Put Down the Vuvuzela and Read These Books Instead

On Thursday, Russia and Saudi Arabia will kick off in game one of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, and like most sports fans, you’re thinking only one thing: Yes, but what should I read?

Fear not, for I have selected 32 titles, one for each team in the finals—and all but one published since the last World Cup concluded in Brazil—that will tell you more about the beautiful game than you could ever learn by, you know, just watching it. Granted, some American Outlaws will be interested only in the titles explaining why the U.S. Men’s Team failed to qualify, but from player profiles to soccer primers to reference works and esoteric essays, I aim to offer an inclusive vision of a global sport.

Stay tuned for my 11 favorite soccer books of all time.

 

FIFA Corruption

The Fall of the House of FIFA: The Multimillion-Dollar Corruption at the Heart of Global Soccer, by David Conn

One of the first books to address the FIFA scandal, Conn capably chronicles what happened . . .

 

Red Card: How the U.S. Blew the Whistle on the World’s Biggest Sports Scandal, by Ken Bensinger

. . . but, if you have time and room for only one book on the topic, get this one. It reads like a thriller!

 

Soccer Reference

Club Soccer 101: The Essential Guide to the Stars, Stats, and Stories of 101 of the Greatest Teams in the World, by Luke Dempsey

Learn the fabled history behind the shirts you see soccer hipsters wearing around town.

 

Football Clichés: Decoding the Oddball Phrases, Colorful Gestures, and Unwritten Rules of Soccer across the Pond, by Adam Hurrey

Extremely funny, and also useful for decoding your Premier League-loving friends’ new phraseology.

 

Men in Blazers Present Encyclopedia Blazertannica: A Suboptimal Guide to Soccer, America’s “Sport of the Future” since 1972, by Roger Bennett and Michael Davies

Perhaps not truly a reference work; it is, however, an encyclopedia of hilarity.

 

Who Invented the Bicycle Kick? Soccer’s Greatest Legends and Lore, by Paul Simpson and Uli Hesse

Whether you want to create a truly epic pub quiz or just while away the time between games, this book has you covered.

 

Soccer in the U.S.A.

I Believe That We Will Win: The Path to a U.S. Men’s World Cup Victory, by Phil West

In these dark times, we desperately need West’s optimism. Whether we can share it is another matter entirely.

 

Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League, by Ian Plenderleith

Call this the Big Hair and Plastic Grass of soccer.

 

The United States of Soccer: MLS and the Rise of American Soccer Fandom, by Phil West

 

What’s Wrong with US? A Coach’s Blunt Take on the State of American Soccer after a Lifetime on the Touchline, by Bruce Arena and Steve Kettmann [Booklist review coming in the June 1 & 15, 2018 issue. —Ed.]

Fans of the forthright Arena, former coach of the U.S. Men’s National Team, will get plenty of his trademark takes.

 

Understanding & Enjoying Soccer

God Is Round: Tackling the Giants, Villains, Triumphs, and Scandals of the World’s Favorite Game, by Juan Villoro

A remarkable collection of essays that gives Galeano’s canonical Soccer in Sun and Shadow (1995) a run for its money.

 

How to Watch Soccer, by Ruud Gullit

Not exactly Soccer for Dummies, this will further raise the soccer IQs of fans who are already reasonably knowledgeable.

 

The Language of the Game: How to Understand Soccer, by Laurent Dubois

Enjoyable and accessible history and analysis from a Duke University soccer historian.

 

Masters of Modern Soccer: How the World’s Best Play the Twenty-First-Century Game, by Grant Wahl

A fascinating look at how some of the best talents in the world, on and off the field, go about their jobs.

 

Money and Soccer: A Soccernomics Guide, by Stefan Szymanski

One of the coauthors of Soccernomics (2009) proves that it doesn’t matter if you win or lose, it’s how you pay for the game.

 

Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty Kick, by Ben Lyttleton

No World Cup is complete without the drama of a penalty shootout, and with this book, readers can get inside the players’ heads.

