Brazil stands alone in championships and appearances at the World Cup. Known as the capital of the beautiful game – soccer to us, football to everyone else – Brazil has qualified for all 19 World Cups since 1930, winning five titles along the way.
(For those doing the math, World War II caused the cancellation of the championships in 1942 and 1946.)
Next month, Brazil, the country that takes the most pride in its soccer (hear the howls from England, Germany, and Italy, to name but a few), hosts the world. This is a World Cup year, meaning that, for four weeks, 2 billion people will set aside minor concerns such as family and work to concentrate on the 32-team, 64-match international soccer championship.
Said championship comes once every four years. In 2010, South Africa, on the strength of Nelson Mandela’s force of personality and majesty, staged the World Cup. Spain, a country known for soccer brilliance and epic collapses in previous tournaments, won the first championship in its history while South Africans introduced the world to the incessant buzzing of plastic horns called vuvuzelas.
Soccer-addled Americans (hi there) hoping to get a handle on the world’s game could do far worse than thumbing through Eight World Cups: My Journey through the Beauty and Dark Side of Soccer, New York Times sports columnist George Vecsey’s account of his World Cup travels. Starting in 1982 in Spain, Vecsey has covered every one of the tournaments since, blessed with a generous expense account and a curiosity about soccer.
Here, then, are observations and character sketches of star players, coaches, and the barons who run FIFA, the soccer sanctioning body. Argentina’s prodigiously talented and troubled Maradona looks like the best candidate for a VH1 "Behind the Music" special, juggling mistresses, addiction, and other melodramas, while the proficiency of Germany’s team leaders feels as inevitable and precise as – wait for it – German engineering.
Vecsey proves himself a comfortable Cup companion. During the 1998 World Cup, he describes the undoing of Argentina after an ineffective afternoon of flops (the infamous ritual of players exaggerating the after-effects of a brush or more with an opposing player to secure a penalty) like this: “The Argentines trudged off, presumably to enroll in better acting classes.”
He bounces from Italy to France and on to South Korea and South Africa, finding joy in the people he meets as well as the games he covers.
The World Cup most vexing to Vecsey is the 1994 edition. Yes, the one hosted by the United States.
Vecsey finds the American version lacking in ambience, starting with the use of huge football stadiums (the helmets-and-pads version) and exacerbated by the sheer size of the country. Unlike many of the other World Cups he has covered, Vecsey can’t just ride trains from stadium to stadium in a compact country.
Beyond those vagaries, five days before the tournament started, the police discovered the murdered bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, starting the summer of O.J. In New York, the hockey Rangers and basketball Knicks reach their respective leagues’ championship rounds, distracting the author from his soccer studies.
Even so, Vecsey shares some nuggets and fine phrases from 1994. Watching a trainer massage the aching legs of the Italian team captain, a player 24 days removed from knee surgery, Vecsey writes, “He opened his mouth in pain, like somebody being bombed in Picasso’s Guernica.”
Elsewhere, he takes note of a German goal in its opening match in 1994. The scorer? Jurgen Klinsmann, a prolific World Cup scorer who now coaches the U.S. men’s national team. (Klinsmann is married to an American and lives in Southern California.)
FIFA and its questionable machinations come under scrutiny here, too. Sepp Blatter, FIFA president, proves inscrutable and, all too often, invisible. Basics such as media access, replay technology, and other staples of major sports leagues and events often go ignored at FIFA.
More distressing, millions of dollars disappear from subsidiary groups and accusations of bribery swirl around the selections of Russia (2018) and Qatar (2022) as World Cup host countries.
Then again, be careful what you wish for. As Vecsey writes of South Africa’s 2010 role, “It had to perform the ruinous dance of the World Cup and Olympics: grovel first, overspend, throw a great party, and after the final whistle try to figure what to do with all those buildings and all those debts.”
The book begins and ends with the progress of Team USA. In South Africa, a late-game goal by Landon Donovan, a goal Vecsey calls “the single greatest play the United States has ever made in the World Cup,” put the national team in the round of 16. Ghana knocked the Americans out in the next game.
Still, as Vecsey and others have noted, the men’s national team has improved over the past 20 years. This year marks the seventh straight World Cup with the US among the qualifiers.
“Bit by bit, the United States was raising its presence in the biggest sports event on the globe,” he writes. “The century was still young.”
And so to June 2014. Time for Team USA’s imminent ride with the “Group of Death” – the cliché used for the toughest four-team grouping in every World Cup – Ghana, Portugal, and Germany. A few days reading Vecsey and life on the pitch becomes a beautiful (and understandable) game.
Erik Spanberg is a Monitor contributor.