November 19, 2017

Book Review: Juan Villoro’s God Is Round

Readers of this site are probably familiar with this famous Garry Lineker apothegm:

“Football is simple. Twenty-two men chase a ball for ninety minutes and at the end, the Germans always wins.”

Like any apothegm worth its weight in syllables, this one contains some truth; namely, on the international stage, Germany always manages to make the deepest of runs in nearly every single tournament (World Cup or Euros) to the semis at least, usually the final, and frequently enough winning the whole thing. However, we know that if this apothegm were wholly true, Germany would have won every World Cup and Euro since 1954, which, obviously didn’t happen.

(“But Lineker says the Germans always win,” you whine – to which I counter, “Right, hence the apothegm status here. It’s got some truth, but needs an element of exaggeration or even quasi-fact to remain memorable.”)

An alternative approach to the Lineker quote is establishing a factual account of Germany’s international success. For example, you could list out (or just read the wikipedia article on) Germany’s international achievements, which indeed are impressive, during a run when die Nationalmannschaft seems to reach each final of almost every major tournament since 1954’s “the Miracle of Bern.” And at the end of this survey, you could conclude something in factual fashion about Germany making X number of semis, Y number of finals, and winning Z number of major tournaments (the answers are 21, 7, and 7 if you were wondering). Compared with the Lineker apothegm, this factual account is truer, if the status of “facticity” is what matters most to you.

But is it as fun? 

The factual account loses something captured in Lineker’s pithy quote, which enfolds Germany’s overall tournament narrative and individual matches with expectation and meaning. The apothegm adds instant evaluative criteria to Germany’s performance in tournament. Yet, if you care about facticity, well, good luck.

In this example, we’re navigating between something like myth and history, or (quasi-)fiction and fact, to put the options bluntly. You know the sides. Old school crusty dinosaur-types or most major TV studios it seems, who understand football through seemingly eternal aphorisms (“England can’t shoot penalties!” or “Bayern are always lucky!”) and the new school quant-types, who understand football through statistical modelling and the principle of disenchantment. Increasingly, our football experiences seem confined to either of these reductive camps or types.

But does it have to be?

God Is Round coverDefining an alternative position is precisely what’s at stake in Juan Villoro’s astonishing new book, God is Round: Tackling the Giants, Villains, Triumphs, and Scandals of the World’s Favorite Game (Restless Books, 256 pages, translated by Thomas Bunstead). Villoro, Mexico’s proclaimed “football philosopher,” is a Spanish-speaking writer of voluminous, supremely intelligent, creative, and self-reflective work.

At last, English-speakers are blessed with a translated volume of Villoro’s work – thank you, Thomas Bunstead and Restless Books! Paradoxically, this remarkable book brings me a bit of sadness, as I consider that most of Villoro’s will remain in the dark for me, since I don’t know Spanish. A pity. (Learning German is work enough.)

Anyhow, I’ll say upfront that you should buy and read this book right now. Already, I’d put it among Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow, David Goldblatt’s The Ball is Round, and Uli Hesse’s Tor! as the most important soccer books I’ve read. It’s that good. Go get it. Read it.

Returning to the tension between Lineker’s clever apothegm and the factual account of Germany’s success, in such cases Villoro’s project is to dwell in the tension between apothegm and fact by carving out alternative spaces for articulating football’s meaning in ways that I find extremely satisfying.

Let’s look at an example. So what does Villoro conclude about Germany’s success?

Treading between myth and history, Villoro establishes the premise that footballing success requires prior tragedy, that is, something to galvanize and to add urgency to those 90 minutes. In a section entitled “The Sense of Tragedy,” from this premise Villoro explains why Germany won the 1974 World Cup against Holland:

“You need to be very thirsty for consolation to want to put yourself on display in front of a hundred thousand baying fans and millions of prying media eyes. Opera singing, record breaking—it all points to something nasty in a person’s history.”

So Germany won because the “long-suffering” squad shared a collective sense of tragedy and because “a secret compensatory law exists whereby the champions must show up already in some way battered and bruised.” Conversely, Holland was on the wrong side of this law in both the 1974 and 1978 World Cup final losses. The Dutch were clean. Too clean for success, according to Villoro.

The book’s next section, “When It Comes down to It, Germany Wins,” will especially interest Bundesliga Fanatic readers, as Villoro digs deeper into Germany’s collective psyche to both philosophize and psychologize die Nationalmannschaft‘s international success. He starts with a sensitive reading of the 1954 World Cup (“the Miracle of Bern”). Villoro’s main insight is that Germany needed “the capacity to transform their suffering into epic feats” to win the famous final against the mighty, mighty Hungarians.

The likes of Eduardo Galeano would end his account here, but not Villoro, who unspools a thread of facts to support his observation about Germany, such as Puskas’ injury, German coach Sepp Herberger’s lineup tinkering, Fritz Walter, and – most famously – the rainy weather: “[W]hen Herberger felt the first drop of rain, he knew the final in Bern was going to be an episode of trench warfare, a chance for the courageous to win the day.” And if anyone could do “trench warfare,” it was the post-WWII Germans, living in a devastated country, fresh off the humiliation of Nazism, concentration camps, and bombed-out city centers. Villoro’s simply concludes: “Germany knew how to make the most of a difficult situation.”

For Villoro, aphorisms (he composes them brilliantly) act as topic sentences, which he supports with historic fact, anecdotes, cultural commentary from literati, and good ol’ dot connecting. This blending of apothegm and history situates Villoro somewhere between the likes of Eduardo Galeano’s lyrical myth-making and of David Goldblatt’s comprehensive sociological analysis.

