A pátria em chuteiras (Fatherland in Football Boots), by Nelson Rodrigues
It was at a very young age that I realized my father’s mood was directly proportional to football, and more specifically to the result of any game played by our local team Botafogo. My parents were divorced when I was a teenager and football became the tie that bound the pieces of a divided family. Every fortnight I would spend a weekend with my father and my two brothers, and I soon realized that I’d be spending a lot of time on my own if I didn’t attend matches with them, get involved with interrogating the game, talking about the players, arguing about the managers and so on. So, mostly to make my father happy, I began rooting for the black-and-white side too.
Reading was fundamental in order to keep up with these discussions. I came across Nelson Rodrigues’s football crônicas by chance: one summer, I was on a school holiday and decided that I was going to embark on Rodrigues’s complete works. I began by reading his plays and then moved on to his novels. Once I was done with them, I glanced upon (Fatherland in Football Boots) on the shelf. By this time I was already obsessed with the author, and here I found another side of him; the most intimate voice of my football universe.
Published in newspapers and magazines between 1955 and 1978, this collection of crônicas are moving portraits of real and fictional characters in football. Each narrative parades and celebrates its bias for the Escrete – the nickname for the Brazilian national football team – and their rascally way of playing football. Nelson portrayed the real meaning of football for the Brazilian people by commenting on the day to day, or mundane events with his signature tragic flair.
Only a playwright of his standing would have been able to capture the essence of football in Brazil today. So now, how can we not miss Nelson, who died in 1980, as the implacable, hyperbolic and eternal enthusiast of Brazilian football? A pátria em chuteiras is brimming with soul; filled with the most honest, ugly and tenebrous passion for football, and ‘the Shakespearean complexity that can be found in one simple kick-about’. Transcending football, it is a portrait of the Brazilian people ‘who live through every moment and suffer every ball play on the flesh and on the soul’. More than a team, this is the fatherland in football boots.
‘There was a time in history where fact had always a Camões, a Homer, a Dante, at hand. In other words: the poet was the reporter who would give the facts their specific song.’ To read Nelson Rodrigues during this World Cup in Brazil we are again allowed the playwright’s voice on football.
Translated from the Portuguese by Francisco Vilhena
Red or Dead, by David Peace
In youth, in the early eighties, I read football as much as played it. I had a small collection of paperbacks – the autobiographies of Ian Rush and Bryan Robson; Martin Waddell’s Napper Goes for Goal; The Bumper Book of Football – which I read over and over, again and again, to the exclusion of all other books. They were my introduction to football as professional sport rather than something played in a park or field. They outlined the difference between football and what we called togger; they gave it a concrete, if mainly fictional, reality.
Despite being a fanatical Liverpool supporter, I actually saw very little of them play. My father didn’t think football games were safe so we went rarely. On the television there was the odd live match, Saturday evening’s Match of the Day – on too late for me to watch, no video recorder to catch it as I slept – and the FA Cup Final; not much more. I had pictures culled from the odd football magazine or cut out from old Shoot! annuals, but mainly football existed in the mind as an imaginative pursuit: outside the mind, outside of memory, it had little substance. Dreams and descriptions of the game I loved were as important as playing it.
If this sounds like the sour notes of it-were-better-in-my-day nostalgia, a kitsch reheeling of the past, then so be it (Ah, the days before pass-completion statistics, before televised pre-season friendlies, before there were sponsors on the card pocket of the referees!). Football and nostalgia are tied and bound, coiled around each other. As much as football looks in hope to the future, it more often looks rosily backwards, reliving that goal, that outrageous lob, that last-ditch tackle.
David Peace’s Red or Dead picks an uneasy path through this complicated relationship: between veneration of the past and the perpetual present in which football lives. Its subject Bill Shankly – Liverpool manager, saviour, dynastic forefather, saint – is a vector of nostalgia, perhaps the only football figure to exist in that pop-cultural sweet spot between the sixties and late seventies (he started work at Liverpool in 1959, retired in 1974, died in 1981). Shankly is a near-myth cast in amber: a man in a suit and red shirt, heavy Scottish accent talking about working-class ballet and football being more important than life or death. Like the books I read as a child, his life and work exist more in the imagination than they do in the statistics and record books.
While the fans have the imaginative reconfiguring of Shankly, Shankly himself is living his own life. Peace uses the statistics – ‘On Saturday 24 March, 1962, Preston North End came to Anfield. That afternoon thirty-nine thousand, seven hundred and one folk came, too’ – to construct a life, not the other way around. Where others would have started with the collective vision, Peace looks at what Shankly was all about: results. It’s in these margins – between win, lose and draw – that the essence of the man is to be found. It shapes preparation, his home life, his every waking moment: win, lose, draw.
The second part of the novel is both a paean to and evisceration of nostalgia. In it, Shankly is cast into a hell of a constant present that is not fulfilled by his work. No longer welcome at the football club he transformed – they worry that he might confuse the past and present – he refuses to wallow in the glorious past. The comforts of the football fan – the last-minute save, the cup run, the thirty-yard strike – Peace does not make available to him: he is cut adrift from nostalgia. It’s a cruel and ironic fate: an icon of nostalgia, unable to mine it for succour. It is the final reminder that football has deserted him. This is football as destructive force, the opposite of the books I read as a child. Those football stories did not have unhappy endings; the game was always there, all consuming and incorrupted. It’s another layer of nostalgia: in following Shankly we see our more ardent selves, the obsession that burned out when we were kids, and what could happen if we continued to believe football was more important than life or death.
Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life, by Alex Bellos
Fact can be stranger than fiction and nowhere is this more true than in Latin America, a continent of breathtaking extremes. It is the region that brought us magical realism and gave us the crónica – a hybrid fiction and journalism form, fact told as story. The metafictional element to the crónica is especially well-suited to Latin America, where severe inequality creates daily-life situations that are outrageous and surreal; the narrator’s voice reminding us what is happening is real.
As a boy, I was obsessed with football. One of my favourite books was Football Crazy (by Colin McNaughton with illustrations by Charles McNaughton), the story of Bruno, a bear, who’s hopeless at football but trains hard and finally gets his chance as a substitute for Tex’s Tigers. As I grew older, I gave up on books and got my reading kicks from Shoot! magazine, then World Soccer, and finally the sports pages of newspapers. I discovered the pleasure of reading novels only in my late teens, and it was reading stories of drink and drugs and sex that hooked me.
Football didn’t seem to me to make for great fiction: a made-up account couldn’t compete with an actual match for twists and turns and larger-than-life characters, and if it tried to, I’d complain it was unrealistic.
The best football writing tends to be inspired by real-life events: fact told as story. Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life is a book of crónicas. Alex Bellos travels around Brazil and beyond (in the opening chapter he visits Brazilian footballing migrants in the Faroe Islands), exploring Brazilian society through football. I first read the book in 2002, having just come back from a second prolonged visit to Brazil. I still wasn’t sure what I made of the place: I loved it, but I hated it a bit too. I rejoiced in Bellos’s book, for it seemed to share my fascination, appreciation and frustration with Brazil, because Futebol is a book about Brazil as much as it is a book about football.
Football is a game; it’s not real life. But in a continent as illogical as Latin America, the lines blur. Bellos understands this. He knows that football is treated seriously in Brazil and is therefore a great way to take a serious look at Brazil. But he also knows that football is a bit silly, as is Brazil. Futebol reflects all this, a book full of love and hate, silliness and seriousness.
Book covers courtesy of Bloomsbury, Faber & Faber and Nova Fronteira