The sport seduces us with excitement and fantasy – not just the simulation moments, but also those in which some players seem to rewrite the laws of probability and physics.
Every four years, the World Cup elevates those moments to dizzying heights, pitting elite athletes against each other in a winner-takes-all tournament that defines careers and sends millions into delirium or agony.
With the tournament kicking off in Qatar on November 20, we asked two football authorities to recommend their favorite books on the World Cup and the beautiful game, with all its glory and humanity.
Here’s a list of titles – five books, plus a podcast and a magazine article – to whet your appetite for a full month of football.
god is round by Juan Villoro, translated by Thomas Bunstead
The acclaimed Mexican author and journalist deftly frames transcendent sporting events through a human lens. “In this beautiful collection of essays, Villoro marvels at moments in a way that marvels you as a reader as well,” says Gwendolyn Oxenham, who played college football at Duke University and professionally in Brazil. She has a new book this month about the United States Women’s National Team.
Villoro clings to rare moments, like the time Germany’s Miroslav Klose spoke to a referee out to award him a penalty that Klose didn’t think he deserved.
Then there’s the shared euphoria of the crowd around a goal: “People are punching in the air and screaming – it’s hard to think of other circumstances in which the most sober of doctors suddenly unleashes a scream “, writes Villoro.
“There’s no way you can read this book and not fall for the game,” adds Oxenham.
AFP Contributor/AFP via Getty Images
The Age of Football: The Global Game in the 21st Century by David Goldblatt
If football needs an official historian, David Goldblatt could make his case. The author’s acclaimed book, The Ball is Round, tells the early history of the sport. In this book first published in 2019, Goldblatt examines how gambling fits into global politics, culture and society.
The result is “a comprehensive overview of the game’s history from its founding and amateur era to today’s extravaganza,” says Keir Radnedge, author of the official FIFA guide to the 2022 World Cup. and former editor of world soccer magazine.
“Football is the first,” writes Goldblatt, adding that sport has risen to the scale of a global religion – and is more closely tied to money and political power than ever before. His book describes the enormous breadth of local stories the World Cup generates, from hourly workers getting up in the middle of the night to see their national team to parties targeted by extremists.
The Barcelona Complex by Simon Kuper
FC Barcelona has gone from a regional club to a sporting and economic powerhouse, built by generational stars from Johan Cruyff to Lionel Messi. But the organization has also been notoriously secretive – a mystique that author Simon Kuper helps penetrate.
“Kuper writes with admiration and insight about one of the most legendary teams in the world,” Oxenham said. That includes looking beyond the team’s wacky successes, she adds, and into “a neighborhood team made up of childhood friends who love to play and love their club”.
football revolution by Willy Meisl
Anyone looking for the roots of the fluid, passing-oriented approach to football that fascinates fans today could start with this book which was first published in the 1950s.
Willy Meisl, an Austrian Jew, worked as a sports journalist in the UK after fleeing his home country before World War II. In the 1930s, his older brother Hugo led the famous Austrian national team “Wunderteam” – giving Willy a front row seat as Hugo reshaped the game and Austria imported strategies from England and Austria. Scotland.
Radnedge is calling football revolution “an intelligent review of the founding years of the modern, professional game.” The book is out of print. But, adds Radnedge, it often appears on the used market. And recap and extracts are available online.
Roman Kruchinin/AFP/Getty Images
Masters of Modern Football: How the World’s Best Players Play 21st Century Football by Grant Wahl
What does football – and life – look like through the eyes of the best players? Grant Wahl shares lessons learned from elite athletes such as Belgian Vincent Kompany and American Christian Pulisic.
“I frequently recommend this book of engaging profiles to aspiring gamers,” Oxenham says, “because it offers accurate insight into the game, inspiring advice and a dive into the lives of their favorite stars.”
Wahl’s 2018 book breaks down the strategies and advice of seven people in key positions – from coach to defender and striker – as they excel in a sport where the game has accelerated even as the game became more technical.
A podcast and a bonus article
21 Goals – a narrative podcast
“[Podcast host] Brian Phillips, in my mind, is the David Foster Wallace of football writing – full of excitement and wonder, able to express in eerie ways how we feel,” says Oxenham. She describes 21 Goals as a sort of history of the most intense personalities and moments in the game.
Oxenham shares a sample line from Phillips, about legendary French star Zinedine Zidane’s famous look: “This is the look that would result if Darth Maul could be fused at the molecular level with Joan Didion pictured in the Corvette.“
Here & Gone: The strange relationship between Lionel Messi and his hometown in Argentina —Wright Thompson, at ESPN
“Wright Thompson sets out on a quest to learn more about the enigma that is Messi, flying to Rosario, Messi’s hometown, to discover no sign of him,” Oxenham said. “No statues, no murals, no photos, no proof that the greatest in the world was born here. Thompson takes you on a hunt to find out why – and how Messi became Messi.”
About our experts
Keir Radnedge wrote the book about the 2022 World Cup, literally: He is the author of FIFA World Cup Qatar: The Official Guide. He is also the former editor of world soccer magazine, published in the UK
Radnedge has appeared in 14 World Cups and counting. He’s also the man behind soccer world recordsa collection which is currently in its 14th edition.
Gwendolyn Oxenham new book, Pride of a Nation: A Celebration of the United States Women’s National Soccer Team, out this month. She played college football at Duke and professionally in Brazil.
Oxenham’s career as a writer and documentary filmmaker includes a project in which she traveled the world to play pickup games. His book Under the Lights and in the Dark: Untold Stories from Women’s Football is now an audio series titled Shake rulerhosted by actress Hannah Waddingham (who also plays Owner of AFC Richmond Rebecca Welton on Ted Lasso).