The hallmark of good sports writing is that it rarely confines itself to the action on the field. You rarely see that peddled in most daily sports pages.
Love & BloodPublisher: Harvest
Subtitle: At the World Cup with the Footballers, Fans, and Freaks
Author: Jamie Trecker
US publication date: 2007-10
As journalism goes, prestige is rewarded to those who interview heads of state or land cushy jobs commenting on the sociopolitical ramifications of pop starlet meltdowns. Find your way to the anchor desk, and you can have the status without the requisite muck of actually reporting in the field. That last part may be unfair, but it remains true enough to be said.
Yet some of the best journalism, certainly some of the best writing, belongs to the sportswriters. Theirs is the “toy department”, that mocking term for the sports desk at your city paper, so called because these reporters don’t cover serious subjects. They write about boys (and occasionally girls) who play games. They are multibillion dollar games, yes, but if a man hits a ball with a stick, what does that have to do with the great issues of our time? Volumes have been written on baseball and cricket and how they reflect the soul of their respective nations.
And what if a man kicks a ball into a net? That For anyone who has attended a World Cup, they would’ve seen the millions of fans from around the globe pour into a country for a football tournament that easily qualifies as the greatest sports spectacle on the planet. They would’ve realized that for all the thousands at the actual event, there were a few hundred million more watching from the comfort of their homes – or the discomfort of their local pubs, as it were. These brave souls would’ve seen firsthand how a sports event can shut an entire country down, even change that country’s fate.
I have never been to a World Cup, but I can say these things with confidence, because I have read Love & Blood: At the World Cup with the Footballers, Fans, and Freaks. This latest entry into the canon of sports writing, courtesy of Fox Sports columnist Jamie Trecker, recounts the author’s time at the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
A fine example of the aforementioned ability of the World Cup to shut down a country shows up in the book’s introduction, which takes as its starting point Trecker’s earlier stint covering the 2002 World Cup in South Korea. After watching the young Korean squad unseat powerhouse Italy, he describes the atmosphere in the country.
"The countryside had emptied,” he writes. “Whole towns had driven into Seoul. Walking home that night – normally a fifteen-minute trip – took me five hours. All of Seoul seemed to be lined up on that main street... I don’t remember getting back to my hotel, but I do remember that the next day, when I woke to a surprisingly powerful headache, I knew something had changed.
“I’d just had a taste of how powerful and how exuberant the World Cup really is,” Trecker concludes. “Neither I, nor the nation of South Korea, would ever be the same.”
The book moves on to Germany, four years later, and continues to explain, if not every exquisite detail of the sport, then the relevance and scope of it. Indeed one might be surprised how much information is in the book that doesn’t actually convey the action on the field of play. The games is there, to be sure. Players are profiled. The intricacies of FIFA, football governing body, and its bureaucratic idiosyncrasies are well-documented. There’s even a clear description, relatively speaking, of football's offside rule (see the footnote that takes up four-fifths of page 127).
What is lacking, almost exclusively, is play-by-play action. What actually happened when the players put the ball in play? Aside from broad strokes, the reader will have to do without. The concluding game between Italy and France, the one with the historic head butt that capped a career for French superstar Zinedine Zidane, earned a page and a half of actual game description. That was about the most any game would receive, and more than almost any others.
Some would consider this a detraction from the overall quality of the book. They would be wrong.
The hallmark of good sports writing is that it rarely confines itself to the action on the field. Ancillary topics are fair game, and each one turns into a reflection back on the game’s relevance. The hallmark of bad sports writing, or at least the pedestrian variety peddled in most daily sports pages, is that its interest is exclusively about what happened on the field. The relevance of the sport is assumed, if it is even considered, and the result is a myopic prose.
Trecker’s prose is the literal opposite of myopic. He’s crammed Love & Blood with information on German history in the post-World War II period, the development of global brands like Nike and Coke, and the impact of such commercial interests on sports. There are even discussions of French literary philosophy, and the book concludes with a selected bibliography, in case you care to read more about these subjects.
If these things seem irrelevant to the sport of soccer, well then, you’re just not keeping up with us. The mere five pages (85-89) that describe the postwar shame and tense history of Munich, site of the Cup’s opening night, are engaging enough, but what do they have to do with soccer? Everything when Trecker whips out the point: “The day that the 2006 World Cup kicked off, June 9, would be one of the first times since the war that Germans, especially younger ones, would fly their flag unashamedly.”
This nationalist quality of the game, its status as a source of pride for countries from Germany to South Korea, is just one of the many aspects that Trecker illuminates by way of his meandering side streets. More significant is Trecker’s insistence that football exists in a context, and that to understand it requires an attention to extracurricular subjects, to say nothing of vice-versa.
This, more than anything else, is what makes Trecker’s book so good. He doesn’t just step off the field of play and take us down other topical alleyways. He turns them into integral parts of appreciating sport. When he crams in some Guy Debord, the French writer and theorist who argued that “spectacles are self-replicating and all consuming”, it may seem out of place. Yet he’s doing it in order to put the focus, which has been on the party surrounding the Cup, back on the beauty of the game he so clearly loves.
Such is the power of good sports writing, which is why it was a little jarring to hear Trecker express an ambivalence about the subject. “Not to cast aspersions on the sports book genre,” Trecker told me over the phone, “but I wanted to write something that could go beyond that.”
I telephoned Trecker mostly to ask him about covering football in a country where football is, to put it delicately, a highly under-supported sport. America is the land of baseball and (American) football, or more pointedly of Major League Baseball and the National Football League, brought to you by one of those corporate brands, probably Budweiser. Even the NBA, which seems never to run out of ways to shoot itself in the foot, is a bigger draw than 90-minutes on the pitch that might end up in a 0-0 draw.