 

Women’s Soccer

I use this heading only as an excuse to point out that, unlike the U.S. men, the U.S. women have actually won the World Cup—three times!

 

Forward, by Abby Wambach

Wambach is the all-time leader, including men and women, for international goals. Highs and lows included!

 

Solo: A Memoir of Hope, by Hope Solo

The controversial goalkeeper was recently acquitted on domestic violence charges. Was she fairly or unfairly exiled from soccer? You be the judge!

 

When Nobody Was Watching: My Hard-Fought Journey to the Top of the Soccer World, by Carli Lloyd and Wayne Coffey

Lloyd put on one of the greatest-ever performances in a World Cup final. Her secret? Working harder than just about everyone else.

 

The World Cup

Das Reboot: How German Soccer Reinvented Itself and Conquered the World, by Raphael Honigstein

Usually, we get nervous when the Germans talk about conquering the world, but here they just mean in soccer. So relax!

 

Home and Away: Writing the Beautiful Game, by Karl Ove Knausgaard and Fredrik Ekelund

Can a 400-page book of letters between a Norwegian and a Swede writing about the World Cup keep you glued to your seat? Surprisingly, yes.

 

Touched By God: How We Won the Mexico ‘86 World Cup, by Diego Maradona and Daniel Arcucci

Everyone’s favorite pint-sized monomaniac expounds on his greatness and excuses the world’s most infamous handball.

 

World Cup Fever: A Fanatic’s Guide to the Stars, Teams, Stories, Controversy, and Excitement of Sports’ Greatest Event, by Stephen Rea

Maybe not the definitive guide to this year’s World Cup, but still a good overview.

 

Players, Managers, & Fans

Bring the Noise: The Jürgen Klopp Story, by Raphael Honigstein

No manager is more exciting to watch than Klopp—Honigstein reminds us the German whiz is more than just fist pumps and amazing teeth.

 

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of United: An Englishman’s Quest to Remain Connected to “His” Team from the Other Side of the Pond, by Gary B. France

So many fans follow their team from so far away that you may as well read one fan’s experience of it.

 

My Turn: A Life of Total Football, by Johan Cruyff and and Jaap de Groot

If you don’t know who Cruyff was, you’ll miss the pun in the title, but you should still check out this memoir.

 

Soccer and Resistance

Play like a Girl: How a Soccer School in Kenya’s Slums Started a Revolution, by Ellie Roscher

Some stories of sports-as-uplift end with last-second goals that win championships; this one focuses on the humbler goals of food, education, and dignity.

 

Soccer under the Swastika: Stories of Survival and Resistance during the Holocaust, by Kevin E. Simpson

Given the horrors of the Holocaust, how could sports matter? But the game did have a part to play in soccer-mad Europe, as Simpson ably demonstrates.

 

Talent Search

The Away Game: The Epic Search for Soccer’s Next Superstars, by Sebastian Abbot

One man’s plan to scout every 13-year-old boy in Africa has decidedly mixed results.

 

The Nowhere Men: The Unknown Story of Football’s True Talent Spotters, by Michael Calvin

A more old-school, English approach to scouting, this is not wholly accessible to U.S. readers, but has its bleak charms.

 

Uplifting Stories

Fearless: The Amazing Underdog Story of Leicester City, the Greatest Miracle in Sports History, by Jonathan Northcroft

One of the most singular upsets in all of sports history, Leicester City’s Premier League triumph offers hope to fans of crappy teams everywhere.

 

One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Together, by Amy Bass

In the spirit of Warren St. John’s Outcasts United (2009), Steve Wilson’s The Boys from Little Mexico (2010), and Paul Cuadros’ A Home on the Field (2006), Bass shows how a team of African refugees united a town . . . somewhat. She doesn’t sugarcoat it.

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is Executive Editor of Booklist Publications and the author of six books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Matchstick Castle (2017). Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Keir.

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