Sticking with German football-related examples, this method allows Villoro frequently to make surprising discoveries, such as listing Wolfgang Overath as the only German representative in his chapter of famous Number 10s. Of the Köln midfielder, Villoro claims “Overath belongs to the select group of understated rhetoricians,” concluding that the German international “provided the calm thinking for an epic Germany side that dominated the world game for eight years.” Consistently, Villoro delighted me with similarly surprising profiles, anecdotes, and observations.

Indeed, Villoro displays a tremendous knowledge not only of football’s raw data, but also of countless literati (usually Latin Americans) who enrich our understanding of the game either directly or indirectly in their essays, novels, poems, and books. The list of sources is long; here’s a sampling: Juan Carlos Onetti, Javier Marías, Walter Benjamin, Gregorio Agamben, Jorge Valdano, Martín Caparrós, Álvaro Enrigue, Jorge Borges, Juan José Arreola, Juan Nuño, Roberto Fontanarrosa, Nelson Rodrigues,  – I could go on for lines. God Is Round is allusive in such a way that nestles football (nay, sport itself) into the heart of our most significant cultural expressions.

Villoro’s literary source-heavy approach underscores his belief that football demands written words in response to what we witness on the pitch, specifically “[g]reat moments … nobody can keep quiet witnessing a goal that really matters.” In a section entitled “Writing Football,” Villoro calls football writing a type of consolation. Something we must have. Yet because football itself provides its own epics, narratives, tragedies, heroes, and villains, the football writer is a reiterator, working with material that already is. Football writers, according to Villoro “must be endowed with great imaginative capacities,” given this reiterative task. In this framework, imagination leads football writers to football’s crucial element: it’s ultimate incomprehensibility.

Incomprehensibility forms the foundational thematic thread in God Is Round. Villoro identifies this traits in numerous ways, such as spectators’ bafflement at the perfect throughball, the inspiration for a new “move” performed by a player, the curious ways results work out, or ghosts haunting football grounds. Of course, in another register football contains plenty of quantifiable events and results. And Villoro doesn’t downplay this register, as much as shift us toward a phenomenological register of experience, expectations, and human emotion. As such, we bear witness to football and respond to it in fandom, of which writing itself is a type.

In my favorite section of the book, incomprehensibility profoundly animates Villoro’s treatment of Leo Messi’s famous 2007 “Ghost Goal” against Getafe, which reenacted Maradona’s first goal against England in the 1986 World Cup semi-final. You can almost sense the occult crackling on the edges of Villoro’s account of Messi’s goal. Or at least, and fittingly for the Argentinian player involved, a Borges-esque tale of football being “transformed into an unquantifiable activity.”

Moreover, Villoro’s exploration of incomprehensibility leads him to the book’s most important unstated question: why do we play and, especially, watch football? The answer is diffuse, but in Villoro’s writing seems always to work back to the notion that participating in football is “the weekly return to childhood,” a phrase borrowed from Spanish writer Javier Marías, which Villoro repeatedly evokes in God Is Round. Of course, Villoro explains that this is an idealized childhood we elect to remember, not one we actually lived through. Nonetheless, the childlike experience of mystery, wonderment, and most importantly, confronting the incomprehensible, is what gives football meaning, according to Villoro.

Hence, as Villoro indirectly gestures, our admiration for Diego Maradona and Leo Messi, whom the Mexican writer captures wonderfully in two portrait essays attempting to interpret the significance of these footballing giants. God Is Round is worth its price tag for these two essays alone, which will become required reading for the thinking football fan.

If Villoro strikes any false notes, it’s only in the book’s final chapter on the FIFA shenanigans, entitled “Blood on the Terraces: Violence in the Business of FIFA.” Surprisingly, Villoro’s condemnation of FIFA sounds trite and full of Op-Ed piece bromides, as he juxtaposes Blatter’s gang of thugs with the real artists toiling on the pitch. Villoro’s critique is somewhat superficial and even confused, as he over-determines FIFA’s role as a governing organization and under-determines the role of global capital, TV deals, sponsorships, and, well, capitalism. Villoro mentions these latter factors as sort of ancillary “real world” pressures on football, rather than factors intrinsically driving and determining FIFA’s vision, goals, and expenditures.

Nevertheless, even amid these false notes, Villoro can’t help but provide illumination. For example, his use of the paradoxical motto “Advance to the back” becomes an intriguing antidote to what’s derisively called “Modern Football.” With this motto, Villoro urges “the weekly return to childhood” as our motive for participating in football (whether as player, administrator, staff, or most importantly, as fans) and healing football, which is “modernity sick,” as Villoro eloquently explains.

However, what this antidote looks like in practice is hard to picture, given the impossibility of restoring a pre-globalization and pre-professionalization version of football, as Villoro himself concedes. Football has left is working class roots as a relief from industrialization far behind. There’s no going back. Villoro agrees. Yet he is not deterred, citing – of all things – the 2015 Champions League final as an example of the football itself on the pitch being the one stable thing (i.e. Barça and Juve did what they were supposed to) amid turmoil in the wider world of football (i.e. the FIFA shenanigans).

I can’t help but agree with Villoro. There’s no return to pre-modernity in football, which is implicated in and reflective of gigantic socioeconomic systems and structures that feed on football, utilizing the world’s most popular sport as “the most money spinning form of passion on the planet.” Yet, and this is the whole point of Villoro’s remarkable book, football has us, those who play and watch. We are crazy for this game. In our “weekly return to childhood,” we think through (Villoro contends that football is the thought-intensive of sports) the 11 vs. 11 on pitch, weaving present with past, and open ourselves to football’s ultimate incomprehensibility.

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. He writes for Howler magazine's website. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and coaching the U8s are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, and his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!