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Writing Football

By Juan Villoro

It’s unlikely you’ll be a fan of any sport you haven’t felt the urge to play. I played quite a bit, including in Pumas youth teams. At the age of 16, I knew I wasn’t going to make it as a top player, and that if I were ever to score at the Maracanã it would only be in my dreams.

Writing about football is one of the many consolations of literature. Every so often a critic will wonder how it is that no great football novel has ever been written, on a planet that holds its breath during a World Cup. The answer seems fairly simple to me: the system of references in football is so strictly codified, and so totally involves the emotions, that it includes its own epic, its own tragedy and its own comedy. There isn’t any need for parallel dramas, and the writer’s invention is left with very little space to work in. This is one of the reasons why we get better short stories about football than novels. Because football comes to us with all these performed narratives, any hidden aspects, anything that hasn’t been published, tend to be minimal. The novelist who sees the task as doing more than acting as a mirror would rather look elsewhere for material. Whereas the short story writer – interested in going back and recounting what has already happened – finds an inexhaustible fount.

And the fact is, football, in and of itself, is a question of words. Few activities depend so wholly on what is already known as this art of reiterating great feats on the field of play. The legends recounted by fans prolong the acts in a kind of non-stop passion that then stands in for the game, this munificent, purely weekend God.

In the games of my childhood, the fundamental aspect was the TV commentator, the great Ángel Fernández, who had it within him to turn a quite inglorious game into the fall of Carthage. Commentators must be endowed with great imaginative capacities – as proved by the fact that some legendary rhapsodists even imparted games they never saw. Cristino Lorenzo was all but blind when he wove his magical accounts from Café Tupinamba in Mexico City; Pedro “The Wizard” Septién, and other spellbinding radio commentators had to rely on telegrams to impart the details of baseball, boxing and football.

Sadly Homer doesn’t always get a World Cup press pass, and commentaries are often very bland. Not that there’s ever any lack of town criers, theorisers or preachers in this sport. Football demands words, and not only well-crafted words; any fan equipped with that smug, dramatic apparatus, the mouth, gets to have his or her say. Why do we never shut up? Because football is so full of the downright incomprehensible. Out of the blue, a brilliant, battle-hardened player squanders a chance that even the commentator would have put away; a goal keeper with nerves of steel will come out with gloves made of butter; a vastly experienced team will lose its mojo, or its attitude, or whatever you want to call the mysterious energy that unites it.

It’s up to journalists to offer answers that convert these strange occurrences into something believable – though often the reasons they supply are frankly esoteric: the wrong ointment was applied to the abductor, the team’s kit was so garish it made them miss penalties, the goal keeper’s teddy bear mascot was kicked by (another newspaper’s) photographer.

This story features in the Chronic (April 2016). To purchase in print or as a PDF head to our online shop

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