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Why Has Literature Ignored Soccer?


While fútbol is everything in Latin America—a sport, a religion, a business, an entertainment, even a philosophy of life—the sport has inspired little by way of the region’s literature. You might not know that by wandering into fashionable bookstores in Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, Santiago, and Mexico City. There is the expectable dose of hagiographies of superstars (Pelé, Maradona, Lionel Messi, Kaká), and even a handful of critical studies. But the truth is, people who follow soccer don’t read (and that’s 98 percent of the population) and people who read would rather be watching the World Cup, as is my case.

I can’t think of a single novel by “El Boom,” the generation of Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Julio Cortázar, and Carlos Fuentes, that deals with the sport. But others have delved into the topic, with mixed results. Eduardo Galeano, the left-wing Uruguayan essayist, authored Soccer in Sun and Shadow (1995). Translated into English last year, it is his usual impressionistic hodgepodge of politics and history, less an insightful investigation that a series of forgettable haikus. Isaac Goldenberg, a Peruvian writer living in New York, is responsible for Play by Play (1985), in which fútbol serves as a metaphor for a Jewish boy’s quest for identity.

In my estimation, the best, most intelligent—and reliable—observer of the role of soccer in Latin American society is Juan Villoro. He has been in all the most recent World Cups as a TV commentator, including the last one in South Africa in 2010. Villoro and I recently published a book-long dialogue, El ojo en la nuca (2014), which talks, in passing, about his experiences.

I can’t quite explain why there aren’t more fine literary artifacts on fútbol in Latin America. In contrast, the number of classic baseball novels in the United States is astounding, from Bernard Malamud’s The Natural (1952), to Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc. (1968), to Michael Chabon’s Summerland (2002). This is because the game is seen as a kaleidoscope of the American Dream, the platform through which not only immigrants but various ethnicities make their way into the melting pot. Latin America isn’t known for its social mobility. Perhaps the reason for this scarcity is that until recently, soccer in Latin America was a poor people’s sport. TV, of course, has changed that. The sport might make players like Uruguay’s Luis Suárez and Mexico’s Chicharito rich, but it still isn’t seen by young athletes as a ticket to a college education. Nor is it perceived as an environment where people from different ethnicities find a common ground.

Likewise, there is no tradition in Latin America of investigative reporting connected to sports. Nothing like David Goldblatt’s The Ball Is Round (2008) and Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World (2010). Ironically, the best two books I’ve come across recently on the craze around the World Cup in Brazil from a Latin American viewpoint are in English: Andreas Campomar’s Golazo (2014), on how soccer built Latin America in general, and Goldblatt’s Futebol Nation (also 2014), about how Brazilians can’t think about anything else, even when they try.

Image via shutterstock.