George Vecsey had me on page 202 of his new book when he characterized Cristiano Ronaldo as “the most annoying great player in captivity.”
Nah, he had me well before that.
As the title suggests, in “Eight World Cups’' Vecsey chronicles his experiences at soccer’s greatest showcase, played every four years, beginning with the 1982 Men’s World Cup in Barcelona.
Full of humor and insight about sport and culture, the book is distinguished by Vecsey’s acknowledgment that when he began writing about the World Cup, he was not well-prepared. He was surprised to learn that FIFA, soccer’s governing body, didn’t much care to provide reporters with information. Likewise the coaches and players.
Vecsey, a veteran sports journalist, was accustomed to press conferences, team guidebooks, dressing-room interviews, and chatty managers in various dugouts. At the World Cup, access and information are in short supply, and he learns that “[a]sking questions was not cool. So people made stuff up.”
Unlike many US sportswriters, who’d have regarded being assigned to the World Cup as punishment, Vecsey embraced the opportunity and came to love the sport. Perhaps, as he writes, “[s]occer seemed to remind Americans of something they instinctively feared — foreign languages, foreign influences,” but George Vecsey learned from the people of lands where soccer is most appreciated: Spain, Italy, Germany, and eventually South Africa.
At the 2010 World Cup, he especially enjoyed his time in Durban, where, on a walk though the city, he “noticed a few black women and white women having lunch together . . . the gift of Mandela, something far more precious than a tournament.”
The pomp, glory, and great entertainment all get their due in “Eight World Cups,’’ but as the book’s subtitle suggests, Vecsey also acknowledges soccer’s “dark side.”
He witnesses games in which teams that have secured passage to the next round of the tournament are happy to settle for a draw, essentially cheating fans of the passionate contest they’ve paid to see. He writes about transparently fraudulent flops by players trying to con the officials.
He portrays FIFA as a greedy, corrupt organization led by clumsy, tactless bureaucrats. And he expresses the hope that, given what “a ruinous dance” obtaining the spectacle has sometimes become, in another decade or so, “nations [will] still believe hosting a World Cup is worth the trouble.”
As far as Dave Zirin is concerned, that matter should no longer be in doubt.
His focus is on Brazil, host for this summer’s World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.
In “Brazil’s Dance With The Devil,’’ he provides a brief, energized history of the country most thoroughly associated with beautiful soccer, in part because he feels the popular demonstrations that have preceded the 2014 World Cup can’t be understood without that background knowledge.
Every country hosting the World Cup or the Olympics tends to make life more difficult, if not impossible, for the poorest residents of the cities where the events are taking place. Neighborhoods are regularly demolished and populations relocated in so-called “clean-ups.”
But Zirin makes a case for the people of Brazil as particularly victimized.
As a soccer-mad country, Brazil already had plenty of venues for play, but FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s insistence on “FIFA-quality stadiums” meant that money needed for health care and education went to the construction of luxury boxes in sparkling new venues that will be left empty after the World Cup.
Zirin spent time in Brazil and traces plans to destroy the housing of the poorest residents in the working-class areas of Rio de Janeiro and other cities so that visitors to the World Cup and the Olympics will have adequate parking.
He makes a strong case that the protests that disrupted the Confederations Cup soccer games in Brazil in 2013 did not constitute “a movement against sports,” but “a movement against the use of sports as a neoliberal Trojan horse . . . a movement against sports as a cudgel of austerity.”
Like one of his brilliant mentors, Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, author of “Soccer in Sun and Shadow,’’ Zirin wrestles with ambivalence. “Horrified at every eviction . . . every community destroyed” by the preparations for the 2014 World Cup, he knows he will also appreciate the “energy . . . and yes, joy of the World Cup and the Olympics.”
Zirin’s hope is in his intention, and in the intention of many others, to understand and remember that left unchecked, the greedy and hypocritical initiatives connected to these grand events threaten to destroy not only the lives of the poorest residents of the cities involved, but the sports themselves.
BRAZIL’S DANCE WITH THE DEVIL: The World Cup, The Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy
By Dave Zirin
Haymarket, 200 pp., illustrated, paperback, $16