insightful 1999 chronicle of lower-division Italian soccer, The Miracle of Castel di Sangro?

It does not. Vecsey is an engaging companion - the dignified, erudite opposite of the lager-loving, loutish fanatic you hope isn't hollering in your ear at the game. He has a knack for the telling cultural observation: that the French populace, for instance, aren't nearly as distraught by their team's early exit as the Italians or Brits routinely are.

But Vecsey's match summaries - and there are a lot of them in Eight World Cups - are rarely thrilling. His love for the game is clear, but his measured descriptions and episodic approach fail to build nail-biting tension in matches that don't come across in the retelling as the matters of life and death that some consider them.

Eight World Cups is an odd book that examines in an eminently reasonable way a sporting event that drives its fans to the brink of insanity.

AUTHOR APPEARANCE

George Vecsey: "Eight World Cups"

7:30 p.m. Monday at the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St.

Admission: Free. Information: 215-567-4341 or www.freelibrary.org.

A SOCCER HAT TRICK TO CONSIDER

Far more new soccer books have been published in the last few months than there are goals scored in the typical World Cup match. Among the noteworthy titles:

Why Soccer Matters by Pele, with Brian Winter (Celebra, $26.95). The world's most famous soccer ambassador and World Cup winner, with Brazil in 1958, 1962, and 1970, has called delays in preparations for this year's tourney "unacceptable" and "an embarrassment," and has been criticized himself for suggesting that Brazilian protesters, angered by ballooning costs, are scaring tourists away. His quasi-memoir doesn't really get around to explaining why soccer matters, other than that it brings people together and makes fans "more sensitive to the world around them." But cowriter Winter brings the famed footballer's voice alive, along with his infectious love of the game.

Futebol Nation: The Story of Brazil Through Soccer by David Goldblatt (Nation Books, $16.99). Pele naturally plays a major role in this dense history by the author of The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer. Goldblatt starts off by arguing that the fifth-biggest country in the world has failed to make a global impact commensurate with its size (perhaps selling Brazilian music short). But there's no arguing that Brazilian futebol deserves its reputation as the undeniable gold standard. Goldblatt tells the tale of the game's spread since its arrival from England in the 1890s, and interweaves tales of athletic mastery with informative historical context for those curious about life away from the pitch for 200 million Brazilians.

The Big Fix: The Hunt for the Match Fixers Bringing Down Soccer by Brett Forrest (William Morrow, $26.99). ESPN reporter Forrest characterizes match-fixing in soccer as a "global epidemic." He provides examples from the last decade of cheating scandals in China, Brazil, Bosnia, Italy, Brazil, South Africa, South Korea, the Czech Republic, and the United Arab Emirates that make it hard to argue with his frustration over the sport's governing body, FIFA, and his contention that "the imprecise way that global soccer is administered has exposed it to crisis." The Big Fix reads like a thriller as it attempts to chase down bad guys who are trying by deceit to take their share of the $700 billion said to be bet annually on matches around the world.

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Dan DeLuca is an Inquirer reporter.

215-854-5628

@delucadan