“When I started out covering this sport,” he said with a bit of rising voice, “I felt the one thing that was really missing was people who were writing about the sport as if it was any other sport. For the longest time, soccer in America was really only covered by super fans. There was never any critical distance from the game, and an editor would look at this stuff, and they’d say there’s nothing here but happy horseshit.
“I wanted to cover it just like I’d cover basketball or cover auto racing. I thought that was the best way to respect the sport as well as the players and the fans. They didn’t deserve soft-pedaled coverage. They deserved what you’d get for any other sport, and thinking back, that was pretty radical.”
The question of what prompted Trecker to write a book on the World Cup, to write a book at all, interested me. I put it to Trecker, and he gave an answer the reflected the deep and myriad influences he put into his book.
“The only thing I can really compare the World Cup to in terms of recognition is the character of Mickey Mouse,” he began. “Anywhere you go in the world, people know Mickey Mouse. Soccer is a global sport, and even if a nation’s team isn’t in the World Cup, there is a pride and a draw to watching it.
“That’s pretty unusual, that this event can generate so much passion and so much attention, regardless of what’s going on. It’s really one of the few things that can stop traffic and time, and that’s pretty unique in our culture, speaking for the planet as a whole.
“So for me, it was a chance to look at how people perceived it, how it was being bought and sold, why for example the World Cup is so enormous everywhere else, but is only just beginning to catch on in America. There’s this event with millions of people from different cultures and countries coming together to do one thing. It’s a fascinating lab.”
I return to the notion that sports writing is the purview of the unserious, of the insignificant, of the mere entertainers. It’s virtually impossible to see the richness of Trecker's interests and the subjects he brings to bear on a football story and think this man unserious. Take a view around the world of sports writing, and there are plenty of good examples of why the genre is no less profound.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who gifted us with Sherlock Holmes, was also tasked with reporting on the first marathon at the first modern Olympics in 1908. That event saw Dorando Pietri denied a gold medal by disqualification, but in no small part due to the pen of Doyle, Pietri became a celebrity and the focus of a public campaign to see him awarded a special silver cup for his efforts.
The 1999 anthology The Best American Sports Writing of the Century, features Norman Mailer adding to the legacy of Muhammad Ali, John Updike casting Ted Williams in a monument of prose, and Gay Talese depicting the iconic Joe DiMaggio. More recently, Michael Lewis, who helped revolutionize the management of professional baseball with his book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, landed a bestseller with The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game.
That book focuses on Michael Oher, “an intermittently homeless Memphis ghetto kid” who ends up fostered by a rich white family and given a full ride at a Christian high school due to his natural talents on a football offensive line. Like Trecker, Lewis doesn’t limit himself to Oher or the football field, using his prose to tell a story about race and southern sociology right alongside his analysis of gridiron strategy.
When I asked Trecker about his approach to sports writing, he combined some of his own biography with a lamentation of American sports writing. Again, I was jarred by this great sports writer expressing ambivalence about his craft.
“My mother is the first generation daughter of Scottish immigrants, and I spent a great deal of time in Britain and still do. So I really grew up as a Scottish kid,” he said. “I bring this up, because the way I was taught and the media I learned from has a very different take on sports than we do in America."
It’s safe to say Trecker consumed a fair amount of media while growing up. He talks in the book about hunting down hard-to-find copies of international newspapers and magazines just to keep up with football. Before the Internet and global television beamed results across the pond, Trecker and his father -- whom it should be noted was a sportswriter for the Hartford Courant for about a half-century -- would pour over articles in foreign languages for news of the game.
“When you cover a sport [in America], there is a real hard-and-fast who, what, when, where, and why. The attitude of continental sports writers is that you write about it as if it was a piece of art. There was another component beyond who won the game, and soccer really lends itself to that. There are games that are very well played and beautiful that end up scoreless draws. There are games that can be hideously played that end up 7-0. Soccer is one of those things that is not cut and dry. It requires reflection, and the best writing on the game tends to come out after the fact. People look back and compare the game to other things, or to artwork.”
As Trecker remembers it his childhood reading material “did this explicitly.” “You’d open The Guardian or The Scotsman the next day and a game would be talked about in references to everything from famous wartime victories to paintings currently on display at a museum.”
To speak of American sports writing in such dire terms is, perhaps, unfair. I say perhaps, because there is such a high percentage of sports journalism that is little more than a regurgitation of what happened in last night’s game, period. This is what you’ll find in your local paper. It will be supplemented at best with commentary that seems more navel-gazer than literary. A sense of sports significance beyond itself seems lacking in so many sports pages. If it generates a billion dollars a year in revenue, goes the trope, what more do you need?
I say unfair, because while Trecker’s critique rings true for a large bulk, even the majority, of American sports journalism, there remains writers like Michael Lewis, carrying on a tradition of great writing on the subject of sport. To a man, these writers treat their subjects as artists and humans, not mere competitors or commodities. In so doing, they do for sports journalism what great novelists do: tell gripping stories. Does that make them great sports writers, or just great writers who focus on sports?
It’s ironic then and regretfully so, that Trecker never saw himself ending up a sports writer. That and he isn’t sure he’ll continue to write about sports when he puts pen to page in the future. “There are things that interest me, that I want to cover, and I’m not sure they’ll have anything to do with the sport of soccer,” he told me. Whatever he chooses to approach, there’s little doubt the book will be good, but as a fan of great sports writing, I can’t help but hold out hope he’ll return to that fold.