Every four years, there comes a special time when no one will look at you cock-eyed for getting up at 7:30 a.m. to watch Algeria play Slovenia. When the beautiful game is at the top of SportsCenter every night. When bars promise they’ll be open for breakfast. The World Cup kicked off Friday, meaning that 64 games will come thick and fast over the next month and finish with a billion people tuning into one game. If ever there was a time to read up on the game that was Albert Camus’ first love and gave Leon Trotsky food for thought, it’s now.
Here are five of the best reads out there to complement a summer of soccer, enough to enlighten already-fervent aficionados and indoctrinate the uninitiated. And for those just coming around to this whole World Cup thing for the first time—or looking to bone up on that great Dutch team of the 1970s—there is always ESPN’s new World Cup Companion.
1. How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization By Franklin Foer
If the World Cup is living proof of anything, it’s that soccer always means far more than just soccer. And as Franklin Foer smartly explains, even at the local level, soccer encapsulates broader tensions all over the world. Race, religion, and politics begin right where the field ends. In Glasgow, the Celtic-Rangers rivalry is a matter of Catholics and Protestants. In Serbia, controlling soccer means commanding power. And in Iran, the game has become an unexpected force for modernization. So before anyone writes off the World Cup as a month-long party, broken up by a few games, it’s important to remember the words of George Orwell, “At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare.”
2. Fever Pitch By Nick Hornby
Long before it was a saccharine flop about the Boston Red Sox, Fever Pitch was the definitive account of what it means to live, sleep, and breath soccer. Hornby tells an autobiographical story of growing up as an obsessive Arsenal fan in North London when distinguishing between the fate of his team and his own seemed impossible. The same way a chronologically arranged record collection mirrored his love life in High Fidelity, Arsenal games and Saturday afternoons punctuate his existence in Fever Pitch. School, girlfriends, jobs—soccer shaped his thinking on everything. Recounting his first game, Arsenal vs. Stoke City in 1968, he explains, that he “fell in love with football as I was later to fall in love with women: suddenly, inexplicably, uncritically, giving no thought to the pain or disruption it would bring with it.”
3. Futebol: The Brazilian Way of LifeBy Alex Bellos
Of all the countries playing this summer, none merits closer inspection from a soccer fan more than Brazil. After all, what is a World Cup without the yellow-clad, five-time-champion, Seleção? Since the “violent British sport” arrived in 1894, few things have come to symbolize the country in the world’s imagination more than soccer. And with good reason. In his in-depth exploration, Alex Bellos shows just how pervasive the game is in Brazilian culture and society, from the beaches of Ipanema to the floor of the parliament. The game is played anywhere there is an open field and in many places where there aren’t. Bellos writes about games of footmud where players run about on muddy expanses at low tide, and balls being chased in the narrow alleys of the Rio de Janeiro slums. It is an intimate portrait of the country—and the madness—that will follow, dissect, and imitate every kick of its 22 players in South Africa.
4. Soccernomics By Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski
When England inevitably gets eliminated in some tragic quarterfinal penalty shootout, the country may plunge into a summer-long depression. But Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski won’t be surprised. In fact, according to their counterintuitive economic analysis, England will have once again overachieved at the World Cup. Based on factors like population and wealth, they explain that there really isn’t much reason for countries like England and France to expect to do well at international tournaments. Meanwhile, they argue that countries like the United States and China are destined to become the next great superpowers of soccer. Even for the longtime fans who may disagree with the arguments—like the baseball purists who bristle at the mention of Moneyball—Soccernomics provides a slew of talking points for the World Cup.
5. The Miracle of Castel di Sangro By Joe McGinniss
More than a decade before he moved next door to Sarah Palin, Joe McGinniss packed up and relocated to the tiny, largely irrelevant, town of Castel di Sangro in the Abruzzo region of Italy. The reason he went was to write about the local soccer team. And even though it languished near the bottom of Italy’s second division and never had a player worth remembering, McGinniss found enough for a unique chronicle of what life is like when a soccer team sets the pulse. Over the course of the season, he grew close to the players and their families. He realized that far from the bright lights of Rome and Milan, these players weren’t out there for glory. They were doing their jobs. But in their little pocket of Castel di Sangro, they remained local idols, woven into the town’s fabric—even when the team was losing.
Joshua Robinson is a freelance writer based in Manhattan. He graduated from Columbia in 2008 and has covered everything from the London stock exchange to the World Series.